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Colombo hugs detached Delhi

Colombo, Nov. 18: The current crisis has seen all political parties in Sri Lanka activate their lines to New Delhi, much in contrast to the time not very long ago when India was blamed for everything that went wrong in the country.

India has gained tremendous goodwill in Sri Lanka by avoiding direct involvement in its neighbour’s affairs and refusing to identify with any one of the two main Sinhalese parties.

Many Tamils as well as Sinhalese feel India should play peace broker and force President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to resolve their differences.

“Prime Minister Vajpayee should invite both Chandrika and Ranil to breakfast and ask them to sort out their problems. That’s the only way both of them can be forced to work together,” said R. Sampanthan, secretary-general of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front. “India is the only country which can do this,” he added.

But New Delhi is not keen. “Our strength lies in keeping our doors open to all parties and making sure we are not seen to be favouring one or the other party,” an Indian diplomat, who did not wish to be identified, said.

India has excellent relations with both Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe. The moderate Tamil parties, like the TULF, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation have always had good relations with India. The LTTE, too, wants India’s backing, but New Delhi is not interested.

But the most striking has been the turnaround of the once vehemently anti-India hardline Sinhalese nationalist party, the Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna (JVP). “We have never been against India. India is our closest relative. We want India’s understanding,” said general secretary Tilvil Silva.

The JVP is now an overground democratic party with 16 members in the parliament. It is not a strong presence, but its influence among ordinary Sinhalese, especially in rural Sri Lanka, is enormous. The party is likely to become even more important in future. The JVP members, who never attend any country’s national day celebrations, made an exception this time and came to India House on August 15.

Much of this has happened because successive Indian governments have taken care to keep a healthy distance from Sri Lanka’s internal affairs since the Indian Peace Keeping Force attracted considerable criticism.

Indian high commissioner Nirupam Sen, who is regularly briefed by both the President’s and Prime Minister’s office, keeps a low profile and prefers to work behind closed doors. It makes great sense in a country where people cannot stop talking about J.. Dixit, the high commissioner in the late eighties who was dubbed the “viceroy”.

Trade ties have seen an upswing with India emerging as Sri Lanka’s most important business partner.

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