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Being there, with friends

Next year, we will have in our armoury, nuclear capable Agni-V missiles capable of hitting targets 5000 kms away. We already have an aircraft carrier that is the size of three football fields, is 20 storeys high and can cover 600 nautical miles in a day. We are the proud owners of the Chandrayan mission to Mars and have the Brahmos missile which is the world’s fastest cruise missile and can be launched from submarines, land or eventually be tested for launching from our Sukhoi SuMk30 aircraft. India is the largest country, with the largest population, the largest and paramilitaries in the sub-continent backed by the third largest GDP (in PPP terms) in the world. And one day the country aspires to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).


Futile: A meeting between PM Manmohan Singh and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa could have been used to convey the concerns we have in Tamil Nadu; instead, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid attended the CHOGM meeting on his behalf 

All this should give us immense confidence in handling our relations with other countries. Yet, when it comes to handling affairs with our neighbours we seem to be diffident and indecisive.

The latest in this are our relations with Sri Lanka, a neighbour where an Indian Prime Minister last visited in 1998 and that too to attend the SAARC conference. There has not been a bilateral visit all these years, an adequate reflection of our attention span. There was an opportunity to visit the island nation earlier this month for the CHOGM conference and convey our message but we snuffed it. The reason for our absence was not because the CHOGM in its present form has become a quaint and irrelevant fossil but because we let sectional interests over ride national interests. We were driven by competitive electoral opportunism of regional politics and New Delhi’s inability to ride above short term interests and take care of the country’s long term interests.

The decision not to go the conference after weeks of indecision would be defensible if it were in national interests but it becomes inexplicable to the host nation in the context of bilateral relationships. So when Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa remarked that he understood why PM Manmohan Singh was unable to come, we all knew what he understood what he meant. In bilateral relations, local conditions and local sentiments in either country do matter but they cannot be allowed to become over riding factors. In that sense a foreign policy cannot be allowed to become ‘federal’ where the regional parties for their local political battles seek to influence national foreign policies to the extent that has happened in this case.

Considering that some of us are forever keen to talk to Pakistan, to the point of almost wooing them, it is strange logic that we continue to ignore Sri Lanka.

Not talking to neighbours has a negative impact; it is like a silly tantrum by an aged aunt at a wedding who is sulking about an imagined insult. No one pays attention to such sulks and is no substitute to being there at the venue, as the major power of the region and saying your piece. A one-on-one meeting in Colombo with the Sri Lankan President could have been used to convey precisely the concerns we have in Tamil Nadu. Not being there conveys nothing.

The main political protagonists in Tamil Nadu today were perfectly willing, in May 2009, to ignore Sri Lankan Army's action against the LTTE that culminated in the killing of Prabhakaran. The terror of the LTTE had been crushed by the Sri Lankan Army with discreet assistance from the Indian Armed Forces and intelligence. There was a mutual national interest in ensuring success of this action by the Sri Lankan Army. It was a brutal war as all terrorism and counter terrorism is. At that time, Tamil Nadu leaders like Karunanidhi went on a fast unto death that lasted all of six hours in sympathy with the Sri Lanka Tamils.

That was the extent of empathy for Sri Lankan Tamils and very little has changed except for the forthcoming elections in India and political gamesmanship in the run up that has now become common in india.

However, elections will not be won or lost because of events in Sri Lanka but Sri Lanka could be lost because of our electoral politics. Our absence at this juncture is akin to a public snub to Sri Lanka and the vacuum that we create and show little intention or urgency to fill, can only be filled by one country - China. This will happen incrementally, one thing at a time as powers seek to protect their growing commercial interests with military power.  

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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