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Saturday, October 04, 2014 - 15.00 GMT

India's week of dual drama

MODI grabs cheers and JAYALALITHAA sheds tears

By Lucien Rajakarunanayake


The land across the Palk Strait had more than one message to give to the world in the past week. These extended from Tamil Nadu to New York and Washington USA, and were of considerable interest to Sri Lanka. The shake up in the politics of Tamil Nadu, was of immediate interest over here, due to the personality involved, the former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram, standing out for her anti-Sri Lankan policies and politics, and thus becoming a major obstacle to good relations between Sri Lanka and India.

Her conviction to prison and a huge fine for corruption, by a court in Bangalore was a shocker, even when all the major media of India were busy focusing on the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the USA, which itself was of huge interest both to India and the world. The role that Jayalalithaa has played in seeking to influence Sri Lankan politics, since her election as Chief Minister for the current term, which has now been made defunct by her conviction and sentencing to prison, compels me to deal with that before the wider narration of the Modi visit to the USA.

The offence she was found guilty of, the illegal accumulation of wealth she had no claims or right to, reminded one of Imelda Marcos of the Philippines - judging by what she possessed at the time of conviction. Reports said she had 1,800lbs of silver, 62lbs of gold, 750 pairs of shoes and 10,500 saris, apart from the many millions of rupees that she had illegally possessed. She was sentenced to four years in prison and a fine of 1,000 million rupees.

Beats Bollywood

The story of Jayalalithaa's sentencing by Andrew Buncombe of The Independent (UK- September 30) was headlined: "The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn't produce". It said that among the assets inspected by the court were farmhouses and property in Chennai, the state capital, agricultural land, jewellery, industrial sheds, cash deposits and a fleet of luxury cars.

"After the conviction her supporters clashed with police and a number of people were wounded. Unproven reports claimed that some supporters had killed themselves.

"In the short term, the conviction of the politician ought to give a boost to her main regional rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which did poorly during the last general election. While Jayalalithaa's supporters sobbed in the streets after the decision in Bangalore - to where the case had been moved - members of the DMK set off firecrackers in celebration.

"There has been some speculation that the blow to the AIADMK could also be seized on the Bharatiya Janata Party, (BJP), the party of Mr. Modi. For many years, Tamil Nadu has been a stronghold for local politics and the so-called national parties have struggled to make headway on their own, pushing them into alliances with one of the two main regional players.

"The AIADMK remains dominant and despite the judgement meaning Jayalalithaa cannot take part in elections for six years, she could still play a key political role from behind bars. It is unlikely southern India has heard the last of Jayalalithaa."

Fishing for trouble

The Jayalalithaa sentencing had a final suicide count of 16, which is not strange for political reactions in Tamil Nadu and South India. It has certainly shaken the politics of this South Indian State, but the signs are that the Jayalalithaa policies will continue and be pushed even harder, to maintain the strength of the AIADMK, and prevent any threats from Narendra Modi and the BJP. Mr. Panneerselvam (63) who has taken over as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has already sent his first letter to Prime Minister Modi, asking New Delhi's intervention to release another batch of TN fishermen seized poaching in Sri Lankan waters by the Sri Lanka Navy.

For the record, 76 Indian fishermen who were in Sri Lankan custody were released on Sep. 30 on the direction of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The letter by the new Chief Minister of TN shows that the fishermen issue will continue to be peddled by the AIADMK and other Tamil political parties in TN that see political benefits in posturing as supporters of Tamil rights against Sri Lanka, while ignoring the plight of the Tamil fishermen of Sri Lanka who are most adversely affected by the poaching by TN fishermen in these waters.

It is an interesting footnote to this use of Tamil fishermen for political purposes by Jayalalithaa, her current successor and the AIADMK, that reports of the suicides following the sentencing of Jayalalithaa to prison did not include any Tamil fishermen.

The Modi Show

While the Jayalalithaa show was going on in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was involved in a different and much bigger show in the USA. The man who was once refused a visa to enter the US because of allegations of his involvement in or inaction to stop the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, that killed over 2002, when he was Chief Minister, had a show all of his own in New York and Washington.

He addressed the UN General Assembly in Hindi, making history there, and then had his own show at Madison Square Garden the multi-purpose indoor arena in Midtown Manhattan in New York City, known as a centre or popular entertainment, where Elvis Presley and boxer Muhammed Ali have performed. He held an audience of 18,000, comprising largely Indian Americans who had bought tickets for the event, with great promises for India's future, especially every Indian having a home by 2022. He did push the theme of "Toilets before Temples" to good effect, and displayed huge showmanship that has not been seen by any Indian leader before him.

The big showmanship, did not prevent many demonstrations against his presence in the US, especially by Sikhs, who were demanding action about the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and also those who were protesting about his role in the Gujarat anti-Muslim riots. But all this could not push aside the importance of his meeting with the American business community, that sought assurances of good investment opportunities in India, which he was glad to offer, and later the two meetings with President Barack Obama.

A new chapter

This was clearly the beginning of a new chapter in US - India relations, and had much importance to the entire world, raising significant questions about the new role India could play in international affairs, either being clearly aligned with the US in defense, maritime and regional affairs, or in promoting strong links with the US over investment and the possibility for free-market opportunities in India.

All of this raises major issues for South Asia, which was the immediate focus of Modi no sooner he was elected in his landslide victory. It has further significance with the official drawing out of the US forces from Afghanistan, the trends in the relationship between the US and Pakistan, and very importantly, the very nature of the relationship that India will have with China. The references to maritime freedom, underlines concerns that exist in the US about the role of China in the South China Sea, and concerns that India does have about the New Maritime Silk Route of Beijing, which has further emphasis with Modi's relationship with Japan and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The real highlight of the Obama-Modi meeting was the joint Op-Ed by them in The Washington Post of September 30, from which I will give this final paragraph.

"As global partners, we are committed to enhancing our homeland security by sharing intelligence, through counterterrorism and law-enforcement cooperation, while we jointly work to maintain freedom of navigation and lawful commerce across the seas. Our health collaboration will help us tackle the toughest of challenges, whether combating the spread of Ebola, researching cancer cures or conquering diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and dengue. And we intend to expand our recent tradition of working together to empower women, build capacity and improve food security in Afghanistan and Africa. The exploration of space will continue to fire our imaginations and challenge us to raise our ambitions. That we both have satellites orbiting Mars tells its own story. The promise of a better tomorrow is not solely for Indians and Americans: It also beckons us to move forward together for a better world. This is the central premise of our defining partnership for the 21st century. Forward, together we go - chalein saath saath."

As The Hindu commented editorially on October 02, "On all fronts of the 'comprehensive dialogue', that is, eight issues including energy, health, space, women's empowerment, trade, skills, strategy and security, Mr. Modi's visit successfully brought India-U.S. ties, that were faltering for a few years, back on track. But in order to reach the finish line, Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama will need a clearer enunciation of their shared vision for the road ahead."

And, the world will need to be watchful of the real purpose and consequences of this shared vision for the road ahead.





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Last modified: October 04, 2014.

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