Sri Lanka situation will impact on elections (Comment)

April 25th, 2009 - 1:41 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party By Amulya Ganguli
Even as the Maoists continue their desperate, if ultimately futile, attempts to disrupt the polls, perhaps the most uncertain aspect of the present scene is the impact of the suffering of the Sri Lankan Tamils, first, on Tamil Nadu politics and then on government formation at the centre after the general elections.

While the unabashed supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Tamil Nadu like V. Gopalaswamy or Vaiko of the MDMK have had little hesitation in taking an aggressive stance which is directly opposed to the government of India’s diplomatic moderation, the mainstream DMK and the AIADMK have been more careful.

Predictably, New Delhi has been taking a cautious line, calling upon Colombo to safeguard the lives of the civilians caught in the war zone. But the main concern of the government at the centre is the fallout of the Sri Lankan conflict on the fortunes of its ally, the DMK.

The latter has been trying to guard its flanks against the charges of ditching the Sri Lankan Tamils by insisting on a ceasefire and warning against any harm being done by the army to the LTTE supremo, V. Prabhakaran, whom it regards as a freedom fighter and not a terrorist.

But, as a party in power, the DMK cannot be as irresponsible in words and deeds as, say, Vaiko. The latter’s ally, the AIADMK, has not been as vocal as the MDMK firebrand. But it evidently hopes to gain from his belligerence, the DMK’s caution and the centre’s circumspection.

On its part, the Congress is preoccupied with assessing how the DMK will fare in the elections in Tamil Nadu, especially when the possibility of the AIADMK gaining from both the anti-incumbency factor and the events in Sri Lanka is quite high. There are also hints that it may side with either the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Third Front at the centre.

It may not be besides the point, however, to underline the curious fact that the Sri Lankan conflict has a far greater effect on Tamil Nadu than on the rest of India. The war in the neighbouring country is very much a domestic issue in Tamil Nadu because of the great sympathy which the people of the state feel for the suffering of their brethren in the island, who are of the same ethnic stock.

There may be considerable distress elsewhere in India about the deteriorating situation across the Palk Straits, which has also been accentuated by the harrowing pictures of the wounded on television and in newspapers. But the emotional links are less strong even in the other southern states.

This varying response is yet another example of India’s vastness and diversity, where the bonds of Indians with the same ethnic groups in neighbouring countries differ in terms of intensity. For instance, the cultural affinity of the Bengalis of West Bengal with the Bangladeshis is much stronger when compared with the people of other states.

The centre’s, and particularly the Congress’, Sri Lankan policy has been caught in this dilemma, which has been made worse by the LTTE’s role in assassinating Rajiv Gandhi. Rarely have the perceptions of a particular event been so different in New Delhi and Chennai.

There is no difference, however, in the perceptions of the various parties on the Maoist threat. If anything, the elections have highlighted their potency even if it is clear that these “bandits”, as Home Minister P. Chidambaram has called them, do not pose an existential threat, but are really a nuisance, though a major one.

However, their hit-and-run tactics have drawn pointed attention to the government’s failure to tackle the menace at the source by targeting their bases with specially trained commando units. Unless this is done, the security forces or industrial establishments or isolated passenger trains will always face guerrilla-style attacks.

But even the sympathisers of the Maoists will recognise that their anarchism has done little to strengthen their poll boycott call. As the high turnout in last Thursday’s polling confirmed, the voters have no time for their propaganda.

It isn’t only the Maoists who advocate such a boycott. The separatist Hurriyat Conference of Kashmir has also issued such a message although it had initially desisted from doing so. Whether the backtracking was due to pressure from the terrorists is not known, but successive elections in the valley have shown that the electorate does not pay much heed to such calls.

Their faith in the democratic process remains undiminished despite the uncertainties about the composition of the next government. Since neither the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) nor the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) expects to cross the halfway mark - 272 seats - in the lower house of parliament, there is unending speculation about their allies, both present and future.

The hopes of the Congress remain focussed on rebuilding the party’s earlier ties with the Left, but the latter’s dislike of Manmohan Singh because of his championing of the India-US nuclear deal is a disadvantage. So, the name of Sharad Pawar has been floated.

But the Maharashtra leader’s credentials have been undermined by the support he has received from politicians such as Bal Thackeray of the Hindutva brigade and Naveen Patnaik of the non-Hindutva lobby. Instead of emphasising Pawar’s wide acceptability, such endorsements from diverse camps point to his malleability, which is not a sign of being principled.

Even as conjectures about the next occupant of 7, Race Course Road - the prime minister’s official residence - continue, onlookers must have heaved a sigh of relief at the end of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani’s charges about Manmohan Singh’s supposed weakness.

Advani ended his accusations after the prime minister hit back with unwonted sharpness to remind the BJP leader of his own signs of weakness - such as “weeping in a corner” while the Babri Masjid was being demolished or acquiescing in the anti-Muslim pogrom as union home minister during the Gujarat riots of 2002.

Manmohan Singh’s retorts must have reminded Advani of the old adage that those living in glass houses should not throw stones at others.

(25.04.2009 - Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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