Suhasini Haidar

Knitting the India-Sri Lanka relationship closer

On his three-nation Indian ocean tour, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it clear he envisions a new maritime security architecture for India island neighbours, which will draw them into a closer ‘security net’, making the Indian ocean, “India’s ocean”. Amongst the countries of the IOR, Sri Lanka is the most significant in this, and in his departure statement, Mr. Modi said he looks forward to “forging a new partnership” with “one of our most important neighbours”, with major agreements and several development projects due to be inaugurated during the first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 28 years.

However, three separate interviews by Sri Lankan leaders, including one by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe in the run-up to the Prime Minister’s visit must give Indian foreign policy planners cause for worry, if not a re-look at how India is being seen by the country. Particularly, the question that arises is whether Mr. Modi’s “muscular policy” with India’s smaller neighbours is producing a pushback.

With Sri Lanka, the government has been clear about what it wants. On the Tamil issue, the PM met with TNA leaders in June, promising he would push for devolution and the implementation of the 13th amendment for them. Mr. Modi’s planned visit to Jaffna and Talaimannar, the first Indian PM to go there is an affirmation of India’s special concern for the Tamil-majority areas. Secondly, the government has been open about countering China’s influence, over construction of major projects, as well as the docking of China’s submarines in Colombo harbor, with NSA Ajit Doval issuing warnings to the Sri Lankan naval chief and former defence secretary over it.

Thirdly, despite the Prime Minister’s “good luck” wishes to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the SAARC summit in Kathmandu, Indian officials have been clear that his electoral defeat was to India’s advantage, and the four high level exchanges between Sri Lankan and Indian leaders — President Maithripala Sirisena, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in Delhi, Mr. Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in Colombo — within 90 days of the government’s formation are evidence of just how much India welcomes Mr. Rajapaksa's successors.

Statements by the new government, however, seem to indicate that the new government isn’t necessarily viewing India’s welcome the same way. In the first interview, which has now been debated in parliament, Mr. Wickremsinghe’s comments on Sri Lanka’s “right to shoot” Tamil Nadu fishermen like intruders, also accusing India of double standards on the Italian marines issue, have been widely commented on.

But Mr. Wickremsinghe said more. He accused Indian politicians of “amnesia” over helping former President Mr. Rajapaksa defeat the LTTE in 2009, and claimed that any “international genocide inquiry” as has been demanded by the Northern Provinces, must also inquire into killings by the Indian Peacekeeping Forces in the 1980s. Mr. Wickremsinghe, and the Indian opposition parties have been ably answered by Ms. Swaraj in parliament, who was herself in Colombo when the interview was broadcast, but Mr. Wickremsinghe’s wasn’t the only discordant voice out of the Sri Lankan capital this week.

The second interview came from Power and Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, who told The Hindu that India “must stop seeing Sri Lanka through the Tamil prism”, and instead see it “as a whole”, a startling statement. Given India’s interests in energy cooperation, and building power plants in Sri Lanka, the power minister’s statement that “India cannot tell Sri Lanka what its China policy should be”, is also significant. Mr. Ranawaka then complained about Indian commitments on project costs and deadlines not being kept.

The view was echoed by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake in an interview to the South China Morning post this week (the third interview of concern). “The Tatas come in and say they will put in $250 million, but they put in $20 million, use our land, and sell it back to us for a higher price. How does that work?” Mr. Karunanayake said, indicating that like Chinese projects okayed by the Rajapaksa regime, Indian projects too would be reviewed by his government.

It would be easy to dismiss all three interviews as symptoms of “political compulsions” of the UNP government, even as the country heads into parliamentary elections sometime this year. Analyst Dr. P. Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, told a gathering in New Delhi this week that given accusations from the opposition of the government being “too India-friendly”, it is necessary for the Sri Lankan government to make these statements. It would also be possible to speculate if the statements have less to do with India than with underlying tensions between the UNP led by Mr. Wickremsinghe and Mr. Sirisena’s SLFP (Also Mr. Rajapaksa’s party).

However, India would be dismissive of the comments at its own peril, as the history of India-Sri Lanka ties is replete with examples of minor strains in the understanding between their leaders quickly mushrooming into something much more serious.

Given that, Mr. Modi would do well to step lightly, as he criss-crosses the island during his two-day visit. His visits to Anuradhapura, Talaimannar and Jaffna are all novel ideas, but he may find a certain reservation over plans to distribute “India’s largesse” including handing over 20,000 homes to formerly displaced residents in the North. A similar plan to distribute 3,000 bicycles in Nepal along with a public rally in Janakpur had been dropped in November last year, after the opposition and members of the ruling party had protested.

Secondly, while India is correct in wanting to counter China’s strategic influence in its “backyard”, as it is integral to India’s own security, it would be unfair to deprive a smaller neighbour of China’s economic prowess. As a result, while Indian officials have noted with some satisfaction at the suspension of the $1.34 billion Colombo port project, they must remember that India had declined the offer for that project earlier, and is unlikely to be able to supplant China financially on that and other projects under review. Even so, Mr. Modi’s visit will hopefully make some announcements of investment, and also push along stalled negotiations over the CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement), which President Sirisena recently said would not be signed until it addressed concerns of Sri Lankan businesses.

On the Tamil question, Mr. Modi has already hit the right note, expressing India’s commitment to a full reconciliation process, while counseling TNA leaders who met with him in June last year to focus on their future “within Sri Lanka”, as opposed to the interests of Tamilians outside the country. The truth is, the India-Sri Lanka relationship historically comprises five different dialogues: between New Delhi and Colombo, but also Delhi-Jaffna, Delhi-Chennai, Colombo-Jaffna and Colombo-Chennai. The only way forward, from the vexed problem of fishing rights to the larger question of India’s strategic goals in the region is promote each of those dialogues and knit them together for a stronger comprehensive relationship.

Finally, with geography as well as its age-old cultural and ethnic ties to Sri Lanka, India cannot but be “first amongst equals” in terms of influence over its island neighbour. For that primacy to be kept, India must be seen as bipartisan, as a true friend of the people of Sri Lanka, rather than any one regime.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 2:22:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-suhasini-haidar/article6989225.ece

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