Rajapaksa is widely hailed as the Lion of Sri Lanka, but perhaps foxy is a better description of his dealings both with his rivals and the great powers in the Asian region.
He is widely hailed as the Lion of Sri Lanka, but perhaps foxy is a better description of his dealings both with his rivals and the great powers in the Asian region. This was clearly on display during Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent visit to New Delhi, the first since his re-election earlier this year.
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) made a half-hearted stab at raising the Tamil resettlement issue, to which Mr Rajapaksa paid lip service. The rest of the visit has been on predictable lines with New Delhi including the displaced Tamils as one subject among many discussed with the Lankan leader. No one expects any sudden changes in the Rajapaksa regime’s attitude towards the Tamils now that the battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been decisively won. There are still about 80,000 Tamils languishing in refugee camps. But Mr Rajapaksa is in no hurry to make restitution as he faces no pressure either internally or from the international community, especially India.
Rarely has a leader in the volatile South Asian region held all the cards as Mr Rajapaksa does today. While he always pays fulsome tribute to the relationship with India, he is equally lavish in his welcome to its traditional opponents like China and Pakistan. Of course, always with the caveat that he would never allow his country to be a staging post for anti-Indian activity.
China’s growing presence is of considerable concern to India that still considers the region its sphere of influence. Mr Rajapaksa has used his unique position at the moment to play his cards to his nation’s advantage. It also helps Mr Rajapaksa that his family has an all-pervasive presence in his government and that the opposition has been rendered ineffective following his military victory. However, the Tamil issue is not one that he can wish away.
Sooner or later, he will have to look at implementing the 13th amendment that promises greater devolution of power to the Tamil regions. While there is no immediate threat of Tamil militants regrouping, a political solution would be a surefire way of ensuring lasting peace. Here, New Delhi can nudge him along given its influence over the Tamil population in the island.
The issue, fortunately, is no longer a bargaining chip for southern parties like the DMK. This allows New Delhi the elbow-room to engage Mr Rajapaksa in arriving at a meaningful settlement of the issue. If nothing else, the Rajapaksa visit has established that the traditional relationship between the two countries has got out of the ‘Big Brother’ syndrome and will now be much more that of equals.