Tamil Nadu’s mood is more hostile to Sri Lanka than it is not; it is more influential in Indian politics than it has been since the years of MGR; it is and will always be next door. While the memories of the 1980s that this evokes in the collective psyche of the Sinhalese may prove a phobia, it is not a risk that responsible Sri Lankans can take, especially when those memories are reinforced by the historical memories (primordial or constructed) of millennia.
Sri Lanka is strategically vulnerable to neighbouring hostility driven by sub-regional sentiments. As an island and a relatively small one (unlike say, Cuba), our sources of supply and re-supply are vulnerable to blockade (even Cuba experienced an effective naval blockade in 1962), while our security assets in our ‘cone’ or ‘funnel’ shaped border zone (and conceivably elsewhere) are vulnerable to a conventional first strike. That ‘cone’ can be detached by off-shore force projection which does not divert into and dissipate in a Southern quagmire, and following a plebiscite as in Kosovo and South Sudan, can formally exit the Sri Lankan state formation. This is surely one of the scenarios of the global Tamil secessionist networks.
Policy and strategic planning must always take worst case scenarios onto account. What options do we have to forestall or resist such a scenario? There is no Israeli model of just saying ‘no’ and hanging tough in “a rough neighbourhood”, while ‘creating facts on the ground’ in the border areas you hold --simply because Israel has a military (and nuclear) edge over its entire neighbourhood, and enjoys a virtually open-ended strategic, social, psychological and religio-cultural relationship with the world’s sole superpower. That makes Israel sui generis.
Power balancing has its utility and also its limits as an option for Sri Lanka, because its main ally China, is just too far away, hasn’t developed sufficient force projection capability and has no overland route linking it to Sri Lanka (unlike in the case of China-Pakistan).
While one can and must engage in developing deterrent strategies of asymmetric resistance, and power balancing has its role, i.e. neither option can be dispensed with, Sri Lanka cannot depend upon either of these or a combination of just the two, given the realities of geography and therefore of geopolitics. The latter realities also impose limits on the option of ‘changing (demographic) facts on the ground’.
Sri Lanka’s options then are political, social, psychological and diplomatic, and entail power balancing of sorts-- not one country against another, but within countries and societies.
A scrutiny of the Indian media after the Geneva vote reveal that there are many voices, representing diverse strata and sectors, which are opposed to the vote against us. It is this side of India’s calculus that Sri Lanka must strengthen and emphasise. If these sectors and their arguments are reinforced, then they can counterbalance the pressure from their South. Furthermore, if we can reinforce moderate opinion in Tamil Nadu, it can counterbalance militant opinion against us.
This can be achieved only if a similar demarcation and situation of balance can be effected within Tamil opinion in Sri Lanka, which can have ripple effects on the neighbour and the Diaspora. This means strengthening the Tamil moderates and weakening the Tamil ultra nationalists. This cannot be achieved by militancy and radical nationalism from the Sinhala polity, but precisely by greater moderation. When faced with a parliamentary democratic competitor or rival, moderation begets moderation; extremism breeds extremism.
Progress on genuine equality of citizenship and the elimination of all forms of discrimination, as well as on power sharing at centre and periphery, will strengthen the Tamil moderates, and weaken the arguments of Tamil ultranationalist secessionists. Giving the Tamil politicians a stake in the Sri Lankan state can, on balance, help in the de-radicalisation of Tamil politics, with positive spinoffs in Tamil Nadu. If relieved of the pressure from Tamil Nadu, Delhi will feel less inclined or compelled to pressure Colombo.
While our security forces must remain stationed so as to safeguard our sensitive border zone (though minimising their own potential vulnerability to greater force), the larger Sri Lankan polity and society must be reformed and renovated so as to exert a benign gravitational pull on the Tamil North; a pull of integration that eventually proves stronger than the push towards Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora, and their pull on our island’s North.
With at least one influential TNA politician calling, post-Geneva, for ‘third party mediation’, that slogan can be most effectively resisted not by truculent assertion to the contrary – which cannot forestall anyone nominating a ‘special envoy’ and making us an offer we cannot refuse as in the 1980s. The way to defuse the idea of ‘third party mediation’ is to make it manifest and irrefutable in practice that such an external role is superfluous because political dialogue among democratic players, to resolve ethno-regional issues within our Constitutional order, is proceeding apace.