By Mahinda Pathirana –
The timing of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent visit to India on an invitation by ruling BJP politician and Modi confidante Dr Subramanium Swamy would have taken many interested parties both here and overseas by surprise. Mr Rajapaksa had never been depicted a darling of South Asia’s emerging super power. At least since the year 2009, Indians had always painted him with a Chinese Dragon in the background. India’s perception of Rajapaksa as one of China’s allies, along with Pakistan in the South Asian region perhaps, allegedly went as far as helping Sri Lanka’s then opposition unseat Mahinda Rajapaksa from power in 2015. In the eve of his defeat to Maithripala Sirisena, the so called common candidate, Mr Rajapaksa himself subscribed to this school of thinking and publicly accused India’s intelligence arm, RAW of conspiring against him. India’s main concern was China’s booming investment in the strategically important infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. Hambantota port project of 1.6 Billion USD was one of the focal points. Despite former government’s repeated assurances to its historical neighbour on the Hambantota port project as a commercial investment, all went unheeded. Political opponents of Rajapaksas back here fuelled the widely held international perceptions, by recklessly demonising Chinese investment as an attempt to colonize Sri Lanka by China. (Interesting that only last week that PM Ranil Wickremesinghe rejected his own almost five year long unfounded charge of Chinese Debt Trap narrative during a tour of Vietnam and China had welcomed this). To worsen the already raging fire of Mahinda bringing in China’s military might to the doorstep of India, the news of two Chinese submarines docking at Colombo port went viral within the diplomatic circles. Parties with vested interests, who were hell-bent on using ‘’Chinese colonization of Sri Lanka” as an excuse to wage war against Mr Rajapaksa proved correct! Rest is history.
More than three years on, it seems now that all those who took part in the defeat of Rajapaksas find themselves in a sort of self-realization. Locally, people sealed their utter displeasure with the ruling coalition in the February 10th local government elections. The newly created Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), actively supported by former President defeated in no uncertain terms by now fragmented so called Yahapalana crusaders all put together wining over 70% of local government Bodies Island wide.
Has the disillusionment with the No-Action-Talk-Only (NATO, as some social media activists redefined the acronym) government reached offshore by now? On the 11th of this month, Mr Rajapaksa visited India to take part in a seminar organized by a movement called Virat Hindustan Sangam. This organization is headed by Dr Subramanium Swamy of Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP). But, from the very outset that the news of former President attending the conference coming to light, it was more than what is publicly said and scheduled. There were speculations in many quarters over why Mahinda, once branded as anti-Indian and China friendly, was hand-picked to deliver a lecture on a theme titled “India-Relations relations; the way forward”. Couldn’t they find somebody else from the ruling coalition to talk on this topic back in Sri Lanka?
Dr Swamy was a friend of Sri Lanka and, indeed a friend of Mr Mahinda in particular no doubt. Hailing from none other than India’s Tamil Nadu state, the nerve centre of ethnic Tamil politics, Dr Swamy has visited the country many times and registered his open disgust with the LTTE those days. But, this line of this reasoning, i.e. Dr Swamy’s friendship and his loyalty to this country, cannot adequately explain what unfolded during Mahinda’s visit. As mentioned above, Mahinda had spoken on “India-Relations relations; the way forward” in this seminar. Isn’t the topic itself interesting?
Just being a former president and a Member of Parliament here in Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa was treated like a head of state during this tour. First, he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his official residence. The photos of the encounter, flashed on social media carried a clear narrative. Both Mr Modi and former leader of Sri Lanka seemed to have found themselves very comfortable in each other’s company. It appeared that Mr Modi had something important to share with Mr Rajapaksa. This writer is reliably aware of the fact that Mr Modi requested Mahinda Rajapaksa not to go for early presidential polls back in 2014. Just months into power, Mr Modi had wanted to take stock of the situation and then decide. Had he already sensed a conspiracy to overthrow the war-winning, abled leader of the tiny, yet important nation? Mr Rajapaksa did not heed Mr Modi’s advice. Unwilling to backtrack on his own words, he decided to proceed as planned. There were valid reasons to do so. On the one hand, he wanted to show his people’s mandate of approval to western world and ease the pressure on a country, just coming out of a 30 year long bloody war and, on the other hand, complete what he started in terms of development with a fresh mandate and take the nation beyond the height that nobody will ever bring it down again.
History is that unheeding Modi’s friendly advice to Mahinda was costly. Yet, even after the defeat of Mr Rajapaksa, it seemed that Mr Modi did not entirely drop the idea of resurrecting the brave man who took immense pain and pressure to eradicate brutal terrorism that threatened not only the integrity of Sri Lanka, but also that of India and the region. He had since chosen to keep in touch with him. It is well-known that, during Mr Modi’s recent visit to Sri Lanka, he insisted on meeting Mr Mahinda in private. He did so.
Having said that let me broaden the horizon by bringing in other pictures of Mahinda’s India tour. Keep aside Mr Narendra Modi meeting MR, why did, all of the sudden, leaders of India’s main opposition party choose to meet former leader of Sri Lanka. Among the high profile delegation that cordially shook hand with Mr Rajapaksha were Rahul Gandhi, the leader of Congress, Dr Manmohan Singh, former prime minister and congress strongman and other party stalemate. They know Mahinda very well. During the war against terror, they worked very closely in a mechanism called Troika headed by Mr Basil Rajapaksa on the part of Sri Lanka. It was thanks to this unprecedented diplomatic formula that Sri Lanka did not experience a second round of air-drop of Parippu (Dhal) from Indian planes. Anyway, had the congress leaders not renewed their interest in Mahinda, they could easily have avoided the former Sri Lankan leader. Body language of the congress leaders was also very positive in these encounters.
Most important thing that we can discern out of these two meetings is that Indian leaders from across the political divide put their party differences aside for a short of time and took interest in the common goal of meeting Mahinda.
Most viable explanation to India’s renewed enthusiasm in Mahinda could potentially be traced back to the fact that India learned the second lesson by allegedly having a hand in taking Rajapaksa administration down. Lesson number one was nurturing Tamil separatist groups in Sri Lanka in 80s and facing the humiliation at the hand of the same terror groups by getting one of their own leaders killed. India’s motive to help unseat Mahinda from power was to fight back Chinese influence in Sri Lanka and ‘regain’ the control of the ‘lost’ neighbour. They might have expected a turnaround in relations from the Sirisena-Wickramesinghe government. One of the major concerns of India was the Chinese funding the Hambantota port. In reality, there was nothing for India to worry about. It was fully under government control and the loan was being paid without any issue. There was no any possibility of the strategically important port going to China or the same being used as military asset. Nor China demanded anything of that sort. But, with the new government coming into power, nothing of the sort materialized on the ground. What followed was indeed deterioration in the situation. Let alone Sirisena-Wickramesinghe address India’s China concern in Sri Lanka, they decided to give whole sale the sensitive port to China on a 99-year long lease agreement. Another controversial investment was Chinese reclaiming a port city in Colombo. India opposed this too. They might have expected the current regime to stop that as well. Irony is that Sirisena-Wickramesinghe government changed the port city deal after a temporary halt to the project and gave China even a bigger amount of the reclaimed land.
Above all, most important lesson that India learned this time was igniting a renewal of formerly held mistrust of people of Sri Lanka with India. By helping Mahinda administration defeat terror, India was slowly regaining people’s recognition and appreciation. But, the alleged complicity in bringing current regime to power, they lost it again and anti-Indian sentiment went high among the majority Sinhalese. This is very damaging for India in the long run.
All this and current regime’s growing unpopularity among the all sections of the society across party and ethnic divides might definitely have forced India a fresh thinking on Sri Lanka. Looking back at their past own mistakes vis-a-vis Sri Lanka and drafting a new way forward might be in the making. Inviting Mahinda Rajapaksha to India and treating him similar to a head of state and a friend of India might be first step in this new direction. Let me conclude this piece by paraphrasing one of Mahinda’s replies to an Indian journalist who asked him whether he has changed since his defeat: No. I am same Mahinda. You have changed. I always stood by interests of my country. Analogically, it is similar to Buddha asking Angulimala to stop while the former has already stopped and Angulimala, being unaware of this, asking Buddha to stop. Self-realization for some takes time. India is no exception.
*Mahinda Pathirana, Senior Lecturer, Sabaragamuwa University