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Sri Lanka's Military Campaign Becomes Election Issue for Southern India


In India, the southern Tamil Nadu state votes Wednesday, when the country holds the last phase of its staggered general elections. The plight of ethnic Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone in Sri Lanka has become an emotional election issue in Tamil Nadu.

When voters in Tamil Nadu queue up at polling booths Wednesday, India's Congress-led government will be watching anxiously to see if the Sri Lanka's military campaign to crush the Tamil Tigers has hurt it, politically, in this southern state.

Strong cultural links


Tamil Nadu is separated from Sri Lanka by a narrow strip of water - the Palk Straits. Indian Tamils have deep ethnic and cultural links to Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The two major regional political parties in Tamil Nadu have turned the plight of tens of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians who are caught in the fighting in northern Sri Lanka into a central election issue.

Voting in Tamil Nadu takes place at a particularly sensitive time, when reports of hundreds of Tamil civilians being killed in Sri Lanka are making headlines.

Peace effort lacks energy

The Tamil parties, including a key ally of the Congress Party - the Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam - have blamed the federal government for not doing enough to persuade the Sri Lankan government to agree to a ceasefire with the rebels. Tamil political leaders have held rallies and organized strikes to impress voters of their commitment to protect the interests of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The Congress-led government also has been treading a fine line, so that it does not anger Tamil voters. It has sent envoys to Sri Lanka asking the government to protect civilians. After hesitating for some time, it has backed the demand for a truce in Sri Lanka with the rebels, also known as the LTTE.

B.G. Verghese is a political analyst at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

"The Indian government partly, in response to Tamil sentiment here, and partly from the point of view of saying that look, apart from the LTTE, there is a large Tamil population, civil as well as political, which has to be brought into the peace process," he said. "They should not be alienated, therefore the Sri Lanka government should take extraordinary care to see that it does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. They should win the war, but you have to win the peace too."

Election expected to be tight

The Congress-led government does not oppose the Sri Lankan government's campaign to crush the Tamil Tigers. Although many Indian Tamils initially supported the rebel campaign for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka, this support evaporated when a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. His widow, Sonia Gandhi, now leads the Congress Party.

Political analysts say, once elections are over, New Delhi is unlikely to pressure Colombo to scale back its military offensive or call for a truce.

With the electoral race expected to be tight, Tamil Nadu is considered a swing state, and could play a key role in deciding the shape of the next Indian government. In the last election, the state bolstered the position of the Congress party, which won 10 seats, while its ally bagged 16 seats. The state sends 39 lawmakers to the 543-member parliament.

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