Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s controversial interview to Chennai-based ‘Thanthi TV’ Tamil channel could not have come at a worse time for bilateral relations with India. The interview, touching upon almost every aspect of bilateral relations, and strongly against purported Indian perceptions – both official and otherwise – may have ‘set the clock back’, that too just a week ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the southern neighbourhood.
Yet, PM Wickremesinghe’s interview could not have come at a better time for a better understand of the realities of the troubled relations between the two neighbours. At one go, he has exploded the self-generated hope and auto-induced illusion in the Indian leadership and polity, policy-makers and strategic community, editorial writers and the common folk, particularly in southern Tamil Nadu, that the worst was over for bilateral relations on all fronts, and the best is all set to begin.
The sobering mood after Wickremesinghe’s interview should be an eye-opener — and education — for Indians on what and what not to expect from the prime ministerial visit. Both sides can be expected to do their best to make it all a historic and memorable visit, for them to fall back upon and draw from, in taking their relations forward on bilateral, regional and multi-lateral fronts. Yet, they would also be stymied – rather, cautioned – at every step about the ground realities, which is what PM Wickremesinghe’s interview has flagged.
In his interview, Wickremesinghe said that PM Modi’s was a “goodwill visit to restore the ties between the two countries”. The first bilateral from India in 28 long years, and given PM Modi’s way with his hosts and guests alike, the visit would be remembered as much for the optics, too.
The forward movement on the initiative taken by PM Modi at his swearing-in by inviting the Heads of Government from SAARC neighbours should provide the impetus for fresh and focussed initiative(s) may be in full view during the visit. The post-poll India visits of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and President Maithripala Sirisena – both their maiden overseas trip after assuming office – cannot be overlooked either.
The trademark back-to-back bilateral of the Modi leadership should be the harbinger for things to come. Yet, shorn of diplomatic jargon, is fair enough to expect that not much of government business could be expected to be transacted when Sri Lanka is still on election mode. With the historic presidential poll only weeks behind, the nation is looking at the imminent prospects of parliamentary elections a year ahead of schedule.
The timing of the Thanthi TV telecast should not be confused with the contents of the Ranil interview. Indications are that the interview was recorded earlier and had to await telecast until the Indian Budget melee was behind television channels and their audiences, too. To confuse the telecast timing with the coinciding Sri Lanka visit of India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and read meanings that are not there should be avoided. Yet, that should not also take away from the content and intent of what Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has said.
Indian fishers, Italian marines
On almost all issues pertaining to India or the ethnic issue pertaining to the home front, Wickremesinghe has more or less repeated what had been the known Sri Lankan position for long – including the views of the predecessor Rajapaksa Government. He told the interviewer that Indian fishers should stay on their side of the Palk Strait if they were to avert being shot at when trespassing into ‘my house’.
At a luncheon meeting with PM Ranil a day after the telecast, visiting Minister Sushma Swaraj contested his drawing a parallel between the Indian fishers and two Italian marines. As she reportedly pointed out, the Italian marines’ case was a legal issue and the fishers’ was a ‘livelihood’ concern, acknowledged as such by both nations and governments. Yet, the Sri Lankan position has been made known.
In the interview, PM Wickremesinghe has reiterated the Sri Lankan State’s collective position on ‘accountability issues’ pertaining to allegations of ‘war crimes’. Like predecessor Rajapaksa regime, which alone was involved earlier on this, Wickremesinghe has refused to accept the much-publicised (and equally unsubstantiated) UN-appointed Darusman panel’s findings of 40,000 Tamil civilian deaths.
In doing so, PM Wickremesinghe has conferred greater legitimacy on the Sri Lankan Government’s previous claims by partly attributing the ‘disappearances’ to those who might have (legally/illegally) migrated to the West. The rest, he attributed to those that ‘perished’ in the war – which the earlier Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa would not acknowledge as such. It had continued to claim almost until the last that the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’ was a ‘zero-casualty’ affair as regards civilian deaths.
Where the Sirisena-Ranil regime differs with the Rajapaksa leadership is on engaging with the ‘international community’ (IC), including the UNHRC. Rajapaksa was convinced that the IC was out to get it, and though engaging them was at best counter-productive. The new Government is willing to consider their views and suggestions, but is clear that only domestic probes, criminal investigations and legal and judicial processes alone would work.
‘Fighting India’s war’
On ‘accountability issues’ Wickremesinghe pointedly referred to the ‘IPKF days’ (1987-89) as well. No senior leader from even the love-hate Rajapaksa regime had mentioned IPKF so very publicly, though it was a re-herring that some of them enjoyed flagging and flogging now and again. Better or worse still, before Wickremesinghe, after the new Government took charge in Colombo, only Northern Province’s Tamil Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran may have included the IPKF days as fit enough for an international probe.
Piloting the ‘genocide resolution’ in the Provincial Council not very long ago, Wigneswaran called for rolling back ‘accountability issues’ to the turn of Sri Lanka’s Independence in 1948. Other Sri Lankan Tamil separatists and ‘nationalist’ hard-liners too have been making such demands when turning their tirade against India, whenever they deem fit.
PM Wickremesinghe’s reiteration of the Rajapaksa regime’s assertion that “we fought India’s war” too needs mention. He repeated former Defence Secretary and President Mahinda’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s assertion that India did help the Sri Lankan forces in fighting the LTTE. Neither has clarified if India supplied lethal weapons – not that it should be a subject of a public debate involving high government dignitaries, now or ever.
On the implementation of the India-facilitated Thirteenth Amendment on power-devolution to Provinces, he did not have to say much, knowing his acknowledged position. In the interview, however, he took a step further and possibly farther, by describing Wigneswaran as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘liar’, and said that he would not meet or talk to the Chief Minister of the Northern Province but only to the parliamentary group of his Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
A personality-centric position of the kind could spoil the day for Centre-Province relations on a daily basis, and more so for the expected political negotiations on the ethnic issue. CM Wigneswaran is also a retired Supreme Court Justice with vast knowledge required for constitutional negotiations/discourse of the kind. PM Wickremesinghe is expected to acquire greater administrative powers after the promised abolition/alternation of the Executive Presidency.
‘Joy and confidence’
In a week-end twitter message on his upcoming Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka, PM Narendra Modi said he was ‘looking forward to enhancing ties with the friendly nations’. In a specific reference, Modi added that he was embarking on “my visit to Sri Lanka with the joy and confidence that the visit will make India-Sri Lanka relations even stronger in the years to come”. Be it as it may, the pre-visit Ranil interview should ensure that PM Modi would arrive in Sri Lanka with hope, not illusion.
It’s not about the ‘competitive’ Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, matched equally – or unequally – by equally competitive Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism. As is to be expected ahead of another round of polls, where nation-wide totals do not count, as was the case with the presidential polls, PM Wickremesinghe is also playing the ‘Sinhala card’. As anticipated for some time now, CM Wigneswaran and the TNA too have now begun playing the ‘competitive Tamil card’, on the fishers’ issue in particular.
The TNA has no scope of expanding beyond their traditional regions of influence. Both Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s UNP and bête noire SLFP, now under President Sirisena, seem to have revived hopes of re-capturing the imagination, and then the votes, of the Tamils, in a nation without ‘moderate’ Tamils and the moderate TNA leadership. That the ‘Big Two’ in national politics used to have much more than a toe-hold in the Tamil areas is borne by the fact that Jaffna’s Tamil Mayor Alfred Duraiappah, the first gun-victim of LTTE’s Prabhakaran, belonged to the SLFP (1975).
The entrenched Indian position on 13-A does not reflect the long-changing perceptions among the stake-holders in Sri Lanka. They all want changes and ‘improvements’ but of differing kinds. On ‘accountability issues’, the infrequent mention still of the IPKF should make India to consider a point-specific approach to the concept of international probes into Sri Lanka’s ‘accountability issues’ – without stopping with a sovereignty-centric holistic policy as was the case with the 2014 UNHRC voting. India boycotted the vote.
On fishers’ issue and China, where Indian interests are directly involved, India will have to think afresh – that Sri Lankan interests are different but Sri Lankan position and at times even the phraseology are not entirely different, independent of whoever is in power. They are a part of the Sri Lankan State’s positions and policies, not linked exclusively to the party or persona in power – or, out of it.
Was the Modi leadership unprepared for the Wickremesinghe kind of interview – or, its timing? Did it think that the worse was over for bilateral ties, first with the exit of the LTTE, and later the electoral defeat of President Rajapaksa? If so, the Wickremesinghe interview should be seen as a lesson in the ‘right direction’ – though not necessarily on the ‘right lines’ as India would have wished.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)