Received wisdom for some years has been that Washington has developed a close understanding with Delhi on security issues relating to Lanka, and to put it loosely, had subcontracted its interests in this respect to India. It was assumed that the two countries had a working relationship, a similar understanding of terrorism and an adequate consultative process. American foreign policy, with its hands full in Iraq, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Iran and North Korea was glad to have a surrogate manage this theatre. Norway’s role as honest broker was different; India has a deep ‘own country’ interest, and recently, this partnership with the US.
The Indo-American understanding commenced before the Great Crash of 2008 which demanded Washington’s priority attention. And when the crash did come America should have been pleased to have a satrap deal with the mess in Lanka. But the Delhi government proved visibly incompetent in handling its delegated authority, failed to exercise power, lost control of events and allowed conditions that are acutely embarrassing for the Western powers to develop. Therefore, America and the Europe have clearly sidelined India on the Lanka issue. I give more weight to this thesis than the alternative that the change follows an Obama Administration decision to jettison the ‘global war on terror’, deeming it oversimplified paranoia. There has indeed been a shift in American foreign policy on this insane ‘war on terror’ posture, but Delhi was booted out on the Lanka issue for sheer incompetence; it was unable to forestall one mess after another.
The Indo-US partnership
First let me recount how significant the strategic partnership between the United States and India has become using a recent publication. The emergence of a new phase in this partnership is best outlined in a recent paper ‘War on Terror in South Asia’ by Dr. Ninan Koshi which appeared in several places and most conveniently on the website Lines: (http://lines-magazine.org/). The core of Dr. Koshi’s argument is that a fundamentally new phase in Indo-American relations commenced with the nuclear deal and a new partnership that places emphasis on strategic matters. A single extract from the paper conveys it.
"On the eve of his leaving the ambassadorial post in India, Robert Blackwill wrote in a leader page article (U.S. India Defence Cooperation) in The Hindu on May 12, 2003: ‘Taken together our defence cooperation and military sales activities intensify the working relationship between the respective armed forces, build mutual cooperation for future joint military operations and strengthen Indian military capability which is in America’s interest. …An Indian military that is capable of operating efficiently alongside its American counterparts remains an important goal of our defence bilateral relationship. What we have achieved since 2001 builds a strong foundation on which to consummate this strategic objective which will promote peace and freedom across Asia and beyond".
It was instability in the Afghan-Pakistan region that really worried America; loss of nuclear-armed Pakistan to Islamic fundamentalists with close ties to global jihadists was unthinkable, and a new relationship with India was developed to project American power in an unprecedented way. As Dr Koshi says: "(T)he US has been engaged in a monumentally flawed and destructive campaign that President Bush described as "all-out effort against terrorism and terrorist groups of global reach" with devastating consequences for South Asia and West Asia in particular".
We need to supplement Dr. Koshi’s argument with a shared US-Indian economic objective as well, containing the other elephant in the global economy, China. Appointing Delhi as Washington’s satrap to deal with the war in this bothersome island was a by-product of these two objectives. It was also fair recognition that India, as the regional power, had special concerns and firsthand involvements.
How India screwed things up
The government in Delhi, egged on by the reactionary Madras Hindu, and not even abetted by the rightwing BJP, screwed things up almost from day one. Why, I cannot detail here, but only make passing mention of Premier Manmohan Singh’s monumental incompetence, the Sonia (Rajiv) factor and India’s legitimate odium for the LTTE, underestimating the effect of Lanka’s war on South Indian politics, but perhaps most important of all, a naïve inability to read how clever Colombo could be in taking Prime Minister, Home Minister, Chief Minister, High Commissioner and National Security Advisor, all for a right royal ride. Look, lets give the devil its due; the Colombo Administration has proved infinitely cleverer, craftier and cockier than the aforementioned Indian worthies – poor sods are in a daze; don’t even know what hit them!
India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee declared for the umpteenth time last week: "Continuation of precipitate military actions leading to further civilian casualties at this time would be totally unacceptable". His colleague Home Minister Palaniyandi Chidambaram referring to a decision made by the Prime Minister, External Affairs Minister and Home Minister was quoted in the Hindu as follows: "It was decided to make a demand to Sri Lanka to announce ceasefire immediately. A ceasefire was not a demand or appeal, but a need of the Government of India". A few days earlier an anguished (about the prospect of losing his seat) Chidambaram told a Tamil Nadu election rally: "India would urge Sri Lanka to extend the ceasefire beyond April 15. The 48-hour ceasefire announced by the Sri Lankan government was a success for India’s external policy. But it was only a small development". And so they have gestured and gesticulated and gyrated for the better part of a year. Colombo responded by treating them all like a bunch of jokers from Jhansi and Jaipur.
The fact of the matter is that India has lost the plot; obvious, if one compares its present paralysis with the authority it seems to have had to call the shots a while ago. As recently as during preparations for the SAARC meeting in Colombo, and more so throughout 2008, GoSLwas anxious what conditions India might impose. It could indeed have had its way to a considerable extent, but rather, chose to allow Colombo a free hand, carte blanche, little realising that the genie once out of the bottle would be much craftier than the dumb master. De facto there are massive asymmetries of power between countries of such gigantic difference in clout as Lanka and India.
A situation such as now, when GoSL can give Sonia, Singh, Mukerjee, Chidambaram, Narayanan and Alok Prasad the two fingers up, with jolly impunity and positive conviviality, is really quite funny but for the humanitarian disaster, shockingly only on the sidelines as it were. Yes, this Indian government is caught by the short and curlies; it has no clout in Colombo anymore. Let us await the next thrilling instalment after the Indian general elections; things may change, who knows.
For the time being, Delhi has got itself discarded by both Colombo and the West and even Karunanidhi has begun to beat a retreat.
On April 17 the wily Tamil Nadu Chief Minister sent the following telegram to Sonia, Singh and a whole lot of others. "India should snap all ties with Sri Lanka, including diplomatic, if a ceasefire is not announced by the Sri Lankan government by tonight". Undoubtedly this is an election gundu (Tamil Nadu polls on May 14), but not only; the DMK is also buckling under the intense mass pressure building up in Tamil Nadu against GoSL and Delhi (for near unconditional support for GoSL in the war).
Colombo has shown Oslo the door, why? Science fiction fans were awaiting a Norwegian aurora borealis, that is, secret negotiations leading to safe passage and security for the LTTE leadership. (The Norwegian Ambassador has responded: "This is, with all respect, pure and simple rubbish. Neither Norway nor any other actors have to my knowledge been involved in such talks."). The more likely reason is that the United States has been using Norway as a conduit for contacting the LTTE about the humanitarian situation of the IDPs. Colombo is livid, but for obvious reasons reluctant to play hardball with the US, so it sent a signal, it shot the messenger. It is backing up this diplomatic message with a barrage of crudities about US ambassadorial romps with LTTE socialites and undiplomatic sniffing of e-substances (leaked by "top intelligence sources" in Colombo to the Asian Tribune 16 April). In tandem, the diaspora is boiling and pressure on GoSL from the West is becoming increasingly tough, nay hostile.
The first startling change was the Hilary Clinton-David Miliband joint statement which departed from previous practice by putting both the LTTE and GoSL in the crosswire. Then there was the EU Parliament’s demand for a ceasefire followed by similar demands from Canada, US Congressmen and British MPs. US State Department releases are becoming more strongly worded and calling upon "GoSL and the LTTE to immediately stop hostilities, and to respect the right of free movement of civilians in Mulaitivu area". The State Department quote given next must be giving GoSL goose pimples as such pronouncements are being made with increasing and strident frequency. "Durable and lasting peace will only (be) achieved through a political solution that addresses legitimate aspiration of Sri Lankan communities. . . . Further killing will stain any eventual peace … GoSL (must) employ diplomacy to permit a peaceful outcome of the conflict".
The UN Secretary General has sent seasoned diplomat Vijay Nambiar to the region. Gordon Brown appointed Des Browne, the former defence minister, as a special envoy to the island in consultation with GoSL - the latter, under pressure from its chauvinist constituents, denied any such consultation, but this regime, within three years, has a longer inventory of lies to its debit than any previous Administration. Then there was the videoed meeting between Boucher, Blake and the Tamil diaspora – come on, all this must add up to something! Maybe, but my view is that the international response to the humanitarian situation is so half hearted, lethargic and lacking in robustness, that maybe these most honourable gentlemen will all, only be just in time to close the coffin lid on the IDPs. Maybe toothless India will have the last laugh after all if Colombo succeeds in taking the West as well for a well-earned right royal ride.