Menon refuses to do a Hanuman


A news starved local and foreign press was waiting for Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to give them something to write home about. The Hindu correspondent in Colombo, R.K.Radhakrishnan, for instance reported on Menon’s impending meeting with the Sri Lankan government in the following words: 

"Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon arrived here late on Thursday night to discuss issues arising out of Sri Lanka’s reluctance to fulfil its promises, more than three years after the crushing defeat of the Tamil Tigers... Mr Menon, who will unequivocally convey to the Sri Lankan leadership the path that India will traverse towards achieving a genuine political solution in Sri Lanka, has the most unenviable task of getting a message across to the Sri Lankan leadership — ‘Time’s up. Act now."

Local papers also expected Menon to be coming with a ‘tough message’.  In short the expectation was that Menon was coming to Sri Lanka to play J.N.Dixit or better still - Hanuman. But much to the disappointment of many, that’s not how he handled things.

Shivshankar Menon is an old Sri Lanka hand having served in Colombo some years ago as the Indian High Commissioner. His visit last Friday was full of diplomatic finesse unlike the earlier visits by Indian dignitaries. He met the president and Prof Pieris at breakfast on Friday and later had substantive talks with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Minister Basil Rajapaksa over lunch. Among the things that he had discussed was that the troika mechanism that was established between the two countries while the war was on, should be revived. These troikas were made up of three key officials from the Sri Lankan and Indian sides. Menon himself was in the Indian troika at that time, in his capacity as Foreign Secretary. The other ex-officio members of the Indian troika were the Defence Secretary and the National Security Advisor. Changes have taken place in India and the only person who will be in the Indian troika from the past will be Menon.

On the Sri Lankan side however, the old troika still remains intact  - Minister Basil Rajapaksa as the head and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Lalith Weeratunga as its other members. The significant thing about the troika arrangement was that between members of these troikas, all protocol was circumvented and any member had access to the other any time of the day or night. It would have been one of the most unusual bi-lateral arrangements ever in the history of diplomacy.

Among the other suggestions made by Menon during his talks was that that it would be useful if the Northern PC election was held before the Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council at the end of this year because it would add to what has already been achieved.  Menon had also said that a great deal has been achieved since the end of the war and that this was not known to the outside world and that the UPR will be an opportunity to showcase the changes that had been effected.

Menon’s view seemed to be that if the TNA is given some kind of power, they too will get used to think like a governing party and will become aware of the day to day difficulties of governance. In his talks with the government Menon had also expressed the opinion that the TNA should join the parliamentary select committee. What was significant was that this time we did not see the visiting Indian dignitary telling the press that the Sri Lankan president or the Sri Lankan foreign minister had pledged to implement this or that, while the Sri Lankan  government maintained a glum silence.  Menon’s visit was very non-judgemental and was obviously not what some journalists expected.

In fact after the visit The Hindu itself which had other expectations earlier –almost wanting Menon to do a Hanuman or at least a Dixit - was constrained to report on the visit as follows:

"National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon on Friday refused to commit if India was satisfied with Sri Lanka’s peace and reconciliation process with Tamils, saying "the goal [of the Indian engagement] is much bigger…[It is] to get this [the reconciliation process] to the right place."

"I don’t think that is the way it is going to move forward," Mr. Menon told reporters."

"Ultimately they have to move it forward themselves. They will…. We are not going to sit here and make the atmosphere either easier or more difficult by making statements."

"Political reconciliation is clearly a Sri Lankan issue which Sri Lanka has to do, but India will continue to remain engaged with all concerned and continue to support their efforts."

"Mr. Menon said he was "not going to sit in judgement of anyone in this process" and discuss if the pace was proper or not. "This is something that has to get done. This is not a judgemental process — you like this, you don’t like this – That is not how it works."

Obviously many journalists in Sri Lanka sorely miss the good old days of the war when life and death issues cropped up every five minutes and there was no shortage of news. Now after sitting on our rear ends with no news, we expect even visiting foreign dignitaries to give us something to report on even if it means turning neighbours into enemies. In this respect the two earlier visits by S.M.Krishna the External Affairs Minister and the Indian Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj did provide the press what they wanted. With Krishna saying that the president had pledged to implement the 13th amendment and members of the delegation that came with Swaraj asking the president about the troops stationed in the north. This time at least, it was an Indian diplomat who came to Sri Lanka not an Indian school inspector.

The press release that was put out by India after Menon’s visit simply stated that reconciliation and settlement is a Sri Lankan issue and something that Sri Lanka has to do and that India will continue to offer any support required in this regard. He also said that India has worked closely with the Government of Sri Lanka on relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of IDPs. India’s assistance was appreciated by the Sri Lankan leadership. The perennial fishermen’s issue was also discussed. Menon also observed that most of the Indian-assisted projects were proceeding well and several projects, particularly those relating to the development of railway infrastructure in the Northern and Southern Provinces, were being implemented well ahead of schedule. Security related issues were also discussed.


UNP’s search for willing sacrifices

Another round of provincial council elections have been announced to a public jaded by the predictability of the results of such elections. The only factor that introduces an element of uncertainty to this election is the fact that the government is going in for elections at a time when the situation is most disadvantageous to them at least in the North Central Province because of the prevailing drought.  Voices have been raised in the NCP to the effect that the lack of water for cultivation purposes is due to poor water management by the government and not just the drought. However, whether the people are going to ascribe the lack of rainfall to the government and vote against them is a moot point. Their decision to vote will have a lot to do with their level of satisfaction with what the government was doing for them before the lack of rainfall caused the main tanks in the Rajarata to dry up.

The last time the North Central Province and the Sabaragamuwa Province went to the polls, the UNP had two formidable chief ministerial candidates, Janaka Perera in the NCP and Ranjan Ramanayake in Sabaragamuwa. Both of them were nationally known figures and both polled over 100,000 votes thus providing a strong pull factor for the UNP campaign. The UNP chief ministerial candidate at the Eastern Provincial Council elections held in May 2008 was Rauff Hakeem another powerful candidate. This time around, the most conspicuous shortcoming in the opposition campaign will be the lack of formidable chief ministerial candidates. You can’t just pluck Rauff Hakeems, Ranjan Ramanayakes and Janaka Perera’s off the trees. These are national level figures who took decades to build up the social capital that made them formidable candidates.

All those who have built up social capital through other fields of endeavour are not always willing to come into politics. Moreover, given the present sorry state of the UNP, even those who may have an idea of getting into politics would think twice before throwing their hat into the ring. Three provincial councils have been dissolved and the UNP still does not have an inkling of who their chief ministerial candidates are going to be except perhaps in the Eastern Province where Daya Gamage will most probably be the UNP’s district leader for Ampara. For the UNP to have the grandiose title of a chief ministerial candidate for the East will be a sad joke this time. (The expectation this time is that the UNP will fall to third place in the east, after the TNA.) At the last Eastern Province Elections, Rauff Hakeem was the UNP’s chief ministerial candidate and the UNP-SLMC combine was supported by the TNA which made the whole line up very powerful. Hakeem was so confident of winning the chief ministership that he resigned his parliamentary seat to contest as the eastern chief ministerial candidate.

Today, however, Hakeem is with the government and constrained to support the government of which he is a part. The UNP is wary about forming any electoral alliance with the TNA for fear that such a link in the East will affect their voter base among the Sinhala votes in the East itself and in the other provinces as well. Whatever gains the UNP may make in the East by having a link with the TNA will be vitiated by their losses elsewhere.  So even though the UNP and the TNA have been touring the country together as the joint opposition for the past several months, an electoral pact between them for the East is not even under consideration. The upshot of that is that the UNP has already conceded defeat in the East and is constrained to play the role of ‘also rans’. In the other two provinces too the UNP is basically looking at defeat, and the only question is what the margin is going to be – whether it will widen or narrow down. On the one hand, the drought in the cultivating districts of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura could narrow the margin but then again, the lack of a formidable challenger for the position of chief minister could actually result in widening the existing gap.

Be that as it may the UNP is girding their loins and getting ready for the contest as best as they can.  In the wake of the dissolution of the three PCs, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed a nominations board comprising of himself, Sajith Premadasa, Joseph Michael Perera, Tissa Attanayake, Jayawickrema Perera, John Amaratunga, Lakshman Kiriella, Kabir Hashim, D.M.Swaminathan, Mangala Samaraweera, Ravi Karunanayake and Daya Gamage.

Tissa Attanayke claimed last week that they had already started receiving applications for nominations to the dissolved councils. According to him, they had received 42 applications for the NCP, 21 for the East and 31 for Sabaragamuwa. Hamlet is going to be staged but no one has been identified for the role of prince. There are no applicants for the chief ministerial positions and the only thing that the UNP knows at this moment is that the incumbent leaders of the opposition in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces, Kasthuri Anuradhanayake and  A.Wijetunga will not be the chief ministerial candidates.

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