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Congress has clearly lost the Lanka plot

Congress has clearly lost the Lanka plot

Author: MJ Akbar
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 3, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/173507/Congress-has-clearly-lost-the-Lanka-plot.html

Lesson of the week: It is perfectly possible to simultaneously fool the United Nations, Mr P Chidambaram, much of the media and Mr M Karunanidhi with the same ploy, and within the same 24 hours. The outbreak of self-congratulation in Delhi when Colombo announced that it would cease using heavy artillery and air power against the trapped Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was not really self-delusion, because the mandarins of Delhi are not foolish. It was a desperate attempt by ruling coalition politicians to chalk up talking points for the election in Tamil Nadu, where this Government is being blamed for abandoning the LTTE. Typically, Mr Karunanidhi over-egged the pudding by undertaking a fast. The fastest thing about the fast was how fast it ended.

The only Union Ministers from Tamil Nadu not in electoral trouble are those who defected to Ms J Jayalalithaa. The others, whether from the Congress, the DMK or smaller parties, are anxiously shopping for any fig leaf to hide their impotence. Delhi's spin doctors even tried to hype up the "heavy artillery" announcement as a ceasefire. This spin stopped turning when Colombo clarified that it would never agree to any ceasefire. Why would it cease fire when it has V Prabhakaran in its crosshairs? The Sri Lankan Government and Army have not fought its most difficult war in order to make Mr Chidambaram Home Minister or Mr Karunanidhi Chief Minister.

Colombo has measured Delhi's impotence carefully, and knows that Delhi will swallow any fudge it hands out, because there is nothing else it can do. The rest of the world can make the perfunctory noise, but that is about it. Some pompous types in the European Union hierarchy tried to flex verbal muscle. Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's President, could well have asked, qua Stalin, how many divisions does the Pope have?

For the record, the LTTE is a terrorist organisation in the books of most Western Governments, including those who have long permitted LTTE operatives to collect a 'war tax' from Lankan Tamils living abroad. This money, much of it repatriated, has financed the LTTE for two decades.

Colombo's 'concession' is meaningless because the war has entered a phase when heavy artillery is useless and aerial strikes counter-productive.

The combat zone, at the moment of writing, has been reduced to about five square kilometres of beachfront on the north-eastern coast, in which perhaps 50,000 civilians have become double-hostages. Prabhakaran, leading the rump of the once-fabled LTTE forces, is using them as his last shield against the victorious Sri Lankan armed forces. The war has entered the close-combat stage, where each LTTE post and boat will be identified and eliminated through a process of attrition, even as efforts continue to offer civilians a route out of the trap.

Why would Colombo stop a war at the very moment when it has drained the growl out of the Tigers? Prabhakaran must be ruing the day when arrogance, or misjudgement, stopped him from accepting a deal through negotiations. Both Colombo and the world community gave him this chance, the former under compulsion, but nevertheless agreeable. Prabhakaran now faces the option that made his tigers, and tigresses, an object study in asymmetrical warfare, with their trademark use of the poison pill. We cannot say what he will do next, or indeed what realistic options exist for him. How long will the human shield of terrified civilians hold? Will the trapped Lanka Tamilians revolt against the person who was once a demigod? The armed forces surrounding the last battlefield have time, and morale, on their side.

It was perhaps bad luck for Delhi that this war came to a climax at just the moment when India's long general elections are also heading towards theirs. I suppose the Election Commission did not factor in events across the Palk Straits when it decided that Tamil Nadu would be among the last States to vote. Delhi is busy formulating, and discarding, plans. In one of them, Prabhakaran would escape and then be forced to negotiate with Colombo. But such a scenario is riven with difficulties. Would escape be possible when the Sri Lankan Navy is keeping a 24-hour vigil on the waters? If he did escape, would the assassin of Rajiv Gandhi receive a warm welcome from a Congress-led Union Government? Open arms? I think not.

I hope not.

New Delhi lost the Sri Lanka plot some time ago. Rip Van Winkle would not make a good Foreign Minister. You cannot wake up suddenly after a long sleep, and imagine that last-minute hysterics are an adequate substitute for two years of lazy drift. Foreign policy is a continuous pursuit. A crisis needs to be monitored on a regular basis. Foreign policy means shaping events towards the national interest long before denouement.

Mr Chidambaram's recent statement on China's role in Sri Lanka was mystifying. Is this the first time that he has heard about this? Then he has not even been reading the daily newspapers properly. China has been arming Sri Lanka for many years, as messages from our envoy in Colombo will surely have confirmed. Delhi did a whole lot of nothing when the first shipload of arms arrived in Sri Lanka, because it had no alternative strategy to offer towards a solution. Colombo played it brilliantly: It got arms from China even as it persuaded the UPA Government to give it a favourable trade status. India nourished Sri Lanka's war-starved economy. Perhaps Delhi never expected the LTTE to collapse before the Sri Lankan forces. Did Delhi become a victim of LTTE propaganda?

The price of miscalculation in a game-changing crisis is very high. You have to be extraordinarily lucky to escape payment. The Chidambaram-Karunanidhi partnership may have run out of its share of luck.

- MJ Akbar is chairman of the fortnightly news magazine Covert.

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