Unpublished (For Circulation)

Mr. Narasimha Rao’s Diplomacy towards Sri Lanka:
The Way Forward

M.L. Sondhi

A new model of Indian foreign policy is emerging that puts dialogue and discussion at the very centre of India’s vision beyond the Cold War.  In the West Asian region New Delhi has gained a new leverage point for redefining its influence in the ongoing peace process.  In his reply to the debate on the President’s address to the Parliament, Mr. Narasimha Rao explained the decision to upgrade relations with Israel in the context of new realities of global politics and underlined the continuity of India’s support to the rights of the Palestinians.  Seen from the Prime Minister’s vantage point, his advisers should also have asked how India could contribute to peace and security in Sri Lanka, and Mr. Rao’s speech in Parliament could have opened new ways of overcoming the impasse in the Sri Lankan situation.  Both Narasimha Rao and Prema Dasa have heightened pragmatism in their policy-making and both are pursuing unambiguously non-provocative postures.  In the political arenas in New Delhi and in Colombo there are today parallel interests which can help in defusing existing tensions and promote political understanding which can help redress minority grievances in Sri Lanka, reduce and contain separatist violence and enhance economic cooperation between India and Sri Lanka.  A recent visit to Colombo during which I had the opportunity to interact with academics, diplomats and media persons provided indications of deep changes in expectations and attitudes which if recognised in New Delhi could help Mr. Rao to show the way forward through a change-oriented process in foreign policy and security issues.  Careful consideration should be given to personal diplomacy at the summit level which can enhance the image of Indian pragmatism, and provide a stimulus to the development of genuine interdependence in South Asia in general and in Indo-Sri Lanka relations in particular.

The Prema Dasa government has started thinking of significant changes which can be described as a humanitarian breakthrough to a peace process.  It is worthwhile to recall a specific commitment by the Sri Lankan President in which he reiterated the need to consolidate the growing ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka and described any obstructions to this process as an “unpardonable treachery”.  Colombo has also effected improvements in its procedural techniques to advance dialogue among the Tamils and the Sinhalese and Prema Dasa himself has in his tours throughout the countryside tried to drive the message home that functional cooperation in economic and social areas is the key to the process of rapprochement.

In the new context Indian diplomacy cannot be the same as during the Rajiv period.  New Delhi has begun a fundamental re-evaluation of what is required to check militant groups which have in the past been able to operate from Indian soil with liberal supply of arms and funds.  The trauma of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi has de-legitimised the infrastructure which gave a certain stature to militants, and has made it possible for New Delhi and Colombo to avoid both accidents and inadvertent escalation through careful diplomatic signalling.  All the current indications are that the cooperation between the governments of India and Sri Lanka on the return of displaced Sri Lankan Tamils to the areas which have been freed of the LTTE has created a business like sense of common security, albeit as a minimalist policy. 

What are the possibilities and the limits for the India-Sri Lanka security cooperation to expand?  There are several constraints.  The first is the inertia of existing Indian policies which have been evolved by paramilitary and intelligence organisations.  These can only be seriously modified on personal directions from the Prime Minister.  The second and possibly the most important is the influence of Tamil Nadu politics on the India-Sri Lanka agenda.  In an atmosphere of consensus and centre-state stability, Chief Minister Jayalalitha and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao could avoid views which are short-sighted and ensure that old categories which were dominant before the Rajiv assassination now become irrelevant.  Third, there are also difficulties at the centre in New Delhi which would arise from certain elements in the Opposition who would express disagreement over the appropriate diplomatic strategy.  Fortunately, in the case of the main National Opposition Party the BJP, both its top leaders, Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani are on record for all steps which promote ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka, and in favour of strengthening the common Hindu-Buddhist cultural values for which the founder of their party Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerji, made a pioneering contribution as President of the Mahabodhi Society.  It is not implausible that a new foreign policy agenda of the Narasimha Rao government which included strengthening of Buddhist links with India would coincide quite neatly with that of the BJP.

How is it possible to create an appropriate psychological climate for building a close relationship with Sri Lanka?  A single gesture by Mr. Narasimha Rao like the donation of a relic of Lord Buddha to Sri Lanka would be an important element in building South Asian architecture on the principle of consensus and expansion of people to people contacts.  India should encourage a planned exchange of specialists both at the official and non-official level on the subject of Terrorism.  The time is also ripe for creating an India-Sri Lankan fabric of confidential relations on tackling the linkage between drugs and terrorism.

Another significant aspect of the Prema Dasa government’s programme is the policy of openness to human rights bodies and its encouragement to offers of mediation.  If Mr. Narasimha Rao were to avoid certain characteristics of the Big Brother attitude fostered by previous Indian governments, his summit diplomacy could serve as an instrument in the search for new elements of political culture in achieving peaceful change and common security in our region.  The theory of apartheid has lost its position in Africa and there is no reason why it should be fostered in South Asia.  India should encourage all Tamil groups to engage in dialogue with Colombo and also stress the objective factors in favour of redressal of the grievances of the Tamil community on the basis of the neighbourly coexistence of the two countries.  While supporting the All Party Conference and the Special Parliamentary Select Committee in their problem-solving efforts, India could refer to the example of the CSCE process in Europe which achieved a benign quality on account of the verification mechanism in the sphere of human dimensions.

The time is ripe to dismantle threat images in Indian-Sri Lankan relations and Mr. Rao who has adopted cooperative norms and expectations in domestic politics would do well to accept the primacy of the common good in India’s relations with its southern neighbour.  By starting an early dialogue both Rao and Prema Dasa can win a lot of political credit for themselves and also show South Asia the way to combat the scourge of terrorism.

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