Sri Lanka happy that Sushma Swaraj had been handed the External Affairs portfolio in Modi’s government.

MAHINDA FOOLS INDIAPresident Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to India to attend the inauguration of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attracted much attention this week as both countries made a conscious attempt to mend relations which had been under strain under the previous Congress administration.

There were many welcoming gestures – the President telephoning Modi after his victory, Modi’s invitation for the inauguration and the President ordering the release of Indians detained by Sri Lankan authorities not merely for fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters but also for other offences.

There was some political posturing as well. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalilthaa Jeyaram kept away from Modi’s inauguration because President Rajapaksa was invited. The Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Vigneswaran politely refused an invitation to join the President’s delegation.

There is a sense of relief – even expectation – in Sri Lanka following Modi’s and his Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP)’s victory at the Indian polls. This is not so much because Modi is perceived as a friend of Sri Lanka but because he received a clear mandate and does not need the support of regional parties. This means that both Jeyaram and her rival in Tamil Nadu, Muthuvelu Karunanidihi will have little or no clout to arm twist Modi in to taking measures that are hostile to Sri Lanka’s interests, as it frequently happened during the Manmohan Singh administration.

Happy-Holidays-paintSri Lanka had more reason to be happy with the announcement that Sushma Swaraj had been handed the External Affairs portfolio in Modi’s government. Swaraj is one of the few politicians in New Delhi that Sri Lankan leaders know personally and enjoy a rapport with. 

Swaraj, once seen as Modi’s rival for the BJP leadership, as the then Leader of the Opposition led a delegation of Indian parliamentarians to Sri Lanka in April 2012, a few weeks after India had voted against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Her remarks at the conclusion of that visit endeared her to the Sri Lankan leadership. She appreciated the government’s rehabilitation efforts and categorically stated her support for Sri Lanka’s unity and stance against terrorism in all its forms.

Having Swaraj at the helm of the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi is the best possible post-election scenario that Colombo could have wished for. However, as the President’s visit indicated, there is more to be done if Sri Lanka is to constructively engage with India.

All the diplomatic pleasantries and mutual praise for each other could not hide what transpired at the meeting between President Rajapaksa and Modi. India’s leadership may have changed radically but the cornerstone of its policy vis-à-vis Sri Lanka appears to be as constant as ever.

This was seen clearly in comments made by Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh after the meeting. Modi requested President Rajapaksa to “expedite the process of national reconciliation in a manner that meets the aspirations of the Tamil community…within a united Sri Lanka,” Singh reported.

“Early and full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment and going beyond would contribute to this process,” she added. Therefore, the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, a bone of contention between Colombo and New Delhi in the past, remains an obstacle.

Previously, President Rajapaksa was accused of promising India that a “thirteenth amendment plus” would be implemented when then External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna visited Colombo and then reneging on that pledge. The amendment grants land and police powers to the provinces.

Given the Indian government’s intentions of engaging with Sri Lanka, it will prod not only President Rajapaksa in to conceding the Thirteenth Amendment but also the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to participate in the Parliamentary Select Committee convened by the President. This is the forum where Colombo expects a solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic issues will take shape but the TNA, under pressure from the Tamil Diaspora based in western countries, has been steadfast in its refusal to attend. Whether Modi can convince the party remains to be seen.

It is interesting that the Modi administration’s request to implement the Thirteenth Amendment “in full and going beyond” comes at a time when two of the government coalition partners, the Jathika Hela Urumaya and the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) are demanding that it be scrapped.

The request is a demand JNP leader and Minister Wimal Weerawansa presented to the President last week. There is also speculation that Weerawansa’s exercise was a ploy conducted at the behest of the ruling party leadership, so that shelving the Thirteenth Amendment can be justified internationally.
It is clear then that India and Sri Lanka will not automatically live happily ever after in the Modi era. There may be great expectations for a revival of warm Indo-Lanka relations but some tough decisions will need to be taken if those hopes are to be realized.

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