Presidential spokesman Mohan Samaranayake who is an expert on UN affairs and international relations said Sri Lanka’s diplomatic skills will be put to the test under the new Indian Government which seems to have embarked on a cordial bi-lateral journey with Sri Lanka.
Samaranayake said with Tamil Nadu politicians and the pro LTTE diaspora hell-bent on rocking the boat, retaining the new Prime Minister’s goodwill will prove to be our toughest job in the months to come.
Excerpts of the interview
Having a strong government at the Centre is a reason for Sri Lanka to celebrate. Without being swayed or pressurized by regional forces, the new Indian government is free to take its own decisions on crucial matters be it bi-lateral, regional or internal. But if Sri Lanka fails to grab the opportunity that has been laid before them, it won’t take long for our cordial ties to be affected by internal and external forces.
For example, the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not attend CHOGM in Colombo, because of pressure from Tamil Nadu.
That became clear, when the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister boycotted the swearing in ceremony of Prime Minister designate Modi last Monday because President Mahinda Rajapaksa was invited to the event.
Such action is unusual and unprecedented. Jayalalithaa’s reason for her action was not internal, it was external. It spells out the pressure Tamil Nadu have been applying on the weaker Congress- led government previously. It was not afraid even to offend the newly- elected leadership. The positive aspect is that the Indian government is in a comfortable zone strength wise, it can afford to ignore such pressure.
For a simple majority win, the government would have needed 272 seats, but the BJP has won 283 seats alone and the coalition as a whole has won 336 seats. The point man for Modi on Sri Lankan affairs is yet to be made public but it is callous on our part to toy with the idea that there will be a major shift in India’s policy with regard to the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils.
In essence India’s policy towards Sri Lanka will not see a major change. They insist the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil speaking people must be met. Even during discussion with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the new PM had reiterated this fact. To do that the only instrument that they currently perceive is the 13th Amendment.
We should understand that this is not a request of the current Indian government, it has been reiterated over the years by successive governments since the times of Rajiv Gandhi. This is their firm belief. It is a relief that the BJP will not go to the extent of Tamil Nadu extremist forces to demand the impossible.
On the one hand, the BJP enjoys a strong government. On the other, they need a peaceful neighbourhood to deliver their promises to the Indian masses. One Indian analyst said whatever the majority that he commands, the people of India will not give him much time to deliver on his promises – to eradicate poverty, corruption and usher in modernization.
The unprecedented support the people gave the new Prime Minister will wane the same way it gathered up, if he fails to deliver. We have witnessed this in other countries. In the 1970s the UNF government swept the election with a two thirds majority, what happened after that is history. Thereafter the UNP- led government came to power with an even better mandate, within four to five years everything started to crumble.
There was euphoria when Obama was first elected. But now he is one of the most unpopular Presidents in the world. He could not deliver what he promised during the election campaign. I believe the clock is already ticking for Modi’s government. They will not have a long honeymoon and to deliver what they promised, India needs a peaceful neighbourhood.
Hence, we can presume that the New Indian Prime Minister will follow a balanced strategy. Tamil Nadu is the only factor that could put the new Government off course and towards extremism but he is well poised to ignore this pressure point. He ignored their call when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was invited for the swearing in ceremony. When Vaiko and Jayalalithaa vehemently protested, he went ahead and invited President Rajapaksa, knowing well the action could outrage Tamil Nadu.
Another factor is the appointment of Sushma Swaraj as the External Affairs Minister, to one of the key, highly influential portfolios within the government. Accompanied by her daughter she led a 12- member delegation a couple of years ago to Sri Lanka. She travelled across Sri Lanka to speak to people. When she wrapped up the several days long tour, she had many positive things to say. Nonetheless, she highlighted the need to fulfil the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil -speaking people in the country, a stance that will not change with a new government in office in India. Swaraj met the President, the Opposition Leader and visited the North and the East. She has a fair knowledge of the ground realities in Sri Lanka.
We must understand the tricky situation that is prevailing. We have to manage it like the way we did during the final phase of the fight against the LTTE in 2009.
My opinion is, no matter how determined Sri Lanka was, we could not have defeated the LTTE if not for India’s support. If there was a military intervention on the part of India, our plans could have been scuttled, even if we had the political will and also everything else to our advantage.
In 2008, when Georgia wanted to chase out Russian peace keepers, what happened? Within 24 hours, Russian troops went into Georgia and crushed the opposition. Sri Lanka managed the Indian factor cleverly during that crucial phase in 2009.
We are at crucial cross roads today. Modi’s gesture to invite the Lankan head of state and other actions that showcase a desire to cultivate good relations with Sri Lanka should not be misread. We must not let emotions to supersede our wisdom. The BJP’s clear majority will not only armour the government to snub Tamil Nadu extremists but also position them well as a dominant force in the region.
We must start from the goodwill shown by the new Prime Minister. He proved that he is with an open mind and did not want to be part of the prejudices whipped up by Tamil Nadu. This should be our starting point. If I am not mistaken our President was the first to congratulate Narendra Modi, as the early results indicated his clear victory. The PM- elect then used his twitter account to thank President Rajapaksa for his wishes. When President Rajapaksa invited him for a state visit he had responded positively. This augurs well for our future relations.
If we reflect into the actions of the previous BJP government, in April 2000 when the Elephant Pass garrison fell into LTTE hands it was widely believed the next LTTE move would be to recapture the Jaffna peninsular.
By early May, all Colombo hotels were full with Foreign journalists. They were here to report the birth of a new nation. The international media was made to believe that. In India the government at the time was a BJP- led coalition. The Defence Minister was George Fernandes. Sri Lanka’s worst fear at the time was transporting the 45,000 troops trapped in the Jaffna peninsular. LTTE’s Anton Balasingham announced that the Government should ready 45,000 coffins. The Indian Defence Minister was quoted in the newspapers as saying, it’s not India’s duty to transport Sri Lankan troops.
India’s goodwill will depend on Sri Lanka’s skill. Many argue that Modi’s popularity shot up due to his skillful manipulation of the social media. But those are supplementary factors. The real reason for Modi’s election, as I see it is people’s wish for a change. India’s economy was stagnating, the Government was riddled with inefficiency, indecisiveness and problems with neighbours other than corruption. All these factors cemented the Congress’ fate in the elections. India is a country where large populations live below the poverty line. In rural India, many millions of people live a primitive life. People were clamouring for a change. One of his key election promises was speedy economic recovery, industrialisation and rapid modernisation.
The fisheries issue between the two countries is secondary and is something that can be solved without ruffling many feathers. I believe the Tamil Nadu factor and Tamil issues are much larger issues in comparison to the on going tug-of-war in the fisheries sector. The fishermen issue at no point of time emanate from an ideological difference.
During the first bi-lateral meeting between President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Modi, the fishermen’s issue was taken up. Both leaders agreed that this needs to be resolved amicably. Sri Lanka currently enjoys cordial relations with India in all fronts including defence and trade. India is an emerging power. Modi’s project is to lift India to the level of the Western developed countries. India needs a peaceful Sri Lanka in that respect.
[President Mahinda Rajapaksa warmly welcomed in India]
Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India Prasad Kariyawasam said, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to South Asian leaders for his swearing in ceremony was an unprecedented gesture by any Indian leader, a first by any Indian Leader since independence.
This act is seen both by India and the neighbours as a grand gesture and everyone welcomed it. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the first to call and congratulate him on his electoral victory.
In India, President Rajapaksa was well- received by the public and the Government. When President Rajapaksa arrived at the ceremony there was a show of public acceptance and applause.
When we had the bi-lateral meeting with the new Prime Minister, that was a warm, friendly and frank discussion. Issues of concern to both countries were discussed in a frank and forthright manner.
Sri Lanka -India relations had always been robust and cordial, but we have had some aberrations and seldom dissonance in our long standing relationship.
Narendra Modi was keen to have greater regional cooperation, in terms of promoting SAARC as well as promoting greater friendly relations with neighbours. I feel these are signs that the spirit of the new Government in India is positive and the countries in the region including Sri Lanka stand to benefit by this goodwill.
We think we are looking at a brighter future for regional cooperation and for bi-lateral cooperation.
Of course there are issues of concern to both countries and those issues will be discussed as we go by to find the best possible way forward.
Some Tamil Nadu political leaders opposed the invitation to President Rajapaksa on the basis of their political view points primarily driven by diaspora and other groups. But there are others in Tamil Nadu who welcomed President’s participation in the ceremony.
In fact we received letters from several groups of Tamil Non governmental organisations, fishermen associations, welcoming President Rajapaksa to India.
We don’t think the opposition to President Rajapaksa’s visit was a reflection of a widespread phenomena in Tamil Nadu.
Such protests should not be a reason for us to be pessimistic about the future of Sri Lanka – India relations as well as Sri Lanka – Tamil Nadu relations.
I don’t share the view that Sri Lanka – India relations were not good during the former BJP government. I am confident our current leaders are capable of resolving issues of mutual concern amicably.”