By Rajan Philips –
Sri Lankan political circles were surprised at the news that Mahinda Rajapaksa was invited to and did deliver the inaugural address, last Saturday, at the third annual ‘Huddle’, in Bengaluru, Karnataka, a ‘thought or ideas conclave’ organized by The Hindu Group, publishers of the prestigious Chennai daily, The Hindu, and other journals of note. To the government circles in Colombo, the surprise may have been rather unpleasant given the intended and unintended symbolism of their nemesis’s participation in a media event in India, in what is going to be a national election year for both India and Sri Lanka. It is the symbolism of the invitation and not the substance of the speech that would have given anxiety to UNP folks in Colombo, even as it has given quite a mouthful of starch for political chewing. As for Mr. Rajapaksa, the Bengaluru outing would have come as a pleasant reprieve after the political and constitutional setbacks he has had tbeen suffering at home since October last year thanks to the amateurish antics of Maithripala Sirisena and SB Dissanayake.
The former President spoke on “The Future of India-Sri Lanka ties,” and the inaugural session including the discussion following the speech was chaired by no less a person than N. Ram, the Chairman of the Hindu Group. Ram is a fascinating and a formidable persona on the Indian social, political and, most of all, media landscapes. A rare individual who has effortlessly floated between the powerful and hugely respected orthodoxy of the Kasthuri family fortunes in Chennai and the Marxist intellectual undercurrents of the Indian political Left, not to mention his wicket keeping for the Tamil Nadu State Cricket Team, Ram was editor and managing editor of The Hindu for many years until he was elevated upstairs in recent years as Chairman of the Group in a somewhat amicable resolution of family feuds over the control of editorship of the Group’s many publications. In Sri Lankan political circles, it is not unfair to say that Mr. Ram is now best known for his mutually-admiring friendship with Mahinda Rajapaksa. Their friendship might be a plausible reason for the invitation extended to Mahinda Rajapaksa and his attendance at the Huddle in Bengaluru.
The connection may seem curious in the light of Ram’s signature reputation in journalism as a methodically informed critic of government policy and a crusader against corruption at the highest levels. He made a mark as The Hindu’s Washington correspondent in the early 1980s exposing otherwise unknowable details of the agreements between the IMF and the Government of India. Years later, he gave editorial publicity to the background deals between a Swedish arms supplier and the Rajiv Gandhi government, in what came to be known as the Bofors scandal. Even now, although in virtual retirement, he has stepped in to give his imprimatur to the corruption allegations against the Modi government over the supply of Rafale aircraft from France. On the other hand, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family are the most embattled political figures over allegations of corruption in Sri Lanka’s modern history. So, the Ram-Rajapaksa connection might seem a little strange to Sri Lankans familiar with Indian political journalism and Sri Lankan political corruption.
In fairness, there is a lot more to the Huddle in Bengaluru than the Ram-Rajapaksa connection. The Huddle is the brainchild of Mukund Padmanabhan, the current Editor of The Hindu, and is intended as a by-invitation-only annual forum “for thinkers and leaders to interact with lively minds and engage with new ideas.” The event is organized around over a dozen sessions of “debate and discussion between heads of state, policy makers, academicians, artists, writers, business and thought leaders on topics of national, social, economic and cultural interest.” Hamid Karzai, former President of Afghanistan, delivered the keynote address in 2017. The 2018 Huddle featured an inaugural forum: “Exile: The challenges of leading from afar”, a “Conversation with N. Ram” of three exile invitees: Mohamed Nasheed, the deposed President of Maldives; Pakistani-American Writer Farahnaz Ispahani; and SC Chandrahasan, Sri Lankan Human Rights Activist living in India. In 2019, the featured foreign guest was Mahinda Rajapaksa.
With the Indian general elections scheduled for April-May 2019, the electoral prospects of the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress were naturally the lively topics of debate and discussion at The Huddle this year. The electoral prognostications were mostly around the extent to which the ruling BJP is going to lose voter support and seats in the Lok Sabha, and the extent to which the resurgent Congress will increase its tally of MPs in the Lok Sabha. Whether the differentials will be enough to effect a change in government is still an open question. But there is agreement that Modi and BJP are not going to repeat their sweeping success in the Hindi Belt and Cow Belt states as they did in 2014. They have already lost a number of state elections and whether Modi can re-enact his electoral magic is the subject of speculation. The rise of Rahul Gandhi, as a formidable contender in 2019, after his crushing defeat in 2014, is the real political story in the runup to the elections regardless of what the results might turnout to be.
It is the coincidence of the election year that has raised eyebrows and led to speculations about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presence at the Huddle in Bengaluru. He is not a retired Sri Lankan politician, but very much a contender for not only returning to power in Sri Lanka, but also creating a Rajapaksa dynasty in the island. The irony is that last year, the former President took his son to New Delhi to introduce him to Prime Minister Modi. He again took Namal Rajapaksa to Bengaluru where the buzz was all about Rahul Gandhi. The Hindu has always been a bulwark for secularism in India and has never been shy about denouncing the BJP and the Modi government for their Hindutva politics. As for the future of India-Sri Lanka ties, will it be any different if the Congress and the Rajapaksas return to power in their respective countries?
What Rajapaksa did not say
As for Mr. Rajapaksa’s inaugural speech itself, it was more interesting for what he actually did not say, or avoided saying, rather than what was said. Talking about the future of India-Sri Lanka ties, the former President did not utter a word about the famous or infamous Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Nor was there any word about the unlucky 13thAmendment, the tattered state of devolution in the country, or the dissolved status of a majority of the country’s Provincial Councils – all of them artificially inseminated children of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. I am not cavilling here because of the known lack of support for, or the indifference to, the project of devolution on the part of the Rajapaksas. But given this position and his presidential experience of Sri Lanka’s experiment with devolution, the former President could have laid bare an intellectually honest case on the pros and cons of the Indian intervention and Sri Lanka’s experience of its aftermaths. One cannot talk about the future of India-Sri Lanka ties without talking about what many among the Sinhalese honestly think is a pile of provincial mess that India has created in Sri Lanka.
On the contrary, Mr. Rajapaksa chose to be critical of two periods of trouble in the relationship between the two countries after independence. One was the 1980s which extended over a period of several eventful years, and the other was 2014 which did not last more than a few months and was relatively unremarkable. We do not have to rely on Mahinda Rajapaksa to learn about what happened in the 1980s, but 2014 was his last year in power and the first year of Modi’s government in India and Mr. Rajapaksa chose to project what happened between them as a lesson in history. His central complaint was that until the change of government in India in 2014, the India-Sri Lanka ties were in good shape and there was a good understanding between the Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka and the then Congress government in India.
The key to this good relationship was the mechanism of the ‘Troika’, which the former President touted as a model for future relationships between the two countries. There were in fact two Troikas. The one in Sri Lanka included brothers Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. The three on the Indian side were all career officials: the National Security Advisor, Foreign Secretary, and the Defence Secretary, who at that time were, respectively, MK Narayanan, Shankar Menon and Vijay Singh. President Rajapaksa’s contention now is that after Modi became Prime Minister, the relationship turned sour because Delhi somehow gave up on the Troika mechanism.
The truth of the matter is that in 2014, the Rajapaksas were becoming intransigent over the implementation of the 13thAmendment and the Manmohan Singh government in last days was getting to be ineffectual on all fronts. When Narendra won his resounding victory, the Rajapaksas were initially delighted thinking that they may fare better with an energetic Hindutva Prime Minister than in dealing with an ineffectual Congress leader. Their hopes were raised higher when Mahinda Rajapaksa was invited to the inauguration of the Modi government in Delhi. After the ceremonies, however, Modi obviously briefed by his officials, reset the clock to 13A. That was the end of the honeymoon.
More importantly, the Rajapaksa government did not last much longer in Sri Lanka after Modi became India’s Prime Minister. So, there is no real historical lesson to learn from the Modi-Rajapaksa relationship that lasted only about six months. As to what Sri Lanka might do with its messed up Provincial Council system is now a matter for Sri Lankan political leaders and political parties to figure out. India can or has very little to do with it, and that is the way it should be no matter who is in power in Colombo or in New Delhi,