By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“We all know that Your Excellency is a legendary statesman with outstanding leadership. You are a great hero for defeating terrorism.”
Air Chief Marshall Xu Qiliang to President Rajapaksa[i]
“President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday supported China’s idea of a new Asian security concept….”
Daily Mirror – 22.5.2014
President Mahinda Rajapaksa was receiving the highest Chinese military delegation ever to visit Colombo, the day Narendra Modi’s BJP romped to victory in India. The purposes of this visit was identified by the Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission as enhancing ‘strategic mutual trust’ and elevating ‘relations between the two countries and the armed forces to a new level’[ii].
President Rajapaksa was in Beijing, attending the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia the day the BJP officially nominated Narendra Modi as PM. In his speech, Mr. Rajapaksa supported China’s proposal for “the creation of a new Asian structure for security cooperation based on a regional group that included Russia and Iran and excluded the United States”[iii].
Coincidences of not, these events will be watched by the BJP, because they signal the growing Chinese-footstep in a region India considers her own.
In a move which surprised almost everyone, Narendra Modi invited the SAARC leaders to attend his inauguration. Media attention is focused on how Pakistan’s new PM and the omnipotent military will respond to this invitation. But this unprecedented move would have caused some flutter in Beijing as well, this may well be Mr. Modi’s first step in asserting Indian supremacy in the South Asian region.
According to an unnamed ‘senior BJP Leader close to Mr. Modi’, the invitation conveys a simple message: “…. Modi will walk the extra mile for friends…but he will brook no nonsense…. He would not tolerate the kind of arm-twisting Manmohan Singh had to put up with…”[iv] Some Indian analysts agree; “Modi’s message is very clear. He wants to emerge as leader of South Asia first before aiming high at global stage…”[v]
So a Pax India for South Asia, a new modus vivendi under Indian aegis, with India playing the role of the Big Brother. Mr. Modi’s regional policy may well be a continuation of the ‘Either you are my younger brother or you are my enemy’ approach followed with destabilising aplomb by Indira Gandhi. Perceived friends will be protected and rewarded. Perceived enemies will be punished. The line between friend and foe will not be drawn in sand, but etched in stone.
And China will be the decisive factor in shaping Modi-India’s relations with her tiny neighbour across the Palk Straits.
The issue of Lankan Tamils or Tamilnadu fishermen may be used to signal, reward or punish the Rajapaksa administration. But Delhi’s attitude towards Colombo will depend essentially on Colombo’s attitude towards Beijing. And currently, Colombo cannot displease Beijing on any issue, as was clearly demonstrated during Premier DM Jayaratne’s latest faux pas.
China National Offshore Oil Corporation, a state-owned company, has built an oil rig in the disputed-waters of the South China Sea. This has caused several naval collisions between China and Vietnam. During his Vesak-visit to Vietnam, PM Jayaratne reportedly expressed Sri Lanka’s support for Vietnam vis-à-vis the latest scrap[vi].
Beijing took immediate note and was immensely displeased.
A few hours later, the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo issued a statement expressing his government’s concern about Mr. Jayaratne’s remarks[vii]. And Colombo swung into crisis-management mode. External Affairs Ministry made a statement giving the lie to the PM. Back home, Mr. Jayaratne was made to eat his own words, in the presence of the Chinese Ambassador. A senior official of the PM’s office stated that the PM ‘did not utter a single word against China’; his remarks were ‘misrepresented by the Vietnamese media’[viii]. And President Rajapaksa assured the visiting Chinese delegation ‘of Sri Lanka’s support in international and regional matters such as One-China policy and with matters pertaining to the South China Sea’[ix].
That little comedy of errors demonstrated Beijing’s über-sensitivity to Colombo’s stance on regional issues – and Colombo’s über sensitivity to Beijing’s moods. Imagine Lanka’s plight if the Sino-Indian border dispute over Hamachal Pradesh heats up. Thanks to Rajapaksa economics, Colombo cannot afford to be non-aligned between India and China. If Colombo displeases Beijing, Chinese largesse may dry up. India cannot and will not pick the bill. Therefore, like any addict, the Rajapaksas will have to do whatever it takes to keep the supplies coming, including seriously angering Narendra Modi.
Birds of a Feather?
Basil Rajapaksa is right for once. There is many an execrable similarity between his presidential-brother and Narendra Modi.
According to Nilanjan Mukhopadhaya, the author of the widely-acclaimed biography, ‘Narendra Modi – The Man, the Times’ ,“There was one observation routinely made by almost everyone I interviewed while researching for the book – that Modi did not like to listen to any other viewpoints besides his own, that he was authoritarian…. Modi can get extremely vindictive if you write reports that are critical of him”[x]. Ashis Nandy, who interviewed Mr. Modi in 2002, called him a classic ‘authoritarian personality’: “I still remember the cool measured tone in which he elaborated the theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and potential terrorist”[xi]. The Indian Supreme Court compared his conduct during the horrendous Gujarati riots to Nero’s: “The modern day Neros were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be protected”[xii]. According to Wikileaks, a former US Ambassador described Mr. Modi as ‘insular, distrustful and a hoarder of power, someone who rules with a coterie of advisors’[xiii].
Popularity and fascism are not mutually exclusive. Adolf Hitler was loved and trusted almost to the bitter end. In any case, only 31% of Indians voted for Mr. Modi[xiv].
Had Mr. Modi been born a Sinhala-Buddhist he would have become a leading light of the BBS and supported the Rajapaksas. But he is an Indian-Hindu. And like all religious fundamentalists, he has his own ‘Clash of civilisation’ theory, with Buddhism ranked with Christianity and Islam.
Amartya Sen reminds us that “When Akbar was issuing his legal order that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of religion’….. Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy….”[xv] Mr. Modi, like the BBS, the Rajapaksas and religious-fundamentalists of every religion, is an ideological legatee of those who burnt Bruno. These are not the best qualifications to become the head of a growing regional power, but, unfortunately, the elevation of the unsuitable is a standard democratic risk. India, with her robust media, independent judiciary and thriving regional power-centres, will survive Mr. Modi, more-or-less intact. But Sri Lanka’s fate may be a darker one.
Premier Modi will have many national promises to keep and many national opponents to beat. Sri Lanka, on her own, is unlikely to figure prominently on his agenda. But Sri Lanka, as a pawn of China and/or Pakistan’s ISI, can find herself in the crosshairs of PM Modi, who came to national-prominence by playing Arjuna during the infamous Ayodhya Rath Yathra.
[iii] Daily Mirror – 22.5.2014
[xiv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_general_election,_2014 – India has the ‘First past the post system’; that is how the BJP was able to win a majority of parliamentary seats.
[xv] The Argumentative Indian