Every Sri Lankan government since independence has had to deal with its counterpart in India. Sometimes, these relations reached dizzy heights and at other times, they deteriorated to the point where the two countries were engaged in a diplomatic war of words.
Indo-Lanka relations were at their zenith when Sirima Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi were at the helm of their countries. The two ladies, both daughters of two Prime Ministers, had a great personal chemistry between them and this was reflected in the affairs between the two countries at that time.
J.R. Jayewardene had antagonized Gandhi in the 1977 general election campaign. When she returned to power in 1980, relations between Colombo and New Delhi were frosty. Gandhi sanctioned the training of Tamil terrorists on Indian soil, a scandal that was later exposed in the Indian media.
Since then, to this day, Indo-Lanka relations have been defined by one predominant factor: the issue of Tamil separatism and matters related to the devolution of power in Sri Lanka. Successive governments in both Colombo and New Delhi have grappled with this challenge.
Indian intervention in this regard was at its height in 1987. At a time when the Sri Lankan armed forces were poised to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), India threatened to intervene, air dropping food to the North. Under duress, Jayewardene agreed to an accord with Delhi.
The resultant Indo-Lanka Accord gave birth to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which is still a bone of contention. Ironically, the Tamil Tiger terrorists who were nurtured by Indira Gandhi plotted to assassinate her son Rajiv in 1991. That forced New Delhi to revise its attitude towards the LTTE.
However, successive central governments in India have had to take into consideration the Tamil Nadu factor: Politicians in the South Indian state whipping up communal sentiments vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. Weaker central governments had to rely on the support of these politicians for their own survival.
When the Eelam war was fought to a finish in 2009, the Congress party and Manmohan Singh were in office in India. Convinced that a resurgence of the LTTE was inimical to Indian interests, Singh not only refused to intervene, he also sanctioned tacit support from the Indian Navy for the war effort.
The end of the war, however, saw India reverting to its original stance of insisting on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. Crucially, this involved the granting of land and Police powers to the provinces, a prospect that most Sri Lankans were wary of, after decades of civil war.
Matters were not helped when former President Mahinda Rajapaksa both formally and informally assured Indian leaders that the 13th Amendment would be implemented. This did not happen and relations between Rajapaksa and Singh nosedived in the latter years of Rajapaksa’s tenure.
This resulted in India voting against Sri Lanka on an American sponsored resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council demanding an international probe on alleged war crimes. Singh also snubbed Rajapaksa by boycotting the Commonwealth summit in Colombo in November 2013.
President Sirisena’s first overseas visit to India and last week’s visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Colombo – the first state visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka in 28 years – were attempts to start afresh, both leaders being recently elected to office.
Modi’s visit was marked many gestures of goodwill – Sri Lanka released Indian fishermen who had been detained and India relaxed visa requirements for Sri Lankans – but Modi revealed his hand when he said that India expects Sri Lanka to implement the 13th Amendment and “go beyond it”.
This will no doubt cause ripples in Sri Lanka. President Sirisena has a stated agenda of fostering ethnic reconciliation but has not responded so far to this statement. That is understandable because he is in the process of consolidating power with general elections yet to be held.
The President said this week that regardless of which party emerges as winners at the election, he would form a government of ‘national unity’ for at least two years with the intention of evolving a political solution to outstanding ethnic issues. This though is easier said than done.
With the executive powers of his office likely to be pruned in the near future, the President faces a daunting challenge: appeasing India and coming up with a political formula that will satisfy the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim political leaders while at the same time forming a stable government.
President Maithripala Sirisena has one advantage though: he has declared more than once that he will not be seeking re-election. He, therefore, has an opportunity to act like a statesman: to think of the next generation instead of thinking about the next election. It may be post-war Sri Lanka’s best chance yet.