Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 27, 2022 Updated 27 Days ago
With increasing assistance from India to abate the Sri Lankan crisis, the new presidency seems to be keen to enhance bilateral relations.
Sri Lanka: Growing bilateral relations with India under President Wickremesinghe It can be said that the recent ascendancy of President Ranil Wickremesinghe to office is possibly the best time for a strong and stable relationship with India. It owes to the personality of the new leader and not to the political circumstances that led to it. The unflinching and unassuming Indian decision(s) to rush much-needed food, fuel, and medicines whenever Colombo approached New Delhi for imminent assistance in the face of the unprecedented economic crisis has earned greater goodwill for India all across Sri Lanka. Yet, inexplicable and indefensible antipathy towards the northern neighbour remains in certain sections, owing to domestic politics and legacy issues. Wickremesinghe is expected to announce his multiple priorities in his ‘Throne Speech’, akin to the President’s Address to the joint session of the Indian Parliament. To facilitate the same, as President, he is said to be considering a single-day prorogation of Parliament to meet procedural requirements. As Prime Minister and Finance Minister under predecessor President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe announced his decision to introduce a revised, ‘realistic’ budget for the current fiscal, ending in December. Wickremesinghe has since retained the finance portfolio as President, if only to reassure multiple Opposition parties that he is serious about the proposal for an all-party government, as sought by multiple stakeholders through the victorious anti-Rajapaksa Aragalaya struggle. He understands that the Finance Ministry would require a full-time minister, given the multiplicity of negotiations that he or she would have to head with global stakeholders. Handing it over to a relatively capable and trustworthy parliamentarian from the Opposition would also add to his credibility. Still, there may not be many capable hands wanting to risk their reputation at this hour.

As Prime Minister and Finance Minister under predecessor President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe announced his decision to introduce a revised, ‘realistic’ budget for the current fiscal, ending in December.

The only nation to help

Through the past two-plus months as Prime Minister, succeeding Mahinda Rajapaksa, who too was forced out by the protestors, Wickremesinghe had reiterated that India was the ‘only nation’ to help out his country through the continuing food, fuel, and pharma crisis. In such a situation, as New Delhi has repeatedly clarified, India might be required to pitch in to help out the ‘Sri Lankan people’, at least until the International Monetary Fund (IMF) rolls out its ‘bail-out package’. This package will be based on debt-restructuring agreements with multiple overseas debtors, which would be the basis for other nations to extend assistance. Through Wickremesinghe’s one-year probationary period until regular presidential polls later next year, western governments, in particular, would be closely monitoring his leadership’s ability to restore social cohesion and societal security, which has been compromised to a lesser or greater extent through the past months of protests. In particular, the West would be evaluating the general impact and popular acceptance of the Wickremesinghe leadership’s continued dependence on the Rajapakasa’s backing in Parliament, where their 115 MP vote was the major contributor to his becoming President. Nations such as the US are also peeved at the new President conferring greater powers on the security forces than even predecessor Gota, to disperse squatters who continued to occupy the President’s Secretariat despite court orders. Specifically, the European Union (EU) has reminded the Ranil leadership of Sri Lanka’s human rights commitments for continuing the GSP+ export concessions.

The West would be evaluating the general impact and popular acceptance of the Wickremesinghe leadership’s continued dependence on the Rajapakasa’s backing in Parliament, where their 115 MP vote was the major contributor to his becoming President.

Issues and concerns

Traditionally, India–Sri Lanka bilateral relations are centered on a few specific issues and concerns—security concerns (now includes security cooperation), ethnic issues, fishers dispute, and investment climate—each one getting greater focus at specific times and under particular circumstances. Even as India began extending forex assistance, a section of the political Opposition in Sri Lanka was critical of the Rajapaksa regime for signing high-cost investment agreements in the power sector, though not all of them named India’s public and private sector entities in this regard. Likewise, on the fisheries front, through the past months of Indian assistance to a nation facing both economic and political crises, one out-witting the other, on daily-basis Indian fishermen continued to be arrested and their boats and gears impounded on allegations of violating the IMBL and poaching in Sri Lankan waters. This continued even after the government of Tamil Nadu organised three consignments of food and pharma aid as a gift to the Sri Lankan brethren. With the result, the state government, and the Centre acting for it and on its own behalf, have to continue appealing to the good senses of the Sri Lankan authorities to free the arrested fishers and their maritime assets—with a limited response, now as under the Rajapaksas, before and after the economic crisis. Incidentally, Wickremesinghe has retained veteran Tamil politician Douglas Devananda as Fisheries Minister, ranking him second only to Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena by seniority.

After the ascension of the new government, Beijing may have to bend backwards to prove to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans that it did not desert a ‘friend in need’ in its real hour of economic crisis.

Yet, there is a visible improvement in matters of security cooperation. Despite the economic and political crises that plagued the Gota regime through its last weeks, defence teams from the two nations, along with other members of the expanded Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) met in  Kochi, India, to take forward the decisions and achievements since 2021, when the regional forum centred on IOR security was launched. With the re-appointment of the controversial war-time field commander, Gen Kamal Gunaratne, a Gota appointee named in the UNHRC war-crime probe papers, as defence secretary, Wickremesinghe may have ensured continuity on this front, but with consequences at the Geneva session, come September. However, India’s China concerns viz Sri Lanka continue to remain real though through the past years, there is nothing to suggest that Chinese commercial investments had led to any military/security tie-up that New Delhi should be worried about. Now, after the ascension of the new government, Beijing may have to bend backwards to prove to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans that it did not desert a ‘friend in need’ in its real hour of economic crisis. Even otherwise, given the current economic situation, the revival of the much-hyped, China-funded Colombo Port City project any time soon looks suspect at best.

Twin anniversaries

This month, the anniversaries events of lasting impact on post-Independence bilateral ties for the two nations—the ‘Black July’ anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, followed four years later by the historic Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, signed on 29 July 1987. The enabling 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, empowering the Tamil Province(s), is a product of the Accord. Till date, the Sri Lankan stakeholders have not given it a chance, either side sticking to skewed perceptions and interpretations of what did not suit them in what was visualised as a document for ethnic accommodation and adjustments. For their part, successive governments in New Delhi have sworn by the Accord and the 13-A, which in theory met the ‘legitimate aspirations of ethnic Tamils within a united Sri Lanka’. In a media interview, President Wickremesinghe said that the ethnic issue was amongst his priorities (even though the mainstay Tamil National Alliance, TNA, with 10 MPs, had resolved to vote against him, alongside most other minorities parties from three different ethnicities, all rooted in the Tamil language).

The Sri Lankan stakeholders have not given it a chance, either side sticking to skewed perceptions and interpretations of what did not suit them in what was visualised as a document for ethnic accommodation and adjustments.

How far Wickremesinghe would be able to go on the ethnic front along with the all-party commitment to downsizing the Executive Presidency to levels that he had done as Prime Minister (2015-19) before being restored by the Rajapaksas on return to power through twin elections in 2019-20 depends on multiple factors, including the Tamil proposals and the Sinhala-Buddhist majority social reaction, though both had rubbed shoulders at the Aragalaya protests. New Delhi will be keenly watching the developments on this and other aspects of bilateral relations and multilateral assistance to address Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. In between, the two nations can be expected to work together at the UNHRC in September, when the Sri Lanka resolution from the past would come up for review, and the US-led ‘core group’ can be expected to add President Wickremesinghe’s own deed of ordering the security forces to clear the President’s Secretariat of protestors, to their long list of pending charges of human rights violations against the erstwhile Rajapaksa regimes, old (2005-15) and new (2019-22).
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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