By Izeth Hussain
The recent visit of Prime Minister Modi seems to be generally seen as a triumphant deployment of Indian soft power, as a highly sophisticated exercise in Indian diplomacy. But I am left with an uneasy feeling about some of what actually transpired during the visit. The soft glove of Indian diplomacy was certainly much in evidence, but I and doubtless many others could sense behind it the iron fist of a regional great power dealing with a small and weak regional neighbor. The assumption behind the deployment of Indian soft power seemed to be that the small neighbor belonged to the sphere of influence of the regional great power.
Consider the implications of former President Rajapakse’s charge that he was unseated from power by an international conspiracy in which central roles were played by India’s RAW, British intelligence, and the CIA. He seemed to be giving particular emphasis to the role played by RAW. He declared, for instance, that he had actually asked for the removal of the RAW agent in Colombo but by that time the conspiratorial plot had been advanced too far. Most important for the purposes of this article is that he was asked – by an Indian journal in the course of an interview – about the Modi Government’s role in the conspiracy. His response was that they had nothing to do with it because the plot had been hatched and set going long before Modi and his Government came to power. For sheer disingenuousness, surely, that response is hard to beat. MR affects to believe, and ostensibly wants others to believe, that RAW played a cardinal role in overthrowing MR without the knowledge of Prime Minister Modi and his Government. The truth rather is that MR dared not make charges against Modi and his Government without being able to produce a shred of evidence. In other words, he made obeisance to India’s power.
I had the impression during the Modi visit that we were witnessing a replay of 1987. President JR failed disastrously to understand the geopolitics of his time. He believed that he could get closer and closer to the US without there being adverse repercussions on our relations with India. He failed to understand that in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan such relations would be seen as inimical to India’s vital interests. What happened thereafter was that by 1987 the Soviet troops had been withdrawn from Afghanistan, the US made up with India and both joined hands in imposing the Peace Accords on Sri Lanka. JR declared in public that he had no alternative to accepting Indian diktats because Sri Lanka found itself isolated in the world. President MR, in his turn, got closer and closer to China, even to the extent of agreeing to cede a slice of Sri Lankan territory for China to hold in perpetuity, and complains that he has been overthrown by RAW, that is by India. That charge has not been echoed by any other country, not even by India’s hostile neighbors. MR had isolated himself internationally just as JR did.
It is important for the purpose of maintaining good relations with India to try to make sense of the charge that RAW played a central role in overthrowing MR. In recent years Sri Lanka has acquired a geopolitical importance as never before. China is establishing a Maritime Silk Route in which Sri Lanka has a pivotal position as part of a strategy that has been causing concern to India and the West as well. Much earlier India had been expanding its naval power and showed clearly that it wished to establish a predominant position in the Indian Ocean. A conflict of interests between India and China is implicit in these developments, and it would be understandable if India wanted a change of regime in Sri Lanka whose Government was seen as getting too close to China.
India could have wanted a change of regime also because there was not the slightest prospect of moving towards a political solution of the Tamil ethnic problem as long as MR was in power. It had to be expected, perhaps, that RAW, the CIA, and British intelligence conspired to overthrow MR. But to jump from that to the conclusion that that was why MR was actually overthrown is a huge non sequitur. It is a hard undeniable fact that the elections were held under the auspices of the MR Government, that the resources of the state were used illicitly to promote MR’s candidature, and that the elections have nevertheless been regarded as free and fair. The outcome was that MR was outvoted by a solid minorities vote together with a substantial proportion of the Sinhalese vote. A majority of the Sri Lankan people wanted democracy and an end to our ethnic problems, and therefore MR had to go. The notion that he was overthrown by secret service plotting is nonsense. We must all hope that the Indian political bigwigs have the good sense to laugh off MR’s wild allegations.
It has to be expected, as a matter of hard reality considering the actual norms of international relations, that India would want something like a predominant position in relation to Sri Lanka. That certainly does not mean the satellisation of Sri Lanka or any kind of attaint on its sovereignty. For decades we managed to have excellent relations with India by observing one cardinal principle: Sri Lanka cannot by itself pose a threat to India but it could do so if it gets together with some other country against India.
President JR did not understand that principle, and President MR did not quite understand its practical implications, as shown for instance by the Indian reaction to the visits of those Chinese submarines. In such situations we have to sense the hard iron behind the soft glove of diplomacy. However the new Government should have no great difficulty in working out satisfactory relations with both India and China provided it bears in mind the cardinal principle that I have mentioned and two important facts: there is no reason why India should want to dominate Sri Lanka, and there is no reason why India and China would want their mutual good relations to be spoilt because of Sri Lanka.
The irritant of Indian fishermen intruding into our territorial waters remains, and so does the major problem, the Tamil ethnic one. I found Prime Minister Modi’s position on the latter quite disappointing. Obviously the Indian side fully appreciates the fact that there is a prospect of a political solution under the new Government whereas there was none under MR. Prime Minister Modi quite rightly placed his emphasis on the need for patience and flexibility on the Tamil side. But he also advocated going beyond 13A, not in a tentative manner but quite categorically. The problem is that “going beyond 13A” could mean anything if it is left undefined, including even a confederal arrangement. He also referred in a positive way to what he called “cooperative federalism”, forgetting that federalism has been an F word in Sri Lanka, as indeed it has been in India itself. Perhaps an explanation for what look like faux pas might be found in the fact that Modi has never held office at the Centre, only at the Provincial level, and that as a doer of exceptional ability he is mindful of what more can be done through a wide measure of devolution. That may be the explanation, but it is not the best frame of mind in which to contribute towards a solution of Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem.