Actor Rajinikath should not have backtracked from going to Sri Lanka. He could have played the role of a statesman in creating a path for rapprochement. The fringe elements just tried their luck by blowing the horn, knowing that Rajini is sensitive to criticism; especially when it comes to promotions. Committing to visit Jaffna first and later backtracking makes the position of Tamils in Sri Lanka even more exposed, because it strengthens hard core elements on both sides. Besides, every time he is tentative on an issue, it erodes his own credibility.
The Palk Strait seems even wider than it was today.
His proposed visit could have helped in many ways. His presence would have boosted the morale of Tamils in Sri Lanka as he is an apolitical leader and carries everybody with him. He could have presented our views to the Government of Sri Lanka and forcefully pleaded our case. The Sri Lankan government, keen to reduce the political distance and societal disconnect with the Northern Province, would have been more than willing to hear him. They could have also presented their concerns which he could have communicated to the people of Tamil Nadu.
What is required today is to take the relationship beyond the grips of fringe elements in both places. In fact, the State as well as Centre could have used his visit to bolster the relationship with some additional programmes. His visit could have been the tipping point in giving the relationship a positive spin; and that is, in fact, the fear of the fringe elements.
The importance of being Rajini is that leaders like him carry huge social capital and people expect them to lead, even from outside politics. He is definitely taller than the fringe elements in both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka; and people would have rallied behind him.
Every tentative move makes fringe elements stronger and gives them a fresh lease of life. What is the bone of contention here? Firstly, on the issue of fishing, people should realise that there are two sides to the ocean as much as the controversy. Any resolution requires both parties to talk, which is really what the fringe elements fear the most.
Secondly, Tamils and their political parties would have realised that the popularity of Rajini runs through all of Sri Lanka and not just the Northern Province. We may feel possessive about Rajini but he is equally popular with Sri Lankans, and this would have helped our cause a lot.
I found that everyone I met in Colombo and nearby towns had a lot of respect and even love for Indians. I met people from across the spectrum, and everybody was keen to know about the source and extent of the misunderstanding with Tamil Nadu. Conversation would invariably veer around to Rajini and his popularity. His soft power is immense. There is political and social distance between Sri Lankans and Tamils but it is not something that is irreconcilable. All it needs is time and some sustained efforts from India.
The Northern Province today needs development, infrastructure, welfare projects, and so on. They need health care, houses and schools. We will do better by providing this sort of support than by stalling them.
Whom do these protests help? Does it help India? No, India needs Sri Lanka as much as Sri Lanka needs us. Does it help the cause of Tamils in Sri Lanka? No, it only rekindles their feelings and delays the healing process. Does it help the Tamils in Tamil Nadu? No, it leaves no space for engagement with their brethren in Sri Lanka.
Can we help in any way? Yes, if leaders like Rajini come forward and mobilise resources. It is still not too late for Rajini. The political and international context needs him.
G Ramesh is Professor, Centre for Public Policy, IIM Bangalore.