The Sri Lankan government sees in the Indian Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi a new opportunity to win India over to its side. President Rajapaksa has made sure that he will be off to a flying start with his decision to be present at the swearing in of the new Indian Prime Minister, who had tweeted that it was a great pleasure to talk to the Sri Lankan President when he made his congratulatory call. It is clear that the Sri Lankan government leadership senses, or believes there is, a resonance with the new Indian leadership. Indeed, the change of government in India has opened up the possibility of a new dimension of personal warmth to enter into the relationship between the two leaders of Sri Lanka and India. There is every possibility of the personal charisma of President Rajapaksa, and his closeness to the ethos of the masses of people, to find resonance in the new Indian Prime Minister.
However, there is a danger of reading too much into the personal relations between leaders. Politicians and the general public have a tendency to prioritise the role of individuals in history. When Russia annexed Crimea, much of the debate in the international media revolved around the personal motivations of President Putin. In reality, however, individual leaders have a limited ability to affect international relations, which are primarily driven by geopolitical and socio-cultural forces. President Putin is important no doubt, but only insofar as he reflects the values and goals of his inner circle, a broader coalition of the elites that back him, and, no less importantly, the general population. All parties represented in the Duma (Russian Parliament) were behind the annexation. In the Duma vote, 445 votes were for the annexation with only one against. Not only did President Putin’s party, United Russia, support him, the other three parties, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats and even the Communists, were also behind him.
This same prevalence of national interests over personal relationships can be seen in Sri Lanka’s own experience with India in the past. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike enjoyed a warm personal relationship with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Both were women leaders, both were widows bringing up families, and both were strong in their leadership. But when the Pakistan civil war broke out and India moved to cut off West Pakistan from East Pakistan, Prime Minister Bandaranaike gave permission to Pakistani airplanes to refuel in Sri Lanka. This would have been in opposition to India’s interests, but the Sri Lankan Prime Minister decided to act in Sri Lanka’s longer term interests. She was backed in this by the key decision makers within her government. During Sri Lanka’s own civil war, Pakistan was one of Sri Lanka’s staunchest allies, and its defense of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in March of this year was very special.
The failure of President Rajapaksa to persuade Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council C V Wigneswaran to accompany the Sri Lankan delegation to the swearing in ceremony for Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi is another example of the limitation of relying on personal relationships. The Northern Chief Minister has, to all appearances, an affable personal relationship with President Rajapaksa. When there was doubt as to whom he would take his oaths before, and where he would take them, Chief Minister Wigneswaran came down to Colombo and took his oaths before the President. There is no doubt, that as an individual he would have liked to be at the swearing in ceremony of the new Indian Prime Minister at which the leaders of neighbouring countries and most of India’s states will be present. However, Chief Minister Wigneswaran felt constrained to decline the invitation to join the Presidential delegation to New Delhi.
In declining the President’s invitation the Chief Minister of the Northern Province said in a rather strongly worded letter that “acceptance would indicate that there exists a strong cooperative spirit between the Centre and the Province, when in fact the peoples of the North are engulfed in a climate of fear on account of the presence of the military while the activities of the Northern Provincial Council have been stultified. ” He had added that he would “be guilty of facilitating tokenism” had he accepted the invitation. Indeed, from the government’s perspective taking the Northern Chief Minister along would have given an impression of unity within Sri Lanka that has yet to materialize although five years have passed since the end of the separatist war.
It can be expected that the government will be disappointed at the Chief Minister’s rejection of the President’s invitation. However, the government’s inability to persuade him to join the government delegation in a show of Sri Lankan unity is an early warning to the government in relation to its strategy with the Indian government. Both India and Sri Lanka have their national interests, and these can diverge and converge. Personal relations alone are unlikely to be able to bring about a convergence where there is divergence. One area in which there is likely to be divergence is in relation to the manner in which the Sri Lankan government has been addressing post-war issues of governance in the North and East where the Tamil people live in large numbers. The lament of Chief Minister Wigneswaran about the militarization of the North and disempowerment of the Northern Provincial Council would be concerns that parties in Tamil Nadu would wish to take up with the Indian government.
India’s approach to conflict resolution in Sri Lanka so far has been to seek the devolution of power to the Tamil-majority areas, which would assuage the sense amongst the Tamil people that they are a marginalized community without access to state power. Under the previously dominant Congress-led governments, the Indian solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict has been to implement the 13th Amendment and provincial council system it established, and ensure the maximum possible devolution of power to the Tamil-majority areas. This solution has never been fully acceptable to successive Sri Lankan governments. However, in 2012, when an Indian all-party delegation led by Sushma Swaraj who led the BJP parliamentary opposition visited Sri Lanka they reaffirmed its commitment to the principle of devolution of power as a key part of the solution to the Sri Lankan conflict.
Prime Minister Modi has already come under criticism from political parties in the state of Tamil Nadu who are boycotting the swearing in ceremony on account of the invitation extended to the Sri Lankan President. Prime Minister Modi’s primary duty is to keep his huge country with its diverse peoples together. He will also be conscious that the BJP won only 31 percent of the popular vote, and with its allies won no more than 38 percent of the vote. There is a vast mass of people whom he has to take along with his government if fragmentation is not to occur in India. The fact that Sri Lanka’s Tamil community is bound by kinship and close cultural ties with the Tamils who inhabit southern India links the two countries together. This is a reality that any Indian government will seek to cope with in a manner that is not detrimental to its own internal relations.
The Sri Lankan government needs to appreciate this reality if it is to build on the personal rapport that President Rajapaksa is surely likely to generate with Indian Prime Minister Modi. But there is also sure to be another important issue that will have to be faced. This is Sri Lanka’s relationship with other great powers and their impact on India’s national security concerns. President Rajapaksa gives his primary and focused attention to Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty and national security interests. He is therefore well suited to understand that Prime Minister Modi is likely to have the similar concerns where it concerns India. A potential rise in nationalism in India might also become a subject of concern, with implications not just for India’s relations with China, but also its approach toward Pakistan, multilateral issues and the United States. In dealing with other foreign powers, it will be necessary for Sri Lanka to take India’s national security concerns seriously if it is to keep Prime Minister Modi’s goodwill.