By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Less than 72 hours after Gotabaya Rajapaksa took oaths as the seventh Executive President of Sri Lanka, an unannounced and uninvited visitor arrived in the country. Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar landed in Colombo as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s special envoy with an invitation for the Sri Lankan President to visit India. The visit is due to take place during November 29-30.
Jaishankar, while communicating Prime Minister Modi’s good wishes to Rajapaksa, also reportedly conveyed India’s expectations.
Indian External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar, during a regular press briefing, stated the following; “The External Affairs Minister conveyed to President Rajapaksa, Indian expectations of the Sri Lankan government taking forward the process of national reconciliation to arrive at a solution that meets the aspirations of the Tamil community for equality, justice, peace, and dignity. He went on to attribute the Sri Lankan President’s announcement of being the President to all Sri Lankans irrespective of their racial and religious identity and commitment to ensure the development of the Northern and Eastern Provinces to Modi’s communication.
An editorial comment in the much-respected Hindustan Times on the day of Jaishankar’s arrival in Colombo was equally bumptious. Commenting on the electoral result, it said, “His (Rajapaksa’s) return will mark not just the arrival of a new regime in Colombo, but also the shrinking of space for an inclusive Sri Lanka.” It further stated India having realized the fragile nature of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government had engaged with the Rajapaksas and assured of non-interference in the elections.
The editorial opined India had no choice but to do business with Gotabaya Rajapaksa and commended the Indian government for reaching out to the new President by dispatching Jaishankar to Colombo.
It then cautioned the Indian government of the need to draw clear red lines on two issues.
Firstly, India must recognize Sri Lanka’s right as a sovereign entity to engage with Beijing. However, Delhi should make it clear it reserves the right to exercise its leverage if Indian security interests were affected.
Secondly, the question of accommodating the Tamil minority. It stated, “The Rajapaksas must be told that a return to an exclusive ethnic State could potentially lead to a revival of the Tamil insurgency which will harm both countries.”
The editorial concluded, “Delhi must respect the political dispensation in Colombo but be firm when necessary.”
There is little difference in substance between the Indian Prime Minister’s message and content of the Hindustan Times editorial.
As President Rajapaksa embarks on his maiden official visit, it is hoped, strategies have been developed to meet the Indian demands. The Indians may even be inclined to demand its pound of flesh in return for non-interference in the Presidential election.
The Chinese issue may be the easier of the two to manage as President Rajapaksa with a small team could decide and manage China’s footprint in Sri Lanka, currently considered as considerable. The need to avoid any agreements detrimental to Indian security concerns is a given. But then comes the tricky questions of the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port, which has been leased to the Chinese for 99 years. The wisdom of President Rajapaksa’s public announcement of the 99 years lease being a mistake is questionable. Any attempt to renegotiate need be undertaken discreetly, bearing in mind, it is not only Indian sensibilities that need be reckoned with.
On the Tamil issue, whether we like it or not, India’s involvement spans over three decades and cannot be wished away. Therefore, they should be co-opted into the process. Sri Lanka must decide if the utterly useless Provincial Council system needs to be retained for the sake of one community. Or else, should it be replaced with another mechanism that will address the issue of power devolution to the satisfaction of all communities.
In case of opting to continue with Provincial Councils, the Colombo government must go all the way and implement the 13th Amendment in its entirety, including Police and Land powers. India has devolved Police and Land powers to its 29 states without any consequences to its sovereignty and national security. Sri Lanka would do well to study the Indian system. Considering the implementation of the Indian model is an option. India, for its part, cannot ask Sri Lanka to devolve more power to the periphery than those devolved to its own states. Meanwhile, India could use its influence to convince Tamil leaders to give up the demand for a merged North and East. India did advise the TNA to do so a few years ago, even though the issue is still on the table.
At the same time, it is necessary to impress upon India of the inadvisability of bringing to bear unbearable pressure on the Sri Lankan government. Compelling Sri Lanka to implement politically unacceptable measures will only result in strengthening extremists and weakening the Colombo government.
India’s own experience in Jammu and Kashmir managing a population opposed to the central government and its final solution is a case in point. After years of protests and the involvement of nearly half a million soldiers and paramilitary forces in maintaining law and order, on August 5, 2019, Delhi revoked the special status, or limited autonomy granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution to Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two federal territories in order to integrate it fully to India. It put paid to “the aspirations for equality, justice, peace and dignity” of the predominantly Muslim population in Kashmir. Nevertheless, Delhi insists Sri Lanka accord these very same terms to the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Hindustan Times editorial speaks of India “exercising its leverage” and of “drawing the red line.” If not already spelled out in Modi’s message, cloaked in diplomatic jargon, it will undoubtedly be communicated during the forthcoming summit.
“Drawing the red line” may be deciphered as exceeding Indian tolerance, especially on the two issues mentioned herein. “Exercising leverage” is another matter. In early 2015, the Yahapalana government took up the issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lanka’s northern territorial waters. Having promised to resolve the issue, Delhi has done nothing about it to date, and the Colombo government has fallen silent. That is India, “exercising its leverage.” Had the Sri Lankan navy fired upon the Indian fishing vessels, that would amount to “crossing the red line.” India does not respect the air, sea, or land borders of small nations.
In 1987, India exercised its leverage by invading Sri Lankan air space for an unsolicited airdrop of food to the north. Further, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was force-fed, and an invitation was surreptitiously orchestrated from the Head of State to send a Peace Keeping Force. The force left two and half years later, having failed to achieve its mission objectives.
Leverage may be applied in many forms. India and Sri Lanka signed a free trade agreement in 1998. Trade between the two countries exceeded USD 5 billion in 2018, with Sri Lankan exports to India amounting to USD 690 million and Imports from India almost USD 4.5 billion. The Indian footprint is present in Sri Lanka as prominently as that of China. In the event of Sri Lanka “crossing the red line,” Indian leverage does not require the involvement of its armed forces as in 1987. Trade embargos are the most common form of leverage applied by economically powerful countries to bring aid-dependent nations such as Sri Lanka to its knees.
President Rajapaksa has his work cut out in India. He must walk the tightrope of balancing the pragmatic need to appease India with the practical need to engage with China. He must bear in mind Chinese assistance and aid to Sri Lanka surpass that of India.
Benefitting from the Indian carrot while avoiding the Indian stick is the name of the game.