National Interest: Conscience and cowardice

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Nov 11 2013, 07:34am hrs
BEFORE the prime minister decides if there is still room for a decision whether he should go to Colombo for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) or not, he needs to remember the weeks leading up to the election five years ago in the summer of 2009.

Sri Lankan armys total offensive against the LTTE, initiated in January that year, was peaking in April-May. Think about some crucial dates. May 13 was the polling day in Tamil Nadu. May 16 was the day all election results were announced. On exactly the same date, May 16, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced at the G-11 meeting in Jordan that the LTTE had been defeated and he would be returning to his country as leader of a nation that has crushed terrorism.

Exactly two days later, on May 18, the Sri Lankan army announced the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Now nobody is so naive as to believe in serial coincidences. And surely none of those who know better. These include the prime minister, all his key aides then and now, and M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa. And if any of the Tamil members of the Union cabinet, including the prime ministers latest pen-friends, say they had no idea what was going on, they are either delusional or hypocrites or liars. Or all of these.

Everybody in Tamil politics now spitting such fire, demanding that India should say that Sri Lanka is not even a civilised state, knows the truth of the summer of 2009, when the atrocities we are now complaining about took place. Many of them were more than willing participants and complicit either in deed or in conscious denial. All Tamil parties made token noises. The DMK threatened to break away from the UPA routinely, but did not. Karunanidhi sat on a fast unto death demanding a ceasefire, but declared victory six and a half hours later, effectively in time for his next meal, as P. Chidambaram stated that the Sri Lankans would not use any heavy weapons. Jayalalithaa, who had in the past repeatedly called the LTTE a terrorist organisation and had demanded that it be crushed, now belatedly supported the idea of Eelam in one odd speech, asked for Indian military intervention, but stopped there. She did not even miss one meal to at least get even with Karunanidhi. And what about the Tamil voter The most pro-Eelam Indian leader who went to the polls with Sri Lankan Tamils as his solitary issue, Vaiko in Virudhunagar, was thrashed by a still green-behind-the-ears Congressman, Manicka Tagore, by 15,764 votes.

JAYALALITHAA asked for the Indian armed forces to intervene. Which they were doing, if not in the way she had wanted them to. They, along with RAW, were working quietly to help the Sri Lankan effort. Early enough in the campaign, the IAF had despatched two homemade Indra (phased array) radars to help counter some Czech-origin aircraft that the LTTE was said to have acquired. In fact, two IAF technicians were injured in September 2008 in an LTTE attack on a radar site in Vavuniya. During the final phases of the battle, Indian surveillance satellites were sweeping the region, providing precise locations, coordinates and pictures. The Indian navys Dorniers were on regular reconnaissance missions to detect LTTE ships and cargo. Fast attack boats were deployed to block any escapees, thereby fully shutting the trap. And I cannot say this with absolute certainty yet, as there will be conflicting claims and denials as time passes, but you should have good reason to believe that the cornering and killing of Prabhakaran was made possible by specific surveillance and satellite information given by India. Indias then national security advisor, M.K. Narayanan, who had suffered his careers worst setback at the hands of the LTTE (Rajivs assassination), and the foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, had visited Colombo in April to assuage Tamil feelings. But if they ever served any ultimatum to cease fire, we were told nothing about it. Nor was Colombo.

The two governments worked in close concert against a common enemy. Rajapaksa was accommodating enough to hold off his final push until the last vote was cast on May 13. On that very evening, he formally announced the final battle. There was even some discussion in South Block whether, after Colombo said they had Prabhakaran in their gunsights, he should be put away at once or kept alive until the UPA 2 cabinet formation was over. A call was then taken not to lose any time.

Am I letting out any state secrets by bringing all these facts to light Not at all. These facts are known to everybody, particularly the leaders of our various Tamil groups, and none can deny it, howsoever convenient politicians memories tend to be six months before an election. Every Tamil party and leader in India detested and feared the LTTE. The many assassinations carried out by it in Tamil Nadu (besides Rajivs) had put in their minds the fear of god apologies for using that in the context of mostly godless Dravidian politics. They were all secretly happy to see the LTTE, and particularly Prabhakaran, go. Everybody saw him as a threat, politically, physically and most likely, even patriotically. Jayalalithaa, in the past, had demanded Prabhakarans extradition to face trial for Rajivs assassination.

Thats why nobody did any more than pay lip sympathy or at worst miss a meal, while the real assaults and atrocities were on. Karunanidhi continued in the UPA, through 2G and Jaffna. And for almost three years, Jaya made no noise. Until she discovered last IPL season that, horror of horrors, the Chennai Super Kings (whose owner, N. Srinivasan, is not particularly her favourite) employed Sri Lankan players as well. All these leaders applauded and thanked Rajapaksa in silence for ridding them of Prabhakaran. And the Tamil ministers in the Central cabinet Did anybody write protest letters then Now, as we head for the fifth anniversary of his death, coinciding with our next election, they have discovered their Tamil humanitarian instinct.

SO how does this help the prime minister take a decision now It will be tempting and sadly normal for him to cave in with the predictable but-what-can-I-do. When he writes his memoirs, however, he will need to list some foreign policy blackmarks on his second-term report card. All of these will be owed to narrow, pointless politics. His resiling from the Sharm el-Sheikh declaration under his own partys panicky repudiation is only the first example. While the Congress killed his policy on Pakistan, he allowed Mamata Banerjee to blight his opening up to Bangladesh. He destroyed his biggest achievement, the nuclear deal, by passing under pressure a nuclear liability law so awful even the Russians wont supply us any power plants. He made some audacious moves on Arunachal Pradesh to end its isolation and bring it closer to the mainstream and thereby blunt any Chinese moves to bring back any notion of its status being disputed. Almost all these initiatives have been blocked by his own cabinet colleagues. As The Indian Express Senior Editor Anil Sasi tells you in a shocking page one story on Saturday, a frustrated Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Nabam Tuki, even started shouting in rage at a recent meeting because the environment ministry has denied clearance to a 3,000MW public sector hydel project, even five years after the prime minister had laid its foundation stone on that significant visit of political rediscovery of Arunachal.

It is sad to see such a decline in the authority of a government that had, just in the fall of 2009, shown the audacity to look the Chinese in the eye and not blink over the Dalai Lamas visit to Tawang. That confidence had been noted with comfort by every state in Chinas frontyard, from Korea to Japan to the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Now we are vacating our backyard for the Chinese to rebuild all of a booming post-war Sri Lanka.

The call is the prime ministers. Nothing can go wrong if he decided to go ahead and even packaged it with a possible visit to Jaffna like David Cameron. Cancelling now would amount to letting India down without persuading one more Tamil to vote for his coalition. In any case, two of the three cabinet colleagues who have publicly urged him to boycott the CHOGM, Jayanthi Natarajan and G.K. Vasan, dont ever fight elections (V. Narayanasamy represents Puducherry in the Lok Sabha). A cancellation now will be convenient, but cowardly. And while I am still afraid of using the description unpatriotic when talking of Dr Manmohan Singh, it wont be true to the oath to the office of the prime minister of India. Thats what he should read to Karunanidhi when he asks him to follow his conscience.

Postscript: How did P.V. Narasimha Rao manage to reverse his partys policy on Israel so dramatically in 1992 He wanted to upgrade India-Israel relations but knew the protests this would bring. So he waited till Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat came on a visit to New Delhi. The old fox then asked Arafat, now that Israel-Palestine peace talks were on, wouldnt it be better if, as a friend, India was present to help And how could India do so if it did not even have an ambassador in Tel Aviv Arafat agreed.

Can I then make this announcement while you are in Delhi, Rao asked, and will you then support it in your press conference tomorrow

This is precisely how it played out and Arafat read from Raos script. Rao had confirmed this to me in a rarest of rare detailed conversation on NDTVs Walk the Talk. Manmohan Singh thinks the world of Rao. It will be useful learning from him, and packaging this visit as an ally of the Tamils instead.

sg@expressindia.com