The most detailed remarks on India’s regional policies during PM Manmohan Singh’s interaction with editors in Delhi on Wednesday happened to be with regard to Sri Lanka. Given the volatility in Congress Party’s ties with its Tamil Nadu ally, DMK, this would have been uppermost on his mind. Let me reproduce verbatim what PM said:
“You have a situation in Sri Lanka. The decimation of the LTTE was something which is good. But the Tamil problem does not disappear with the defeat of the LTTE. The Tamil population has legitimate grievances. They feel they are reduced to second-class citizens. And our emphasis has been to persuade the Sri Lankan government that we must move towards a new system of institutional reforms, where the Tamil people will have a feeling that they are equal citizens of Sri Lanka, and they can lead a life of dignity and self-respect. It is not easy. Within Sri Lanka’s population, there are hotheads, Sinhala chauvinism is a reality. But we have to find a difficult balance because what happens in Sri Lanka has a domestic dimension also. I have had good cooperation with Jayalaithaaji. I raised this matter with her the very first time. What she asked of me was moderate. Whatever be the resolution that were passed in the assembly, I found her fully conscious of the complexities and realities of managing this relationship.”
In sum, India has no regrets in having helped Colombo in the war against LTTE. The UN report on war crimes, et al, are inconsequential. However, India’s hopes of influencing the post-LTTE scenario and leading it toward a settlement of the Tamil problem have been belied. Put plainly, India is being stonewalled by the Colombo establishment, which is dominated by the Sinhalese majority community, and Delhi feels rather helpless. On the other hand, Delhi needs to be seen actively engaged in the Sri Lankan Tamil problem, since the issue has overtones in Indian politics, and in this coalition era, Dravidian parties are kingmakers. Having said that, Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa herself is being cooperative despite her strident public posturing as a Tamil nationalist.
Did PM settle score with ‘Jayalaithaaji’ after her TV forecast that his government is shaky and may not last till 2014? SL President Mahinda Rajapaksa should feel happy to read what PM said. PM essentially flagged the limits of India’s influence in its neighbourhood. In a different way, though, the same tone of realism reappears in what PM said about Bangladesh.
He said things are looking good as of now in ties with Dacca, but life is ephemeral. The hard reality - like Sinhala chauvinism in Sri Lanka - is that “at least 25% of the population of Bangladesh swear by the Jamiat-i-Islami, and they are very anti-Indian, and they are in the clutches, many times, of the [Pakistan's] ISI. So, the political landscape of Bangladesh can change at any time. We do not know what these terrorist elements who have a hold on the Jamiat-i-Islami in Bangladesh can be up to.”
On the whole, PM was substantiating that “So, a very uncertain neighbourhood… We have to swim and keep our heads high.” This hard-headed realism somewhat mellows, though, when it comes to the US military presence in Afghanistan. Surprisingly, PM says the US pullout from Afghanistan is against India’s interests and can “hurt” India. He said the following on Barack Obama’s announcement of the troop drawdown in Afghanistan: “It does hurt us. It could hurt us. No one knows what is going to happen in Afghanistan. Yesterday, I was talking to the New Zealand PM, the war in Afghanistan does not enjoy large-scale public support. That is the reality. If we hold elections every 4 years, politicians have to be re-elected before they can become statesmen.”
However, it is not domestic political compulsions alone that prompted Obama to decide on the drawdown. The ground reality is that there is no military solution possible in Afghanistan; the ’surge’ has had mixed results at best and they too are reversible; the US’ allies want to wind down; and as the Libya campaign shows, NATO is not acquitting itself well. Besides, Obama has his foreign policy priorities - economy, Middle East, trade and investment promotion, China’s rise, etc. Finally, there is something shaking up Obama, which our PM can easily comprehend : this 10-year US adventure to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to have cost the US economy 4 trillion dollars, according to the latest estimate ‘Costs of War’ released on Tuesday.
All the same, what I found delightful is that PM spoke on the Taliban. He said: “I told the Afghan parliament that the reconciliation should be Afghan-led. I think Karzai and other politicians can work on that. You cannot carry the good-bad Taliban distinction much too far, but the Haqqani group - they are a more determined group - perhaps in league with the Pakistani establishment, I don’t know - but we are worried about them.”
There is no rancour here about Taliban as such, no old-style berating as our pundits still are wont to. Yes, Taliban’s reconciliation is something India can live with, provided it is ‘Afghan-led’. Most significantly, PM says that the ‘good-bad-Taliban- segregation is no more realistic and shouldn’t be carried too far. Did I find the cutting edge of the traditional hostility toward the Haqqani group lacking? Hard to say yet, but India is most certainly inclined to keep an open mind in the uncertain times ahead.