By Malinda Seneviratne –
The proposed Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement between Sri Lanka and India has earned an amusing but appropriate tag in Sinhala, based on the acronym ETCA and how it is pronounced (‘Ikka Givisuma’ or the ‘Hiccup Agreement’).
Ikka has generated some interesting debates. Those who oppose do so on a variety of ground, ‘national interest’ among them. Some of those who support it object to the objectors on account of their nationalism or else for ‘standing with nationalists’. ‘Free trade is oblivious to national boundaries!’ the advocates scream. Maybe in a parallel universe, perhaps in a different century, but right now, as has been the case, capital has always cohabited (happily too!) with identity, whether in the form of a nation, a city, a skin-color or family. But right now, the issue is overlaid with the political to the extent that the economic element gets hardly any play and that has little to do with the identity and purpose of the objectors.
An Indo-Lanka agreement on things economic has been in the pipeline for a long time. In fact it can be argued that the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 was as much about Indian’s economic interest as about her political prerogatives (yes, it had nothing about Sri Lanka’s interest).
The previous government backed off and Mahinda Rajapaksa, following representations by the business community especially the ‘local’ big boys, said he wouldn’t sign any agreement until and unless all relevant sectors approved the document. But then again, he was a shrewd politician who knew that Indians don’t have votes in Sri Lanka and secondly, was a man for whom elections and power meant more than vague ‘promised lands’ described in economic plans.
The present Government, in contrast, appears to be in an insane and even indecent hurry to get ‘Ikka’ inked. There are reasons to be suspicious and we shall briefly flag them.
First, it is India. Now that’s a red flag anyway. Secondly it is an agreement with India. The history of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, India not fulfilling her part of the deal and insisting that Sri Lanka does, the shove-down-the-throat that accompanied the secrecy of the whole affair, the pernicious and arrogant interfering, the Big-Brother’s Burden type of condescension, the economic benefits (to India) scripted into what was marketed as an altruistic helping-hand from a lovely neighbor, and the legitimation of Tamil chauvinistic land-theft designs, left more than a bad taste in the mouth.
Third, it is being pushed by the same people who applauded and facilitated the expansionist putsch by India in 1987 (remember, Rajiv Gandhi said ‘what we are seeing is the beginning of the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka’), namely the United National Party and Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was Wickremesinghe who presented the bill in Parliament but more damningly he presented it in part! His endorsement of secrecy in dubious deals had graduated into a penchant for secrecy by 2002, when he signed the insidious Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE. These histories count, politically.
The word ‘cooperation’ has been over-used to sugarcoat all kinds of skewed bilateral agreements that its employment here also raises suspicion. There is no ‘cooperation’ between ‘big’ and ‘small’. There’s diktat. The author of the Sunday Island’s ‘Political Watch’ put it this way [with regard to India]: “The Indians always had plans for Sri Lanka most of which were not in consonance with the plans that the Sri Lankan government of the day had.”
Overall, as of now, objection to Ikka is on the rise and not just by an Opposition operating according to the minimalist and pernicious understanding of role as ‘Opposition must oppose!’ Many individuals and organization including political parties and civil society outfits that helped bring this Government to power have taken strong anti-Ikka positions. Respected individuals from the full range of professions and professional organizations have said ‘No’ to Ikka.
The objectors are currently being vilified as playing into the hands of the Rajapaksas or else dismissed as rabble-rousing trade unionists or, as mentioned above, dubbed ‘nationalists’ (as though that’s a cuss word!), but the political relevance of their opposition is that it weakens a Government that is already plagued by the natural insecurities of coalition-arrangements. Worse, these objections are in fact adding to rising displeasure among sections that previously supported the anti-Rajapaksa thrust on grounds of a) being no different with respect to corruption, mismanagement and nepotism, and b) being utterly incompetent.
Finally there is the damning issue of the economy being in crisis. Wickremesinghe himself, while outlining mismanagement and corruption by the previous regimes and the impact of these factors on the economy, acknowledged to Cabinet that ‘the Sri Lankan economy could have coped with (such) adverse revelations if not for the global economy taking a nose dive during the last few moths, adversely affecting our economy’.
The bottom line is that this Government (like its green predecessors) has shown utter servility to India and the West, led by the USA. Anything that any one of these ‘big brothers’ say is taken as ‘good’, with the belief that they are actually Sri Lanka’s ‘friends’. Reality kicks in though, a good example being the Government being forced to go on bended knees to China, after vilifying the Rajapaksa regime for its choice of friends.
All of the above considered, the Government’s Ikka-Fascination seems suicidal. The ‘Political Watch’ referred to above offered what might be the best explanation of the prevalent insanity. Well, if not ‘best’, let’s say ‘the kindest’:
“It could also be the PM’s way of scuttling ECTA himself. Trying to tell the Indians at a governmental level that this ETCA thing will never work is too much hard work…So perhaps the PM has hit upon a way of getting the Indians off his back for good – by frightening the whole of Sri Lanka into uniting against ETCA so that he is saved the trouble of explaining matters to the Indians. As of now, he who has done the most to drum up opposition to ETCA is not the GMOA or the JVP and certainly not the Joint Opposition but the PM.”
If that’s not the case, the Government is clearly on the path to self-destruction either in the form of a coup whereby the President and his predecessor bury hatchets and come up with a working arrangement that unseats Wickremesinghe and sell it off as an arranged marriage necessitated by the national interest. Simply put, if Wickremesinghe backs off he would do so with egg on his face, but if Sirisena says ‘No’ he
There a the limits of free trade. The ideological premises have deep flaws. Even the grandmasters of capitalism in the 20th Century, namely the USA, appear to have realized this. Sooner or later, the glass-bubble doctrine runs into a solid wall called ‘Identity’ (yes, ‘nationalism’ is part of the story and it is China, a nation and not a corporation, that’s defining the do’s and don’ts of capitalism these days).
On February 3, 2016, the seed giant Sygenta (based in Switzerland and generating about one-quarter of its sales in North America, where it is a top pesticide seller and supplies an estimated 10% of U.S. soybean seeds and 6% for corn) agreed to a US$ 43 billion take over by ChemChina, which is Chinese government controlled entity. This has alarmed US legislators. Senator Charles Grassley last week called for a ‘national security review of the proposed ChemChina-Syngenta deal’ claiming that ‘the government must ensure that too much of the food industry is not being sold off’. The worry is that the buyer is a government-controlled entity.
“We need to consider the long-term implications of letting foreign entities control significant market share in U.S. agriculture, especially in consolidated markets, like the seed market has become,” Grassley said.
Sri Lanka is not the USA and India is not China, but the principle of ‘security’ is the same. And why should ‘security’ be an issue if it is all about free markets and multilateral drives to make national boundaries meaningless? The answer is ‘identity’ and in the case of the USA (as evident in the Sygenta matter – which is not yet a done deal by the way) and Sri Lanka (the Ikka-Affair) it is about ‘nation’. It would seem, to put it crudely, that the extrapolations of Samuel Huntington (‘Clash of Civilisations’) are proving to be more accurate than those of Francis Fukuyama (‘The End of History’).
Sri Lanka is not as big as China or India, true, but the size of ‘national interest’ in terms of emotional appeal and even theoretical construct is certainly not diminished on account of being geographically ‘small’ or an economy that is weak. It produces a discontent this Government can ill-afford. This Government has been hiccupping on a lot of counts of late. It can think ‘what’s one more ikka?’ but this might be the ‘ikka’ that brings it down.