Modi and the

aspirations of Tamils


It was reported that the new prime minister of India Narendra Modi in his first meeting with Sri Lanka’s president after his swearing in, had asked the latter to "expedite the process of national reconciliation in a manner that meets the aspirations of the Tamil community by fully implementing the 13th Amendment to the constitution and going beyond". Why are we not surprised? As this writer pointed out even before Modi assumed office, Sri Lanka is just a file in the Indian foreign office. Every Indian prime minister or external affairs minister who assumes office looks at this file and simply says whatever they find on the top most paper. Thus we are back to the well worn theme "meet the aspirations of the Tamils by implementing the 13th Amendment." This 13th Amendment was brought in over a quarter of a century ago and there is today no Indian politician or official who actually knows what Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment is.  

All they know is that the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution was forced on this country by India and that if a past Indian government has forced anything on a neighbouring country, then it has to be ipso facto good for India. What his first day in power showed was that Narendra Modi will also be parroting the refrain we have heard for more than a quarter of a century through successive Sri Lankan and Indian governments. There are instances like this in international affairs. If we look at it reasonably, what else can India tell us to do? They have no new ideas to tell us to do this or that, and indeed even we do not have any new ideas to suggest to the Indians. For the lack of anything better India keeps harping on the 13th Amendment.

Perhaps the best course of action for both India and Sri Lanka to get over a sticky situation will be to turn this call for the implementation of the 13th Amendment into a kind of diplomatic ‘mating ritual’ where India says "Implement the 13th Amendment" and we mumble an incoherent reply but nothing really happens and the understanding is that India too does not expect anything to happen. If by some chance Sri Lanka is able to fulfil the ‘aspirations of the Tamils,’ India is going to be in big trouble because they are unable to fulfill the aspirations of the Tamils living in India. Jayalalitha Jeyaram contested the recent Lok Sabha election with the avowed objective of winning all 39 seats in Tamil Nadu and then using this power to bargain for more influence at the centre by helping either of the two main parties to form a government.

Fish for independence


Jayalalitha’s expectation was that the Indian central government would be completely dependent on Tamil Nadu to hold on to power and that this would be the moment she would  push through her agenda. The people of Tamil Nadu gave her the overwhelming mandate she sought to hold the central government hostage by giving her no less than 37 of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu. If by some chance Modi had been dependent on Tamil Nadu to form a government, it would have been he who would have been hard pressed to meet Tamil aspirations, not Sri Lanka. Everyone knows about the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. But what are the aspirations of the Tamils in Tamil Nadu? The only aspirations of the Tamil Nadu Tamils known to Sri Lanka are those pertaining to pushing for a UN mandated referendum in the north and east of Sri Lanka for the creation of a separate Tamil state and allowing unfettered fishing rights for Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Palk Straits.

The unspoken arrangement seems to be that the Tamil Nadu political establishment will do their part to persuade the Indian central government to push for the creation of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka through the good offices of the UN and in exchange the Tamil political establishment of the north of Sri Lanka will keep quiet while Tamil Nadu fishermen take all the fish that belongs to northern Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. One never hears a word being uttered by anyone in the Northern Provincial Council against the rapine that goes on in the Palk Straits on a daily basis. One would think that if the fish belonging to northern Tamil fishermen was being stolen, those who would be most concerned would be the Northern PC especially in the context where fishing within Sri Lanka’s territorial waters is a concurrent subject ie; one for which powers are shared between the government and the provincial council.

But the Northern PC and Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran maintains a complete silence on the question of poaching by Indian fishermen in the northern territorial waters of Sri Lanka. In the meantime, the Sri Lankan government deploys the navy and arrests Indian fishermen giving rise to tensions between India and Sri Lanka. The rational course of action that a government should take in a situation like this is to allow the Indian Tamil fishermen to fish as much as they want in Sri Lanka’s northern waters and the Indians should be prevented only from coming further south into the part of the ocean frequented by Sinhala fishermen. If no Indian fishermen are arrested by the navy, one major issue between India and Sri Lanka would be no more. If one looks at it rationally, there is little point in the Sri Lankan government souring its relationship with the Indian central government over the rights of the northern Tamil fishermen in a situation where the northern provincial council which is supposed to look after the interests of the northern people refuses to even acknowledge that poaching is taking place in the Palk Straits.

If the Sri Lankan government stops arresting Indian fishermen, where will that place the fishing communities of the north? The Northern PC will then have one of two options – to teach all Tamil fishermen how to take to poultry farming or to pass a resolution in the Northern PC asking the government of Sri Lanka to take action against the Tamil Nadu fishermen. Wigneswaran should also be sent by the provincial council to talk to the chief minister of Tamil Nadu about the poaching in the Palk Straits. As of now, all that the TNA or the NPC which they control appears to be interested in is how to persuade Tamil Nadu to harness the Indian central government to their project of creating a separate state in Sri Lanka and they are willing to suffer the economic loss caused to northern Tamil fishermen as the ‘santhosam’ that has to be paid to Tamil Nadu in exchange for their help.


of Tamil Nadu

Since Modi has now taken upon himself the task of asking Sri Lanka to meet the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils, he could perhaps lead by example and meet the aspirations of the Tamil Nadu Tamils and show Sri Lanka how to meet the aspirations of Tamils. It’s not just Sri Lankan Tamils who have demands and aspirations, the Tamil Nadu Tamils also have issues that have not been met. In fact Jayalalitha Jeyaram has sought an appointment with Modi to impress upon him the needs of Tamil Nadu. When she asked the people of Tamil Nadu to give her an overwhelming mandate to be able to use her Lok Sabha seats to bargain with the powers at the centre and obtain the maximum relief for the Tamil people, there was a massive response. In fact the ‘Jayalalitha wave’ in Tamil Nadu was as great or even greater than the Modi wave in northern India. That itself shows that the Tamil Nadu Tamils have issues to get sorted out. As the AIADMK manifesto explained  "it is essential that a government at the centre is formed, of which the AIADMK will be an integral part, so as to restore the rights of Tamil Nadu".

The first demand put forward by the AIADMK was for the implementation of the concept of ‘cooperative federalism’ whereby the sovereign power of the state would be shared by the states and the central government ‘equally’. Admittedly, this is a rather vague concept with nothing mentioned in the AIADMK manifesto about any specific course of action that the central government should take to institute ‘cooperative federalism’ in centre state relations but since Modi himself used this term frequently in his political speeches in Tamil Nadu, he obviously knows what the term means and what exactly is expected of him especially since he himself was a chief minister of a state until recently.

Another political demand made by the AIADMK was to make Tamil an official language. As of now, Hindi is the only official language of India. The AIADMK wants not just Tamil but all the languages in the various states made official languages! However it seems unlikely that Modi will be inclined to even consider this demand because he deliberately spoke in Hindi even when campaigning in Tamil Nadu instead of speaking in English. It is the Hindi belt that gave Modi his victory and it is unlikely that he will accede to any request to dislodge Hindi from its place as the only official language of India. But if Modi says ‘no’ to this request, he should be willing to concede that there are Tamil demands that Sri Lanka too cannot fulfill. In addition to these political demands, there were a whole plethora of economic or administrative demands which clearly shows that the Tamils of Tamil Nadu need more ‘looking after’ than the Tamils of Sri Lanka. For example, the AIADMK manifesto said that while the monthly requirement of kerosene oil for Tamil Nadu is over 65,000 kilolitres the central government only allocates about 29,000 kilolitres to that state. The Tamils in Sri Lanka don’t have any problems about kerosene oil.

One of the really difficult demands made in the AIADMK manifesto was for the distribution of the water of the Kaveri river between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Now Karnataka has a significant BJP presence whereas Tamil Nadu does not. The AIADMK accused the Congress Party and even the rival DMK of having conspired to deprive Tamil Nadu of its share of Kaveri river water. The signs are that Tamil Nadu will soon be accusing the Modi government as well of siding with Karnataka against Tamil Nadu. So long as the rains provide enough water for Kaveri river, things will be okay. But at the slightest drought there will be riots either in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu depending on whose needs are not met. Karnataka gave the BJP 17 seats and Tamil Nadu gave the entire BJP alliance only two seats. So guess where the water riots will be over the next five years!

There were also demands from Tamil Nadu that struck at the very heart of the BJP’s project which was to uphold secularism and to ‘treat all religions as equal’. While the BJP may not be following a Hindu extremist line as the governing party of India, still the call to treat all religions equally would go against Modi’s grain. There are other factors too that would go against Modi’s grain like the demand emanating from Tamil Nadu to halt the privatization of public enterprises in a situation where much of the private sector in India expected Modi to accelerate the privatization process.

Another demand made by Tamil Nadu would be even more difficult to implement. The AIADMK alleged that the central government oil marketing companies continuously increase petrol and diesel prices which send the prices of other essential commodities also spiraling upwards. However 25% per cent of India’s total crude oil requirement is produced within the country. The balance 75 per cent is imported from other countries. The Tamil Nadu argument was that when crude oil is imported and processed in the country, it is completely unjust to determine the prices of domestic petrol and diesel based on international prices of petrol and diesel and that the price of petrol and diesel should be determined on the actual cost of production of crude oil within the country, and the actual import price of imported crude oil, and the cost of refining it.

TN out to bankrupt

central govt?

Some sections of the AIADMK manifesto makes one wonder whether the hidden agenda of the AIADMK was to bring down the central government by bankrupting it. The Indian government collects less than 10% of its GDP as taxes. Obviously, they are heavily reliant on non-tax income such as that coming in through profits from the sale of fuel and Tamil Nadu was targeting these very income sources. In order to boost tax revenue the central government had decreed that any money paid by a state owned public enterprise to the state that owns the enterprise as licence fees and the like would no longer be deductible from the income tax payable by that enterprise. That seems fair enough because these enterprises owned by various state governments would in effect be paying such fees to the very entities that own those enterprises. Because the new regulations would diminish the non-tax revenues of the states and increase the tax revenue of the centre, Tamil Nadu was opposed to new tax regulation. Moreover, Tamil Nadu wanted the tax free threshold for personal income taxes increased from Rs. 300,000 per annum to 500,000 which would further reduce tax income for the central government.  If Modi was to meet the demands of Tamil Nadu, very soon he will not have any money to pay employees of the central government.

In a sense one begins to understand what Jayalalitha meant by the term ‘cooperative federalism’ and sharing sovereignty ‘equally’ between the centre and the states as one reads the AIADMK election manifesto. The AIADMK argued that the provision of public services like education, public health, nutrition and family welfare is vested with the States. Yet the power to raise revenue is concentrated in the Central Government. However, the central government does not provide adequate resources to the states to meet their expenditure obligations and instead habitually tries to stealthily transfer more and more expenditure responsibilities to the states. The AIADMK pointed out that the centre levies a number of cesses and surcharges which are not shareable with the states which amounts to around eight percent of the centre’s gross tax revenue. The AIADMK insisted that such cesses and surcharges should also be made shareable with the states. Indian ministers were famous for riding in Indian made Ambassador cars instead of the expensive BMW and Benz cars used by Sri Lankan ministers. If the AIADMK has its way, Indian ministers will soon be riding Indian made bicycles to work!

The AIADMK also wanted the central government’s discretionary power in allocating money to the states curtailed to just 7% of all transfers on the allegation that these allocations were taking place in a non-transparent manner. This is another way of saying that the central government was not giving Tamil Nadu its due. The Indian central government allocates money to the various states on the basis of various criteria including its level of development on the understanding that India is one nation. But Tamil Nadu demands its pound of flesh regardless of where it ranks in the level of development. Had Modi been dependent on Jayalalitha’s support to form his government, he would have been the most miserable prime minister that India has ever had. The AIADMK appears to be engaged in a struggle for self determination very different to that engaged in by the Sri Lankan Tamil political parties. The Sri Lankan Tamils chose the path of confrontation with the Colombo government whereas Tamil Nadu seems to have chosen the path of destroying the Indian central government from within so that it will be incapable of resisting Tamil Nadu separatism.

Modi got an early demonstration of how imperious and insistent Jayalalitha can be when she boycotted his swearing in ceremony merely because he had invited president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff of Pakistan was gracious enough to accept Modi’s invitation and attend despite the fact that India and Pakistan are traditional enemies. One would think that as a chief minister of one of the states of India, Jayalalitha would have taken into consideration the fact that this was after all Modi’s swearing in, not Rajapaksa’s. Modi should be careful when asking Sri Lanka to meet the aspirations of the Tamils. That is something that Modi himself cannot do even within India.

Modi will be able to do without the support of parties outside his alliance for the first term in office. But for him to survive a second term, he will need external allies. In such an event, it may be more feasible for him to look at Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Her Trinamool Congress got 34 of the 42 seats in that state. Like Jayalalitha, she too did not attend Modi’s swearing in and there were bitter election campaign exchanges between the two. But at least there is no separatist agenda in West Bengal and even if Modi has to bow to certain conditions to get Mamata Banerjee’s support, those will not be as half as problematic as giving in to the demands of Tamil Nadu.

 It’s only days since Modi took over the office of prime minister after being a chief minister. The fault-line in India is between the central government and the state governments. This is the first time since independence that a former chief minister of a state has become prime minister without any prior experience in the central government. All those who became prime minister before Modi had served in the central government cabinet before becoming prime minister. However Modi has come in without any such experience and until just days ago, he was looking at things from the other side of the barricades. His repeated utterance of the phrase ‘cooperative federalism’ during the election campaign betrayed his political origins. That is not a phrase that a politician at the centre will ever use. What Modi has inherited is by far the world’s most dysfunctional large state with sub-national administrative formations within its fold and he is only beginning to discover how dysfunctional it really is. He will make more discoveries after his meeting with Jeyalalitha. So while Modi may have told President Rajapaksa to implement the 13th Amendment, we should understand that the former is still finding his own feet as the head of the Indian central government and we should give him time to understand the practical difficulties of meeting ‘Tamil aspirations’ regardless of which side of the Palk Straits the Tamils may happen to be.

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