Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 12, 2016
India-baiting has become a part and parcel of the Rajapaksa camp-led Joint Opposition’s political attacks and protests against the ruling Maithiri-Ranil duo.
Rajapaksa camp’s increasing India-bashing

Despite the perceived bonhomie when he was in power, the Rajapaksa camp, now constituting the self-styled Joint Opposition (JO), is high on anti-India rhetoric, with each passing day. In the process, the dividing line between the group’s domestic political compulsions and foreign policy postures is getting increasingly blurred. If anything, India-baiting has become a part and parcel of the JO’s political attacks and protests against the ruling Maithiri-Ranil duo nearer home.

The JO’s ‘Kandy-Colombo march’ is the latest incident, where speakers from former President Mahinda Rajapaksa downwards were critical of the Government’s efforts to fast-track negotiations on the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with the northern neighbour. National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, once the spokesman of the anti-India JVP parent, has threatened national-level protests if the ETCA was signed.

The JO protests seem to be going beyond the urgency to retain constituencies and broad-basing them. Just now, the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) is in the forefront of anti-ETCA protests and confabulations. But the Rajapaksa camp protests against India go beyond the ETCA, and occasionally relates to the ‘China factor’, where its sympathies are very well known — and acknowledged too.

In context, Mahinda’s brother and one-time Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has upbraided the Maithiri-Ranil Government for ‘acknowledging’ Indian pressure to cancel the China-funded multi-billion Colombo Port City project. Other JO leaders were quick to join in, if they had not beat Gotabaya Rajapaksa to it.

It followed Cabinet spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne’s statement that India had forewarned the (Rajapaksa) Government about Sri Lanka losing the right to land its aircraft in the project locale, if China’s original proposal went through. A member of the Rajapaksa Cabinet too, Minister Senaratne was not referring to the present-day Government. Or, so it seemed from media reports of his weekly Cabinet briefing.

It’s anybody’s guess why Senaratne should drag India’s name into the discourse. Not the one to give up any political opportunity, the Rajapaksa JO was quick to grasp a part of the statement and give it an anti-India twist. Gotabaya said it was an admission of the Rajapaksa position that the Maithiri-Ranil Government had cancelled the port city project only under Indian pressure, as the latter feared for its security if China had exclusive rights in the immediate neighbourhood.

Neither Gotabaya, nor other JO leaders, acknowledged that the new government had in fact kept the port city project almost intact, and even China had no problem with amending parts of the original deal, including the land-use clause and others. Nor have they said that India’s security concerns in this regard were misplaced. At best, they have reiterated their earlier position that India had nothing to fear from the China project, without outlining, now as then, any safety clauses that could have eased India’s concerns.

As for the original project plan compromising Sri Lankan sovereignty and even territorial integrity, which is what Minister Senaratne seemed to imply, no JO leader has anything to offer. If the present dispensation has not driven home the point harsher, it may have to do with many Government leaders, including President Maithiripala Sirisena and Minister Senaratne, being a part and parcel of the predecessor Rajapaksa regime too.

It’s another matter that Gotabaya as Defence Secretary had talked often and more than most other leaders of the Rajapaksa regime on Indian fishers allegedly violating of Sri Lankan sovereignty and territorial integrity whenever they crossed the IMBL. It looks as if they did not have any problem about compromising Sri Lankan sovereignty even more on land to an extra-regional power whose intentions were/are as unclear as its anti-India adversity.

Distancing Modi

1ss Courtesy: Mahinda Rajapaksa/CC BY-NC 2.0

Thankfully for the bilateral relations, the Rajapaksas’ anti-India tirade had commenced after Mahinda had lost power in the January 2015 presidential polls. Talking to The Hindu only weeks later, Mahinda claimed — without proof or evidence — that Indian agencies had joined hands with the US and other western governments to topple him in the elections. Thankfully even more, he distanced Prime Minister Narendra Modi from such allegations.

It may not be without reason. Rather, any personal charge of the kind against PM Modi would have flown on the face of the speaker. Only weeks before the presidential polls that Rajapaksa had advanced by a year, Modi had wished him well in the elections at the SAARC Summit. It was an unprecedented gesture, full of political possibilities, but neither India, nor the Indian leader, quiver. If the Sri Lankan voter had other ideas and displayed it too, India as the immediate and larger neighbour respected it as much.

Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, was no exception. The technocrat-PM may not have gone all out as did his politician-successor, but he was more precise and specific, nonetheless. Singh sought to ease the embarrassment for his host when after initialling the MoU on the CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement), Rajapaksa ‘faced’ purported domestic opposition to the signing ceremony, fixed as a sideline event to SAARC-2008 Summit in Colombo. He reportedly told Rajapaksa that India would wait until Sri Lanka was ready for the CEPA, the forerunner to the ETCA.

Neighbourhood first

On assuming office, PM Modi declared his ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. More recently, at his maiden Town Hall talk in New Delhi, he spoke of ‘India first’. Entwined in between, like those before his time, have been India’s efforts to carry the neighbourhood with it on a steady growth-path, without insisting on their participation. Nor has India shied away from acknowledging the role of Chinese funding for neighbourhood growth, just as the American fundings during the ‘Cold War’ years.

2 Courtesy: NDTV screen grab via YouTube

In context, India’s reservations, if any, have been confined to specific security concerns, as applicable not just to the self but to the region as a whole. It is wrong to interpret the Indian military engagement with Sri Lanka via the IPKF route, as it also involved securing Sri Lanka from LTTE terrorism, after a point. Indian consistency in standing by the Katchchativu Accords (1974 and 1976), despite the continuing pressure from Tamil Nadu, should put paid to perceptions that India had armed Tamil militants a decade later, only to bifurcate Sri Lanka.

Then, as now, such a course would not have served Indian interests, including security interests. If the Bangladesh (1971) example is touted as an explanation by the India-baiters in Sri Lanka, then India would not have given away Katchchativu just three years later. There is no gainsaying the Indian perception that letting Sri Lanka’s internal problem overflow across the Palk Strait would have consequences for bilateral relations over the medium and long terms. Subsequent events have proved Indian apprehensions right.

Yet, there is no denying the need for India to marry the ‘India first’ and ‘neighbourhood first’ priorities in clearer terms than at present. India needs to acknowledge that in the absence of a UNSC veto, it would not shy away from demonstrating its global political power and reach, in the interest of its neighbours — as they see fit. It would have to work out bilateral mechanisms where it helps evolve domestic consensus on core domestic issues and lent it international support than was/is the case with a succession of UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka since 2012.

India’s responsibility to the neighbourhood is much more than that of any extra-regional power. That includes the US as much as China. In many a context, Indian concerns and responsibilities to the neighbourhood dovetails with those for the Indian nation and State. It is one thing for India to let the US leader of the West to take the initiative without the latter understanding the South Asian realities, but it is another to assert its knowledge, concerns and role in such matters.

The upcoming American presidential poll results are full of possibilities for South Asia in general and Sri Lanka in particular. It is so in the case of Maldives, which is also on India’s southern sea. In their case, the US and Indian concerns need not always be the same, or even similar, as with Pakistan and/or China. This would also mean that India has to look at the neighbourhood as a whole — and from an Indian and regional perspective. Yet, it cannot allow South Asia to be seen as a part of a greater geopolitical jig-saw puzzle, being played out by extra-regional players.

It was not the case during the Cold War era. But it is increasingly becoming so post-Cold War, when India too is seen as moving closer to the US. India needs to ask itself why Sri Lanka, which was traditionally pro-West, is seen as moving pro-China first, and towards the ‘geo-strategic centre’ more recently. The answers to India’s geo-strategic dilemma of our times rest there.

Highs and lows

India-Sri Lanka political relationship has seen many a high and low. While successive Indian leadership has been busily engaged with the larger world as much as neighbours, the latter has mostly been pre-occupied with the larger ‘regional power’, one way or the other. Sri Lanka was/is no exception. A succession of government leaderships have looked at India through the prism and priorities of their domestic political compulsions — as suited them.

With the traditional India-baiter in the JVP down and out, the Rajapaksa camp seems keen to capture that constituency, and also build on it in the 21st century Sri Lankan context. The trouble is that even if they returned to power, they could not do without India, whoever is in office in Delhi or even Chennai. Worse still could be a possible scenario where India under Modi buys peace with China on specifics, though not necessarily on the border-centric strategic front.

By seeking to project India-bashing as a part of their domestic politico-electoral agenda, Sri Lankan players could set for themselves commitments and goals that they may not have intended in the first place. Nor may they be able to deliver on the domestic ‘expectations’, even if to a hardcore domestic constituency. At the height of its popularity, even for the JVP, India-bashing was not a core of its politico-militant existence. It showed up the party as different from the status quo, and distant from ground realities. Contrarily, such a course could only lose crucial ‘add-on’ votes for them, going beyond what has become a strong ‘Rajapaksa vote-bank’.

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