Meeting with Jayalalitha to begin Chandrika’s India visit today

From S. Venkat Narayan Our Special Correspondent
NEW DELHI — Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga will begin her four-day "working visit" to India on Monday with a meeting with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalitha in Chennai (Madras).

It will be the first meeting between the two strong-willed women, who share an intense dislike for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Observers attach some importance to this meeting, and say they will have a good deal to talk about.

Tamil Nadu used to be a haven for LTTE cadres and leaders during the 1980s. But all this changed since May 21, 1991, when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Dhanu, an LTTE suicide-bomber at an election rally on the outskirts of the state capital. Ms. Jayalalitha has been a vehement and bitter critic of the LTTE since then.

She has forbidden the LTTE from her state, and has even locked up "Vaiko" in a Vellore prison for over nine months for saying that he is an LTTE sympathiser. Vaiko (full name: Vaiyapuri Gopalasami) is the leader of the Marumalachhi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), a partner in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s coalition government.

Incidentally, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had met Tamil Nadu’s actress-turned-chief minister during one of his India visits.

Ms. Kumaratunga will arrive in New Delhi on Monday itself. During her stay here, she will meet President APJ Abdul Kalam, and hold talks with Prime Minister Vajpayee. Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, Finance Minister Jaswant Singh will call on her. Former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral is among several others who will be meeting her.

The Sri Lankan leader is expected to discuss her well-known concerns about the on-going peace talks between the Wickremesinghe government and the LTTE.

She will also be visiting the prestigious National School of Drama (NSD), which churns out excellent stage and film actors and actresses by the dozen. The President apparently wishes to establish a similar institution in Sri Lanka.

Asked about the significance of her visit, Sri Lankan High Commissioner Mangala Moonesinghe said that expanding and strengthening bilateral relations with India is one issue on which both the Sri Lankan government and opposition have no differences.

"Culturally, we are one. And pretty soon, India and Sri Lanka will become an economic union," Moonesinghe told The Island.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has begun bearing fruit. Signed by Ms. Kumaratunga and Mr. Vajpayee here on December 28, 1998, it became operational in March 2000. In the three years since then, bilateral trade between the two neighbouring countries has zoomed to a record US$ 1,000 million from US$ 640 — an impressive jump of over 56 per cent. India is now Sri Lanka’s number one trading partner.