Lanka bridge for govt, party

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  • Published 22.04.14

New Delhi, April 21: The Congress and India’s foreign office, long at loggerheads over the Sri Lankan policy, have been independently coaxing a common visitor to fly across the Palk Straits.

The foreign ministry is trying to convince C.V. Wigneswaran, the Tamil chief minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, to visit India as soon as possible for a trip crucial for New Delhi’s tightrope balance between its concerns for that nation’s Tamils and its strategic interests. The ministry’s efforts have gained urgency after India abstained from a UN vote against Sri Lanka last month.

Ahead of the April 24 Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu, the state’s Congress unit, too, has made repeated appeals to Wigneswaran to visit India before the day of voting, key aides to the chief minister have said.

“It’s really rare to see this confluence of interests,” an official of the Tamil National Alliance whose government is headed by Wigneswaran said on the phone from Jaffna. “We hope it lasts.”

The Northern Province chief minister has not finalised his visit because a few leaders he is keen to meet in India, especially Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, have not yet confirmed their availability for meetings, officials said.

Wigneswaran was elected after Sri Lanka for the first time held polls in its Tamil-dominated Northern Province last year, adhering to a commitment it made under a pact with India signed in 1987.

India’s foreign policy establishment saw the elections as a sign that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka wanted to strengthen ties with New Delhi. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Rajapaksa in Myanmar on the sidelines of a multilateral meet early in March.

On March 27, India declined to vote against Sri Lanka on a US-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council seeking an international probe into human rights abuses by Colombo in its three-decade civil war against Tamil rebels.

“Getting Wigneswaran to visit India would help us project the balance that defines our Sri Lanka policy — it will help us tell critics that we do care for Sri Lankan Tamils, in spite of the way we voted at the human rights council,” a senior Indian official said.

“For years, it has been all the parties against us at the foreign office over Sri Lanka,” an official said. “It looks like elections have changed that.”

India’s foreign policy establishment is convinced that alienating Sri Lanka could backfire on New Delhi’s regional strategic interests and also reduce its leverage with Colombo to seek a better deal for Sri Lankan Tamils.

But repeatedly over the past decade under Singh, the foreign policy establishment has had to battle Tamil Nadu parties — both regional groups like the DMK and the AIADMK, and national parties like the Congress.

Congress leaders from Tamil Nadu — including finance minister P. Chidambaram — convinced Congress president Sonia Gandhi to veto Prime Minister Singh’s proposed visit to Colombo last year for a Commonwealth summit. Singh eventually had to boycott that meet — even though the foreign policy establishment and his own aides were keen that he visit Sri Lanka.

The DMK, which was part of the ruling UPA alliance till last year, combined with the state Congress on two earlier occasions to press India into voting against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC — votes that pushed Colombo away from New Delhi and closer to Beijing.

Last month, when India abstained from the vote against Sri Lanka, Chidambaram — whose son is contesting instead of him in the April 24 Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu — said the foreign ministry move was wrong in his “personal opinion”.

But the Congress hopes that a visit by Wigneswaran to Tamil Nadu would help it put the case better before the electorate that it cares for Sri Lankan Tamils, and that its government in New Delhi helped catalyse the election of the teardrop island’s first Tamil chief minister.

Jayalalithaa, who has already played the Lankan Tamil card by proposing to free Rajiv Gandhi’s killers, has no reason to go out of her way to oblige the Congress. Some officials in the foreign ministry said they were not sure whether she would grant Wigneswaran an appointment before the elections.