By Kumar David –
Indo-Lanka relations were in the doldrums all through the MR years; they have never been worse, not even during the JR period. The factor that bedevilled the relationship in both periods was the Tamil question; furthermore one other issue each gave rise to disquiet during each of these two ‘regencies’. During the first term of JR’s presidency, Lanka’s foreign policy swung alarmingly in a pro-US direction at a time when Indira Gandhi’s Delhi was aligned with Moscow. More recently, MR light-fingered with Chinese project funds, treated Lanka was a grotto of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves legerdemain. The former story is well known; the foreign policy implication of the latter is central to this essay. But I will devote a few paragraphs to a relevant background summary first.
The State in Sri Lanka from the mid-1970s onwards, a phase that may now be drawing to a close, was a Sinhala-Buddhist State. I do not use this as an epithet of denigration but as a theoretical definition. The Constitution, the composition of governments and cabinets, the mono ethnic military and politically servile police, the public service, the corporate sector, polarisation of social life and education, everything was dichotomous, ethnically divisive and oppositional. Demographics then ensured that the Sinhalese political elite took control of polity. Obviously in such circumstances the state transformed into an instrument of that community and the Tamils were alienated. In three sentences, if it is possible, this is what I have in mind when I speak of a Sinhala-Buddhist State.
The Tamil response was protest, civil disobedience, armed rebellion and eventually civil war after the 1983 pogrom. The deepest consciousness of Sinhala revanchism in Lanka has been “this is the land of the Sinhala-Buddhists; the Tamils are only tolerated”; Muslims too are now enemies. The Tamil psyche in the initial post-independence period was suspicion and cliquishness, in the civil war it fermented into secessionism, terrorism (in the beginning in response to state terrorism) and in the diaspora fratricidal struggle was marinated with rank communalism. In such circumstances inevitably India, with its massive Tamil community in the South, would be dragged in. Sovereignty is bollocks; the Ukraine-Russia tangle and Indian involvement in arming Tamil militants and the Indo-Lanka Accord prove it. When chaos in a country boils it pours over into the outer world. Lanka is squarely to blame for the overflow into India.
This piece is about resetting Indo-Lanka relations; what needs to be renewed and reset is the relationship between Delhi and the Sinhalese people. An indispensable precondition is sorting out the Tamil issue, but simultaneously Delhi’s new thrust should be mending its relationship with the Sinhalese. This is core to resetting Indo-Lanka relations. Sinhalese fears going back two millennia will not disappear, not even in my grandchildren’s lifetime, but since subliminal Sinhalese fear of local Tamils is that they will be a conduit for Indian power, rapprochement between India and the Sinhalese will defuse anti-Tamil sentiment at home benefiting local Tamils.
Regional balances of power
Sibling rivalry is well known, conflict festers within families. For eighty-thousand of the last one-hundred thousand years the island and the subcontinent have been connected by a land bridge; humans strolled from one place to the other. The people of Lanka are but a variation on a sub-continental theme; research has established that “Jaffna Tamils” are genetically closer to the Sinhalese than to South Indian Tamils. Our languages and scripts are versions of Indian counterparts, our culture and traditions closely allied. Mrs Bandaranaike summed it with sensitivity when in troubled times she wrote to Mrs Gandhi of the closeness of our peoples and made touching reference to Gautama Siddhartha: “Your greatest son is the sun that shines in our land”. That sums it up, there is no escaping proximity; in fair weather and foul an ample nexus binds Lanka to the subcontinent.
However Indo-Lanka relations float on a sea of multilateral waves. The four significant theatres, in priority, are India, the West that is Britain and the US, China and the Islamic oil-states; the rest can be lumped into an “also” category. I need say no more about Indian pole-position except to add that the subcontinent is our largest import provider, mainly food, and that a million Upcountry Tamils form another strong bond. The Islamic oil-sates need an article on their own. A return to genuine all round non-alignment is what Lanka needs after the rootless drifting of the Jayewardene and Rajapaksa years; the Lankan bourgeoisie needs the resources and the markets of the West.
The West is not only an export market (over 50% of Lanka’s exports land in Europe and the US), nor only a source of investment capital and tourists. Something else is also vital; culture, education and language. Colonialism has left a legacy in the island no less strong than in India; English is the link language and medium of elite and business communication. Overseas education and professional migration aim exclusively at the West. Lankan doctors do not brawl for Chinese ‘green-cards’, nor engineers line up outside the Russian Embassy for postings. Rabid Sinhala nationalists and old Maoist parents ask me to introduce their children to Anglophile colleges; never Beijing or Moscow! Lanka’s ethos and head are firmly cemented in Anglophile directions.
China is a mighty rising power with deep pockets, it is on the way to becoming the world’s largest economy with an unquenchable thirst for minerals and raw materials, Premier Li’s downsizing of the growth rate to 7% notwithstanding. It has poured money into infrastructure in Lanka; much of it wasteful. The Mattala Airport in the wilds of Rajapaksa’s habitat is a monument to insanity. Located in the middle of nowhere it does not attract plane or passenger for days. Immigration, customs and technical personnel do what – play football in dirt fields and watch cricket on TV? Another example is the Hambantota port where no ship calls except if forced by government. To these Chinese funded mega projects add the now stalled $1.5 billion Colombo Harbour City.
China has also funded highways, road developments, a lotus shaped concert hall, a useless obelisk and a thermal power-station. Not everything is midsummer madness. The power-station is essential but an itinerary of breakdowns is worrisome. Highway building and road development was much needed but looting has been on a royal scale. An anti-corruption group examined the Chinese funded Southern and Katunayake highways and published an exposé saying they cost 5 to 7 times what they should. How can money evaporate on such a gigantic scale; these are not million but billion rupee projects? The first fat slice is probably pocketed by the Chinese developer at source; a fatter slice no doubt flowed into overseas accounts of the highest echelons of the regime bypassing local banks. All the way down the supply chain, materials, equipment, labour suppliers, contractors were all ruling party cronies whose mark up was robbery. Lanka is unfamiliar with grand larceny on this scale.
What has all this lamentation got to do with foreign policy? Aye that’s the point; corrupt leaders wielding unchecked power can enjoy a mega-scale relationship with China as they can do with no other loan provider. Control is lax and corruption at high financial and project levels widespread; crooked leaders in recipient countries can make deals with Chinese sources that are unthinkable with Western or multilateral sources like the IMF, World Bank or ADB. This twist transforms pedestrian corruption into foreign policy. And mind you it is not China that is being robbed; Lanka is being looted. Why?
Most project financing is in loans that have to be repaid, not grants. Lanka’s next generation as to bear the repayment and interest charges on looted funds; nor are they low-interest loans, the rates are commercial. The total project financing debt Lanka has incurred with China, leaving aside Colombo Harbour City (CHC), is probably a billion dollars. CHC too is now unravelling as another gigantic scam but agreements have been signed and sealed and it is difficult for Lanka to renege; it is a topic deserving treatment on its own and beyond the scope of this piece.
In summary the point is that the pro-China tilt in foreign policy in the Rajapaksa era was not motivated by rational investment needs (some projects certainly were desirable) nor by Chinese strategic military objectives. No; in the mind of the regime the key was graft. [I do not believe China has an eye on naval or military pads in Sri Lanka; that is undoable and the Indo-American backlash will be relentless. The Chinese, wisely, do not want an Indian Ocean spat].
The sine qua non
Premier Modi’s visit to Lanka and President Sirisena’s to India signal reengagement. An important background item is the Lankan government’s anti-corruption drive. Still half-hearted and under intense public criticism for failing to produce results, it has shone sufficient light on big time larceny in mega projects including Chinese financed ones. This engenders a favourable atmosphere for rebuilding Indo-Lanka relations.
This scenario, and better relations with the Tamils, is a not to be missed opportunity for Delhi and Colombo. So far Modi, Sirisena and Ranil have shown good sense and adopted a gradualist approach. They recognise that damage must be reversed but the devil is in the details. There will be slips between cup and lip; the fishermen’s tussle in the Palk Strait is a livelihood issue that has to be managed. Unfortunately Premier Modi and Northern Province Chief Minister Wigneswaran struck discordant notes regarding the 13-th Amendment. In an unrelated development Lankan Prime Minister called Wigneswaran a liar on Indian TV! These histrionics aside the sine qua non for good relations between India and Lanka is keeping MR out of power; if that fly gets in the ointment it will poison the whole recipe.