President Mahinda Rajapaksa may have metaphorically leapt into new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arms this week, but in the beginning there was Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.
The Congress Party won Parliamentary elections in 2004, returning the Gandhi family dynasty to the helm of Indian politics after a hiatus of eight years and heralding a new dawn for Sri Lanka’s battle against terrorism.
The change had come only three years after America had faced its own demons in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, forever altering how the world would approach and combat terrorism. Already, appetite for the LTTE’s brutal politics of terror had waned completely in the Western world. By assassinating Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the LTTE had made one of several historic mistakes. When Rajiv Gandhi’s widow Sonia led the Indian National Congress to election victory 13 years later, the stars began to align for the eventual defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hair’s breadth victory in the 2005 presidential election – a direct result of the LTTE enforced boycott of the poll in the territories under their control in the north and east – would create the perfect confluence of factors to defeat the Tigers in the jungles of Mullaitivu only four years later.
Within months of assuming office, President Rajapaksa’s administration was in the process of cultivating a rock solid relationship with New Delhi. The relationship was deemed so crucial to Sri Lanka, especially with the new regime in Colombo mulling a return to war, that the Rajapaksa administration bypassed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs altogether in its dealings with Delhi and the ruling Congress Party.
‘Handling India’ was a task entrusted to Presidential sibling and Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the Government’s chief emissary to New Delhi, whose efforts were supported by key officials such as Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and current Monitoring MP for the Ministry of External Affairs, Sajin Vaas Gunewardane. There was a tacit understanding between political circles in New Delhi and Colombo, even though such claims could not be made outright, that the Indian Government would not stand in the way of a Rajapaksa administration push to end the brutal reign of the LTTE.
Eight months after President Rajapaksa took office, Sri Lanka was back at war.
Together with Washington, the Indian Government strongly backed the Sri Lankan Government push against the LTTE, sharing intelligence about the Tigers’ weapons networks and providing naval vessels with blue water capability to hunt and destroy rebel ships carrying ammunition on the high seas.
Facing crucial elections in 2009, the Congress Party stood by its commitment to Colombo. It held its Tamil Nadu political ally at bay even in the months of April and May 2009, that coincided with the staggered month long vote in India. So airtight was this relationship between the ruling regime in Colombo and the Congress Party, that Weeratunga asserted a few months after the Indian polls, that Sri Lanka had stopped using heavy weapons against the LTTE at New Delhi’s request, to ensure the Tamil Nadu vote would not be affected and dampen the chances of the Congress’ re-election.
Weeratunga told a local website that India’s Congress Government had to be seen to do something to stop “what the rest of the world wrongly saw as the massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka”.
Quid pro quo between Colombo and Delhi was a given, even though Weeratunga’s assertion caused ripples in the BJP camp at the time.
Flash-forward five years and much water has flowed under that bridge. By the time the Indian parliamentary elections rolled around in April, once seemingly unshakable ties between the Rajapaksa administration in Colombo and the Congress were at a historic low.
Three more resolutions have been passed on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council. India voted in favour of two and abstained from voting on the third in March this year, on the grounds that the probe on Sri Lanka’s war was ‘intrusive’.
The Indian Government decision to abstain from the controversial UNHRC vote that was won by countries moving the resolution by what the US has called a ‘wide margin’, only slightly repaired increasingly uneasy relations between Colombo and New Delhi. Too many promises had been made and broken by Colombo on delivering on political devolution for the Tamil people of the north and east since 2009 – the basis on which the Indian Government unconditionally backed the final war against the LTTE. Many of these commitments had been made personally by President Rajapaksa – to former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and finally in April 2012 to then Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj, who was sworn in on Monday as India’s new Foreign Minister. To each of these Indian officials, President Rajapaksa promised full implementation of the 13th Amendment that devolves power to the provinces and insisted that a final political devolution package for the Tamil people would go beyond the provisions of the 13A.
In the cases of Krishna and Swaraj, the President flatly denied providing these assurances only hours after the officials had left Colombo. Every retraction in Colombo stirred a hornet’s nest in Tamil Nadu, causing untold headaches for the ruling Congress party, which was accused of protecting a regime in Colombo that was discriminating against Sri Lankan Tamils. The volte faces caused outrage within the Congress and angst even for its usually mild-mannered Prime Minister who was said to be shocked by how lightly the Sri Lankan President would dismiss assurances provided to other heads of Government and their top officials.
Compounding the tension was Colombo’s growing intimacy with Beijing, its pushback against Indian investment projects like Sampur and threats to unilaterally abrogate the terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord by repealing provisions of the 13th Amendment. Minister Basil Rajapaksa was no longer being used as Colombo’s chief envoy to New Delhi, in a development that coincided with the Minister’s waning influence within the ruling regime. After years of Basil Rajapaksa’s engagement with New Delhi, he had been recognised by the Indian Government and bureaucracy as one of the regime’s more rational voices. His absence in dealings with Colombo and the increasing influence of the more militaristic elements within the Rajapaksa administration had also made New Delhi acutely uncomfortable.
For the Rajapaksa administration, the betrayal that began with India’s vote for the 2012 resolution led by the US was a point of no return. Stung by what it perceived as betrayal and alliance with the ‘neo-imperialist Western conspirators’, but unable to ignore India completely in dealing with the legacy of 30 years of war, the Government has been in a state of flux for the better part of two years. But the slight relieving of tension by the Indian abstention at the UNHRC this year was reinforced by the Congress’ routing in the April-May poll, with Government officials seeming to breathe ecstatic sighs of relief publicly, about the new administration in New Delhi.
So it was that President Rajapaksa flew into the arms of India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi this week. His office has repeatedly reinforced that the Sri Lankan President had been one of the first world leaders to congratulate the former Gujarati Chief Minister on his election victory. The two leaders are exchanging pleasantries on the social media network, Twitter. State media claims that with the election of Narendra Modi, India has dawned its own ‘Rajapaksa moment’. Presidential aides are fawning over Monday’s oath-taking ceremony at Rashtrapathi Bhawan in New Delhi, comparing it to the inauguration of Barack Obama – America’s first Black President – seemingly unaware of the profound irony of that particular comparison, given the Indian Prime Minister’s somewhat checkered history on minority issues.
For a Government that has made no attempt to hide its contempt for India, especially with regard to its role in the ethnic conflict in the island, the ingratiating lengths to which the regime appeared to be going to pay homage to the new BJP administration raised several questions. It was either that the Sri Lankan Government was ecstatic about the potential to reset relations with Delhi under the new administration. The more sinister explanation was that the regime was sensing kindred in the new leadership across the Palk Strait, an Indian administration that would understand and even embrace governance based on ethno-centric nationalism in a smaller neighbour.
Jubilation in the presidential camp about Modi’s ascension even resulted in the extension of an olive branch to Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, who was invited to join the delegation travelling to New Delhi for the swearing-in. Wigneswaran’s presence in the delegation would send a strong message to the new Indian Government, that all was well between Colombo and the Northern Provincial Council, nipping in the bud any residual negativity about the Rajapaksa administration’s intransigence about the implementation of the 13th Amendment.
Wigneswaran says ‘no’
Justice Wigneswaran, the TNA’s choice to be the voice of Northern Tamil aspirations in this profoundly-complex post-war phase, spurned the invitation in a well-crafted letter and refused to facilitate what he called ‘tokenism’ on the part of Colombo to demonstrate that all was well with the Northern Provincial Council. It was the master-stroke of a living, breathing opposition, not unlike JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s refusal to take President Rajapaksa’s phone call on his birthday this year, knowing that it would be publicised far and wide to reflect amity between the ruling powers and the Marxist party. To have a public relations gesture thus rejected is a rare thing for the regime, and to have it done in so public and incisive a fashion caused palpable anger within the administration.
Yet not even the snub could temper enthusiasm. Bright and early on Monday morning, the presidential delegation which included Minister Arumugam Thondaman who stood in for the Tamils of recent Indian origin and the Jaffna Mayor hailing from the EPDP as token Northern Tamil representation, boarded the special SriLankan Airlines flight for New Delhi. A beaming President Rajapaksa was photographed among other SAARC leaders at the colourful open-air oath-taking ceremony.
But the biggest buzz was about Tuesday’s first bilateral discussion between the two leaders that would take place at Hyderabad House in New Delhi at 10:30 a.m. It may have proved a bitter disappointment to the Rajapaksa Government that the new Prime Minister echoed the call of the previous Congress led Government for the extension of the 13th Amendment as part of a final political devolution package for the Tamils and insisted that reconciliation in Sri Lanka had to meet the aspirations of the Tamil people within an united country.
The official communiqué from the President’s office about the bilateral talks omitted all references to the 13A, devolution or even the Tamil people, including instead what President Rajapaksa had told Prime Minister Modi about reconstruction, rebuilding and rehabilitation efforts post war and discussions about the Palk Bay fishing crisis. Indian officials on the other hand, maintained that Modi had talked at length about the 13th Amendment and Colombo’s need to go beyond it to offer a final solution to the Tamil people.
Struck by Gujarat magic, the Government is drawing parallels between the governance styles of Chief Minister Narendra Modi and President Rajapaksa. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi prized economic development, making economic growth rates in the state soar. That may often have come at the cost of profound social injustice and inequitable resource distribution; it may have encouraged a culture of crony capitalism that Modi himself campaigned strongly against during the general election campaign, but Gujarat has a booming industrial sector and gleaming new highways lined with bougainvillea trees.
This is a strategy Government advisors would vouch resonates with the Rajapaksa model of nation building. The new Indian Premier’s strong Hindu nationalist credentials and his party’s well known antipathy for Muslims will no doubt also be heartening for the ruling administration in Colombo, as it faces off against an increasingly hostile Western world about its post-war minority policies.
In the euphoria about the Modi ascension, memory in the ranks of the ruling administration has proved weak. To assume Indian policy towards Sri Lanka would be framed on the persuasions –economic and otherwise of one man, would be to ignore the might of the Indian Government bureaucracy and the BJP’s own historic positions on the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. When the Indian Parliament was in uproar during the UNHRC session in Geneva in 2012, a brief glance at the transcripts of those heated debates would tell a revealing tale. Followed by Tamil Nadu MPs, BJP strongmen, former ministers and top leaders proved the most vociferous advocates of Sri Lankan Tamils. The Party has been deeply critical of what it perceived as Congress Party tolerance of the Sri Lankan Government’s intractability and double-speak.
While the BJP-led administration in New Delhi will not be encumbered by demanding allies in Tamil Nadu that plagued the Congress Party (something Colombo is rejoicing about), that free hand may only help the new Government to pursue its own ideological path with regard to the Tamil question in Sri Lanka. Hindu nationalism is by implication tied to Hinduism, the dominant religion of Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north. Furthermore, attempts to overplay the Beijing factor in an attempt to mitigate Delhi’s influence on the national question, may have proved an unpopular tactic under the Singh administration but under Modi, with his strong positions on China and Pakistan, it could prove a devastating miscalculation.
The new Indian Prime Minister’s inauguration, that analysts have quipped was like a SAARC summit, may have been an attempt to reach out to India’s neighbours, but it was also unmistakable posturing by India’s new leader, seeking to portray his country as the undisputed leader of the South Asian region. The projection of power was as much a signal to Beijing as it was to the immediate neighbourhood. Moves by Beijing, to send an extremely high level Chinese defence delegation to Colombo the day Modi was declared the winner in the Indian poll, was similar posturing and the Rajapaksa administration’s indulgence of such power-games may be viewed less benignly by Modi’s India. Modi muscle is already showing results in Colombo, with President Rajapaksa instructing his officials and the Attorney General’s Department to expedite the implementation of the Sampur power project that his Government has been delaying for years.
If pre-election positions are to be any indication of BJP policy towards Sri Lanka going forward, the Rajapaksa Government may find clues in the positions articulated by BJP member and former Indian diplomat Hardip Puri. Until weeks ago, Puri was strongest contender for the powerful position of National Security Advisor in the new BJP-led Government. While Puri may have lost out to former Intelligence expert Ajit Doval, the former diplomat will remain a key player in Team Modi. Puri, was a diplomat in Colombo in the crucial late 1980s, and more recently served as India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York.
Deprived of the NSA title, Puri may still play a role as Foreign Policy Advisory to the new BJP Government, sources in New Delhi claim. The retired diplomat has been a strong supporter of India’s decision to vote for two UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka and believes that New Delhi must push for accountability by Sri Lanka for alleged crimes committed during the final phase of the war in 2009. It is Puri’s contention that while India can renounce the LTTE and what the organisation stood for, it continues to have an obligation towards Sri Lanka’s Tamil population.
If these ideas find resonance in the Modi policies towards Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa administration could find the euphoria about the change of guard across the Strait waning swiftly. The potential to repair a faltering relationship with New Delhi may well be on the cards with a new administration in charge, but Colombo will also find that it has little maneuverability on the question of the 13th Amendment ‘Plus’ if it wants to keep the new Indian Government happy. On this front, there appears to be significant continuity between Modi India and Singh-Gandhi India. What could be different are the consequences of broken promises and intransigence under a more assertive Indian regime. Something for the Sri Lankan Government to ponder if it does not want the honeymoon with the ‘New India’ to end too soon.