Congress victory: What it means for Lanka

Feizal Samath

The Congress Party’s stunning polls victory in India last week has opened a new dimension in Sri Lanka’s touchy peace process while another apparent winner at polls in the two countries is the rejection of IMF/World Bank policies. Both in Sri Lanka and the Indian election, the ruling parties suffered unexpected defeats mainly because economic reforms helped urban communities but didn’t extend to the rural poor. “The defeats of Sri Lanka’s ruling UNF and the BJP came because of the rejection of the neo-liberal policies of the IMF and the World Bank,” noted Kethish Loganathan, a conflict analysis specialist at local think tank, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

He said the BJP, just like the UNF, concentrated more on urban development and creating a stable class instead of tackling rural poverty. “Both parties went by macro economic indicators,” he said. High growth rates — six per cent last year in Sri Lanka and seven per cent in India, meant nothing as far as rural poverty is concerned. The UNF gave life to Sri Lanka’s peace process by initiating a ceasefire with Tamil rebels in February 2002 which has continued since then. It also launched a massive development initiative to rebuild the war-torn northeast and improve the impoverished south. Some comparisons are also being drawn between Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, strongly tipped to be India’s next Prime Minister. Both lost their husbands in political assassinations and now find themselves in an unenviable position of working with or supporting a peace process in which their husbands’ alleged killers have a role to play. Earlier this year, Kumaratunga joined hands with the People’s Liberation Front or JVP, a Marxist group widely believed to have killed her politician husband, Vijaya, in the late 1980s, to oust the UNF from power at last month’s polls. Gandhi, who lost her husband and former Prime Minister, Rajiv in a Tamil Tiger suicide attack in 1998, is expected to support peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels.

That however is as far as they would go. Dr Jehan Perera, media director at the National Peace Council, a peace-promoting NGO, feels that while the general policy towards the peace process is unlikely to change after a new government takes office, India is expected to be more supportive of the Sri Lankan government than when it adopted a hands-off attitude under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government. He said the LTTE was banking on the DMK and the BJP together clinching the polls.

However one won while the other lost. Perera believes India’s hawk-like policy towards Sri Lankan rebels will further harden with Gandhi’s animosity towards the Tigers strengthening the hand of anti-LTTE forces like India’s Civil Service and the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW). The Tigers are a banned organisation in India. Peace talks, suspended since April 2003, are due to be resumed shortly after a flurry of visits by Norwegian facilitators who met both the president and Prabhakaran to put the talks back on track. The Gandhi-led Congress victory also brings back dynastic rule in South Asia. Kumaratunga and her parents who have ruled Sri Lanka for many years are close friends of the Gandhi dynasty that governed India for many years. Samath, a freelancer, writes for THT from Colombo