Sri Lanka: ‘Re-vitalising’ India relations even more after the polls

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The results of the 17 August parliamentary polls have indicated the continuance of a ‘national government’ of the type that newly-elected President Maithripala Sirisena and his chosen Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had put together in January.

Considering that there is also a greater scope and urgent need for re-vitalising Sri Lanka-India relations than ever before, the two nations can now work on restoring the earlier confidence, brick by brick – but with all-round reversals from time to time. How they work on it all could also determine the nature and course of India’s Indian Ocean neighbourhood relations, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had ‘re-vitalised’ with his three-nation tour in March this year.

India-Sri Lanka relations are like none other in bilateral relations for both. Going beyond the ‘China angle’ – it used to be the US during the ‘Cold War’ era – the two South Asian neighbours are bound by the ‘ethnic issue’, with constant reverberations in southern Tamil Nadu – often, independent of the party or leader in power at the Centre.

It is one such time again for India and India-Sri Lanka relations. Independent of whoever is in power in Sri Lanka, the nation can breathe easy that the Indian position over war-time ‘accountability issues’ at the UNHRC would not (have to) change at the September session in Geneva. India too would not have to review its position, despite pressure from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Sri Lanka, over larger issues of ‘war-time accountability’ and blame-fixing.

Despite differences over ‘good governance’ and other domestic issues with the predecessor Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sirisena-Ranil duohave stuck to the acknowledged position on near-exclusive ‘domestic inquiry’. Unlike the Rajapaksa leadership, the new government had indicated at the March UNHRC session that it would not be unwilling to seek ‘international guidance’ in the matter. The Rajapaksa leadership would have none of it, and had in fact gone on to appoint ‘independent’ international advisors of its choice.

The principled Indian position on successive US-sponsored UNHRC resolutions encouraged a credible inquiry into allegations of war-crimes but would not accept any ‘external interference in the internal affairs’ of any nation. It was thus that India voted with the US on the UNHRC resolutions in 2012 and 2013, but ‘abstained’ from voting in 2014, when there was a specific reference to an ‘international probe’.

Modi’s ‘hour of truth’

There had been murmurs of protest that the US had ‘used’ India by conceding its demands when it was badly required, but changed tack, as was only to be expected, when it had enough numbers at UNHRC in 2014. Yet, the Indian conscience would be clear this September, when the UNHRC report is presented and maybe voted upon. India need not have to divine new reasons and justifications not to vote in favour of any findings that it could find ‘adversarial’ and ‘unfriendly’ to Sri Lanka in general and war-time leadership(s) in that country in particular.

However, the year-old Indian leadership, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, could face its ‘hour of truth’ on the ‘Sri Lanka accountability issues’, if and when there was pressure from Tamil Nadu all over again. Apart from the known pressure-points and issues, an added element in the eyes of the rulers and the rest in Sri Lanka in particular could pertain to Modi calling on Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa at her Poes Garden residence in Chennai.

There is nothing to suggest that Sri Lanka was at all discussed at the Modi-Jaya luncheon. More importantly, Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are due by May next year, and any fall-out of the UNHRC session now may be carried over to the March session. With the result, any adversarial Indian position to known AIADMK/TN polity’s stand on Sri Lanka-related issues could impact on BJP’s alliance now and future ambitions in the State. Coupled with anticipation of the BJP being a burden to their respective ‘minority vote-share’, TN parties might have a second thought even more if the Centre’s stand on UNHRC and other aspects of the ‘ethnic issue’ do not match theirs.

It is not impossible that PM Ranil, like his predecessors and President(s), might choose India for his first overseas destination if and when sworn in to office. The shadow of the visit and the ‘TN factor’ could seek to overshadow one another ahead of the UNHRC session. Incidentally, Ranil did not venture out of his country even once during his eight-month tenancy of the high office, given possibly the credibility question hanging over his taking over office and more so, the complexity of governance that it entailed.

‘China factor’

India-Sri Lanka relations have been punctuated also by the ‘China factor’ now as it used to be viz the US during the ‘Cold War’ years. But both nations have traditionally kept individual issues away from one another, be it the ‘ethnic issue’ or the ‘CEPA-related concerns’, or overall security cooperation and equations. During any possible Ranil visit to India in particular, and even otherwise, too, the Indian leadership might want to hear from a more confident Sri Lankan Prime Minister, how his Government intended addressing the nation’s genuine and serious China-related concerns in the years ahead.

More of a pragmatic political-administrator than his prime ministerial competitor, Wickremesinghe would still need to explain his government’s position on the ‘China Port City’ project, which he had publicly proposed to scrap not very long ago – but without any reference whatsoever in the recent weeks and days. Apart from direct concerns over the project, India might want to know how the new Colombo dispensation would show the will and wherewithal to stand up to China, if it were to demand the likes of ‘submarine berth’ that the Rajapaksa regime had conceded, as if in utter innocence or helplessness or both.,

That way, the world, particularly the West and the SLT Diaspora living in those nations, too, would be watching a Ranil-Modi meeting, for signals to larger aspects of ethnic issue, power-devolution and political solution. It is not unlikely that the Sri Lanka Government can offer to the Tamil now what it could not offer over the past decades – including the post-war years. Yet, the shifts and changes could and would be in the details – not necessarily basic approaches and aspects.

How India is able to, and how far India is willing to stick its head out, overall, on the ethnic front, that too in the context of the ‘re-vitalised’ bilateral relations after PM Modi too had settled down, would also determine how the relationship prospers from here. In turn, this would also determine how the rest of the world, China and the US included, look at India in the context of the nation’s ‘traditional sphere of influence’.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

Courtesy: ORF Sri Lanka: ‘Re-vitalising’ India relations even more after the polls