Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision, after his election, to make India as the destination of his first foreign visit, possibly reflects his personal inclination towards India as a natural choice of a long-term ally. However, it is important that it should not be viewed as an indication of Sri Lanka’s desire to place all its eggs in the Indian basket, or even as a willingness to cold shoulder China. India must hence avoid the temptation to flash the ‘V Sign’, before the race has begun, for considerable ground still remains to be covered.
A great deal has, however, taken place in Sri Lanka in recent weeks that provides India reason for satisfaction. The “peaceful transfer” of power in Sri Lanka and the absence of any serious violence in its wake, is one. The eclipsing of President Mahinda Rajapaksa who, while distancing himself from India was perceived to be aggressively courting China, is another. Further, the coalition that has come to power has many leaders, especially Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga, who are old friends of India. The scene is thus set for an improvement in India-Sri Lanka ties.
The India visit Nevertheless, a lot of homework needs to be done before Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks on his Sri Lanka visit. The objective should not be — as media headlines would have it — of “pre-empting” China, but on trying to and building an enduring relationship, which, given the close affinities that do exist between India and Sri Lanka, should have been the natural order of things. Yet, the two nations find themselves separated by much more than the Palk Strait.
Mr. Sirisena referred to his India visit as a “remarkable milestone”. But, India and Sri Lanka signed only three agreements viz. , on agricultural cooperation, on cultural cooperation, and a Memorandum of Understanding on Nalanda University, none of which can be regarded as significant. They did conclude a civil nuclear cooperation agreement which amounts to a “demonstration of mutual trust”, but has nothing strategic about it. It only facilitates cooperation in the transfer and exchange of nuclear knowledge and expertise.
As this was Mr. Sirisena’s first visit, the more critical issues were either not discussed or possibly not gone into in any detail. However, India and Sri Lanka cannot afford to delay for much longer discussing major issues like the devolution of power to the Tamils in the North, nor can they be avoided during Mr. Modi’s Colombo visit. In fact, they have assumed an air of urgency as Mr. Wickremesinghe has observed that he would like to go in for parliamentary elections soon. Voting patterns in the recently concluded presidential elections demonstrate the critical importance of the minority (Tamil and Muslim) vote, and the coalition of the New Democratic Front of Sirisena and the United National Party of Wickremesinghe need them to outvote the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
Critical issues A viable solution to the devolution issue is, however, unlikely without a major initiative coming from the Indian side. Mr. Modi’s team of advisers will have to do a great deal of brainstorming to come up with a solution that at one level, can meet the aspirations of the Tamils, and at another, ensure that the coalition’s standing with the Sinhala Buddhist majority is not seriously undermined. As the architects of the 13th Amendment — and the devolution idea deriving from the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987 — the Lankan Tamils will look to India to ensure justice for their cause. Indian Tamils also expect nothing less, and this will have implications for India’s internal politics.
There are other thorny issues such as “accountability”, “demilitarization” and growing “communalization” of both the Sri Lankan polity and the Army — as also the pending UNHRC resolution — that will need some kind of settlement. Each in their own way impacts India-Sri Lanka relations to an extent.
Buddhist factor Mr. Modi would do well to be also properly advised about certain other aspects that could make a difference from the point of view of the visit’s success. For instance, one of Mr. Sirisena’s alliance partners is the pro-extremist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) whose track record has been one of total opposition to India. Another component is the rabidly Buddhist, Jathika Hela Urumaya, which has turned increasingly militant of late — with regard to its protestations as also its attitude towards non-Buddhist elements in the country, especially Muslims and Tamils. How to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of Sri Lanka’s internal politics will have to be worked out.
“ Irrespective of the party in power in Colombo, underestimating the strength of feelings towards the Buddhist majority — and the extent to which a government in Colombo can make concessions — would be an error. ”
An understanding of the Sinhala Buddhist mindset might help. The Sinhala Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka, it is often said, suffers from a “minority complex,” creating many imponderables as a result. The two JVP “insurgencies” (in 1971 and 1987-89) well reflect this. During the LTTE’s heyday, its targets included Buddhist followers; several Buddhist places of worship were also damaged or destroyed. This has left behind a legacy of distrust and insecurity, which translates into violent opposition whenever the demand for the devolution of powers to the Tamils comes up.
Irrespective of the party in power in Colombo, underestimating the strength of such feelings — and the extent to which a government in Colombo can make concessions — would be an error. Given that the vote difference in the presidential elections was hardly 4 per cent — and that Mr. Rajapaksa outpolled Mr. Sirisena in a majority of districts across the state (other than in the Tamil and minority belts) — it may not be easy for the coalition to make the kind of concessions required for pushing through the 13th Amendment. As it is, Mr. Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance has a clear majority in the 225-member Sri Lankan Parliament.
China angle If Mr. Modi was successful during his visits to Bhutan and Nepal, it was because he showed a subtle grasp of the importance of gestures and interpersonal equations. He would do well to do the same during his maiden visit to Colombo. Positioning India as a counter point to China could follow later, given the existing ground realities, such as Sri Lanka’s “debt trap.” Sri Lanka owes China substantial amounts on account of Chinese aid and assistance for its developmental projects, including the Hambantota and Colombo ports. Mr. Modi knows better than anyone that the largesse of India’s lines of credit simply cannot match that of China’s. Nor for the matter, does our track record of completion of projects compare with that of China.
There are reports that Mr. Sirisena has assured China that his government is willing to implement the consensus reached during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s State visit to Sri Lanka last September. The President, reportedly, has also underlined the enduring nature of the friendly ties with China, dating back centuries. Hence, scrapping any of the ongoing projects funded by China may not be on the anvil. It would be better to be cautious and see how far the new Sri Lankan government readjusts its priorities, including its ties with China, before taking any major steps.
The realities of Sri Lankan politics also make it easier for Sri Lanka to have a satisfactory relationship with China. There is also the recent “history” of China’s help to Sri Lanka, dating back to the 1952 “rice for rubber deal,” apart from several other instances.
If Sri Lanka can be persuaded during Mr. Modi’s visit to Colombo to step back from becoming an enthusiastic supporter of China’s Maritime Silk Road Project, this in itself would be a matter of great geostrategic significance. The Maritime Silk Road Project — employing an ancient Chinese metaphor — masks Mr. Xi’s ambitions to establish a dominant Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific, including building a network of port cities to straddle the Indian Ocean. Location wise, Sri Lanka will have a crucial role, and if it can be detached from becoming involved, this would amount to a significant diplomatic and strategic victory. However, India will be required to demonstrate greater chutzpah, if countries in the region are to heed India’s diktats. Its record in the Maldives in recent years, and again most recently in the case of the former Maldivian President Nasheed’s arrest, does not inspire much confidence about India’s determination.
(M.K. Narayanan is former National Security Advisor and former Governor of West Bengal.)