Sri Lanka: Which way could India go in September?

N Sathiya Moorthy, 

More than a month after the DMK withdrew support to the Manmohan Singh Government over the Sri Lanka vote issue at the UNHRC session in Geneva, no one is talking about the 'Tamil Nadu factor' influencing India's Sri Lanka policy. If anything, after a decade and more, a Government at the Centre has survived without parliamentary support from any of the 'Dravidian parties' in Tamil Nadu. 

It is believed that the differences between the original draft and the final one at Geneva might have been influenced by New Delhi. And tactically, India could not have influenced the draft-changes without supporting the US. Even an abstention at UNHRC could not have helped. On substantial issues, India's vote would have to be construed as making Sri Lanka 'accountable', not on 'human rights issues' but on a 'political solution'. This also seems to be the view of many of the voting-members at UNHRC, given the practicalities of the issues and procedures that are involved. 

In this background, Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa's reiteration that the elections to the Tamil-majority Northern Provincial Council will be held in September, if implemented, could go a long way in making countries such as India to reconsider their current position in the UNHRC session the same month. Though no vote is scheduled at UNHRC - which becomes due only in March next year - free and fair polls to the Northern PC in Sri Lanka would not only convince India, but also many other nations to reconsider their present position. Tactically, the US too may have to reconsider moving a fresh motion, procedural or otherwise, where even if it were to win, the vote-count at the UNHRC would have come down. There will then be a strong message, not for Sri Lanka, but for the US and its European allies, instead. 

Making 'accountability' a stand-alone issue? 

A lot will depend on the level of fairness and free-play in the conduct of the Northern PC polls. Held in September, before the monsoon lashes the region, it could have a welcome bearing on the prestigious Commonwealth Summit that Sri Lanka is hosting in November. An elected provincial administration in the North, headed by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is a distinct possibility, and it may then will have to be left for them and the Government in Colombo to make the required adjustments, both in terms of approach but more in terms of attitudes and mid-sets. A non-TNA administration is still a theoretical possibility. Issues and attitudes would still remain, and they could be equally complex. 

If between the NPC polls and the March-2014 session of the UNHRC, the Sri Lankan Government were to commence the consultative process for a negotiated settlement to the 'ethnic issue' that could well go a long way in assuaging the genuine apprehensions of the international community on that score. This in turn could render 'accountability' a stand-alone issue, where individual nations will be deciding on their experience in the matter - or, perceptions in such matters. For now, Government Chief Whip Dinesh Gunawardene has revived on the floor of the House the call for the UNP Opposition to join the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) process. UNP's Ranil Wickremesinghe has come out with the party's views on joining the process, whether or not the 'limited' TNA 'ally' joined in. 

It could cut both ways, as nations backing the cause of 'accountability' for 'war crimes' in Sri Lanka might still want 'justice' as they understand - or, want it to be. But it is not always that the rest of the world understands the same, the same way. Counter-arguments on HR allegations against western countries in their engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq may then get more patient listeners than at present. The table then would have the potential to be turned against the protagonists themselves, after a point. At the end of the day, it's a numbers game, and numbers have a way of swinging on their own after a point. 

The UNHRC resolutions of course derive from Sri Lanka's past commitments, just as India's vote in the past may have flowed from Colombo not implementing war-time commitments on a political solution in the post-war era. Perceptions remain, as the methodology of post-war solution was not discussed during the war-time. It was obvious Parliament would have to be involved at some stage, but PSC had not been thought of, possibly even by the Sri Lankan Government at the time. 

'Sole representative' ? 

Now, the PSC has become the talking-point to the talking-point, and that's where the Government's negotiations with the TNA collapsed. Today, the TNA itself is facing a threat of collapse, though not to the same degree, but internal differences within the multi-party Alliance could hit the roof, and then the streets, in time for the September polls in the North. Even when talking to the TNA, Colombo left no in doubt that the Alliance could not be the 'sole representative', which status predecessor-Governments had conferred on the LTTE. If the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa talked to other Tamil groups as well, others did not take those talks seriously, to confer on Colombo's efforts the character of multi-layered, multilateral process. That was a problem, too. 

Provincial Council elections in the North, as and when held, could be the precursor for reviving the negotiations, either through the PSC or with the Tamil parties, or both. If the TNA were to form a provincial administration, none of the party leaders have had the experience of sitting on the Treasury Benches, and would begin know where the shoe really pinched, how and why. It could then be easy for them to apprehend the larger and smaller issues involved in political administration. Equally so, they could throw up their hands and cry foul on the devolution front. Either way, they could still begin somewhere, and prove that they are up to it - to themselves and to their people, before proving themselves to the Sri Lankan State, the Sinhala polity and the rest of the world, which is all for further devolution, without possibly knowing and understanding what it is all about. 

The TNA began well by the status quo when it contested the Eastern Provincial Council elections under a retired navy officer as the Governor. It has a retired army officer as the Governor in the North. It has sought his replacement with a 'civilian governor', since. In a Province where the army's presence is a reality for its own reasons and possible justification (if only up to a point), and their involvement in infrastructure development has shown results on the ground, a new government with no experience in administrative matters could gain as much in practical terms as it might stand to compromise in political terms - or, contest both, from experience. The negotiations that the TNA seeks with the Government are also one of give-and-take, and hence of compromises - where both sides would not now budge from their past positions, after all.