Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Narendra Modi and the Tamil Nadu Factor

Narendra Modi’s election as the Indian Prime Minister has added a new element to the Indian political arena. Modi, a Hindu nationalist, is a hard bargainer than earlier Prime Ministers. He has the added advantage of a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha. Therefore, he has the ability to adapt a internal and external policy of his liking for the next five years.

In the Lok Sabha (LS), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alone controls 283 seats and with its allies has the control of 336 seats. Meanwhile, Jayalalithaa Jayaram’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party won 37 out of the 39 LS seats within Tamil Nadu. This near clean sweep by AIADMK in Tamil Nadu has led some analysts into believing that Jayalalithaa would still have a say in India’s Sri Lanka policies.
Narendra Modi (Pic from Narendra Modi's Flickr photo steam)

This argument is based on the experience of Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1984-89. Despite controlling 414 seats in the LS, the Sri Lanka policy of this government was heavily influenced by the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran (MGR).

However, the political equation is totally different today. Narendra Modi is no Rajiv Gandhi and Jayalalithaa is no MGR. Furthermore, there is no Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to deal with.

In the 1980s, MGR had developed a working rapport with the LTTE leadership including its leader, Velupillay Prabhakaran. Therefore, MGR had considerable leverage over the LTTE militants, irrespective of who controlled the LS in New Delhi. Also, MGR was a seasoned politician while Rajiv Gandhi was a comparative novice in politics.

During the decade long premiership of Dr. Manmohan Singh, especially during his second term, Jayalalithaa and Tamil Nadu politicians influenced India’s Sri Lanka politics. The Congress Party did not have a comfortable majority in the LS and had to bow down to the pressures of Tamil Nadu politicians. The central government was susceptible to Jayalalithaa so much that she actually developed a overestimation of her prowess and was said to be even contemplating on reaching even a higher office through the so called ‘Third Front.’ However, the Indian government lost its credibility by repeatedly bowing down to the Tamil Nadu politics. The government’s weakness was exploited by Modi in the election campaign.

Speaking to this author in October 2013, Prof Madhav Das Nalapat of Manipal University, India, stated that, “We should have an India centered policy towards Sri Lanka, not a Tamil Nadu centered policy. Whenever we had an India centered policy it is a good policy and when you have a Tamil Nadu centered policy it is a bad policy.” This is precisely the basis of the Modi camp as well. Narendra Modi is not a politician who is bound to be influenced regional politicians. He is much more experienced and much more rigid as a leader.

This is precisely the reason for Narendra Modi’s invitation to the South Asian Association of Regional Corporation (SAARC) leaders to participate in his inauguration as Prime Minister. Despite the displeasure of the Tamil Nadu politicians including Jayalalithaa, Modi stood by his decision. What has to be understood is, Modi would not have extended this invitation if he was not ready to face the Tamil Nadu displeasure. Once he had taken the decision, it was final.

Dr. Manmohan Singh’s weakness in decision making was seen in the last years of his administration. He was silent on whether he was attending the Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting in Colombo, finally bowing to Tamil Nadu leadership. He was unsure as to what his government would do in United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka this year, finally choosing to abstain. No wonder Jayalalithaa thought high of her power to influence New Delhi. But she is making a grave mistake of political immaturity if she thinks that she can do the same with Modi.

This is not to say that Modi’s foreign policy will be advantageous to Sri Lanka. Modi has the interest of India in his mind first and foremost. Therefore the interests of the two countries are bound to clash at some point. It will be advantageous for both countries to manage the questions that may arise due to the differences of interests. One advantage that both India and Sri Lanka will have is that Modi would not bow to undue pressure from Tamil Nadu. This may help the two countries to come to a reasonable agreement on the possible questions of interest.

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