Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 09, 2020
To be or not to be on 13-A, India’s Sri Lanka moment again?

For a summit of Government leaders in the traditional format, it was not one. But considering Covid times, the recent India-Sri Lanka bilateral in the virtual mode may have set a precedent for short and sweet exchanges even in post-pandemic times. As per reports with interpreters taking their time, the summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa took around one hour.

No agreements were signed during the virtual summit, but in terms of subjects covered and the outcomes, it could not have been anything different even in across-the-table interactions. If in the traditional mode, the two leaders may have had occasions for one-on-one exclusive exchanges, on secured phonelines during Covid-19 lockdown and even earlier. According to Amit Narang, Joint Secretary (IOR), whose division in India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), handles Sri Lankan affairs, assisted by their aides, the two leaders “discussed strengthening of bilateral financial cooperation, reviewed the entire range of bilateral matters and exchanged views on regional and international issues of common concern”.

Reading out from the joint statement issued after the summit, JS Narang said that the Sri Lankan side reiterated their pending request for a further cash-swap arrangement of $ 1 billion, over and above $ 400-m, already agreed upon. PM Mahinda also mentioned about  the pending request for a three-year moratorium on the $ 900-m debt owed to India. Narang said that ‘technical discussions’ on both ‘are going on and a mutual understanding may be arrived at shortly’.

Unabashedly open

Right from the beginning, the Sri Lankan side has been unabashedly open about their financial needs, accentuated even more by the Covid-induced economic crisis. Prime Minister Mahinda and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said as much in interviews to the Indian media during their maiden overseas visits after taking over office. The Sri Lankan leadership will be keenly watching the Indian response in the coming weeks. For New Delhi, apart from the technical terms the added concern will be about Sri Lanka’s options in the matter, particularly the possibilities of Colombo approaching Beijing for further aid. At the commencement of the Covid-19 scare, China ‘unilaterally’ (?) sanctioned $ 500 m to shore up the sinking forex reserves of the island-nation in mid-March, followed by a commitment for another $ 400 m, announced almost simultaneously.

Container terminal

Going by media reports, JS Narang was circumspect about the Rajapaksa regime reviving the tri-nation Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) project in Colombo Port, involving Japan, too. The Rajapaksa Government had shelved the project, earlier cleared by the predecessor Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime in Colombo, citing labour and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist protests. Though the two Rajapaksas then said that they were against handing over ‘national assets’, new Foreign Secretary, retired Navy chief, Adm Jayanth Colombage, clarified that New Delhi had ‘legitimate stakes’ as 70 percent of the Colombo Port’s business was India-centric.

After the virtual summit, Narang said: “Both sides remain committed to these ventures. During the Summit, PM Modi expressed confidence that the new (Sri Lankan) Government will take early and decisive steps for the implementation of these projects.” This could imply that the two sides, or either of them, had not given up on the ECT project and technical discussions may either be already on, or may be taken up with greater seriousness in the future.

Unique opportunity

At the meeting, Rajapaksa expressed his firm resolve to use the opportunity provided by the strong two-third majority achieved by his SLPP-led alliance parliamentary polls to take bilateral engagement to new heights. Modi added that the current moment provided a ‘unique opportunity’ for both countries to work more closely with each other in handling Covid-19 centric economic concerns and deepening engagement on regional and international issues.

As may be recalled, India was the first nation in South Asia to unilaterally offer aid and assistance, starting with face-masks and sanitisers but not stopping with them, in the early days of the pandemic-attack in the region and outside. As PM Modi pointed out in his annual UNGA address, again through the virtual medium, only hours before his summit with the Sri Lankan leader, India had sent Covid- centric medical assistance to close to 150 UN member-nations. Both Sri Lanka and Maldives, which reported the earliest cases of Covid-19 in the region were also among the first ones to receive Indian assistance of the kinds that those nations identified and sought. The bonhomie however does not mean that there are no non-economic issues of a bilateral political nature without Indian concern. With the Rajapaksas firmly back in the saddle and with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Modi called for the ‘full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, saying it is essential for the peace and reconciliation process’.

"Both Sri Lanka and Maldives, which reported the earliest cases of Covid-19 in the region were also among the first ones to receive Indian assistance of the kinds that those nations identified and sought"

JS Narang’s read-out said, “Prime Minister Modi called on the new Government in Sri Lanka to work towards realising the expectations of Tamils for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka by achieving reconciliation.” According to the joint statement, PM Rajapkasa “expressed the confidence that Sri Lanka will work towards realising the expectations of all ethnic groups, including Tamils, by achieving reconciliation nurtured as per the mandate of the people of Sri Lanka and implementation of the Constitutional provisions”.

Mandate of the people

Translated, Prime Minister Rajapaksa was seemingly skidding the issue. His pointed reference to ‘all ethnic groups’ in his country implies that his Government would continue to give due weightage to the sentiments and concerns of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community. Left unmentioned is also the real concerns of the Muslim community, which felt concerned at the accompanying Provincial Councils Act, 1987, which provided for the merger of the Tamil-majority North and the tri-ethnic Eastern Province, where the community has a substantial presence. Rajapaksa’s reference to the ‘mandate of the people’ too has twin components. Upfront, he was referring to the fact that his Government’s parliamentary poll victory, more so the two-thirds majority, owed entirely to the Sinhala-Buddhist votes. This constituency was buttressed by the Sinhala-speaking Christian votes, constituting around five percent of the electorate, in the aftermath of last year’s Easter serial-blasts.

"Left unmentioned is also the real concerns of the Muslim community, which felt concerned at the accompanying Provincial Councils Act, 1987, which provided for the merger of the Tamil-majority North and the tri-ethnic Eastern Province, where the community has a substantial presence"

What Prime Minister Mahinda did not spell out is the well-acknowledged fact that main sections of the Tamil and Muslim polity and major segments of their respective communities went overboard to vote against the Rajapaksas in both the presidential and parliamentary elections. Better or worse still, made celebratory statements on the consistency of their community stand since the post-war presidential polls of 2009.

So much so that, present-day incumbent Gotabaya Rajapaksa skipped campaigning in the Tamil areas in the presidential polls last year, and also declared that he was doing so as he did not expect the Tamils to vote for him. In comparison, the Rajapaksa-led SLPP-combine did manage five seats from the North and the East in the parliamentary polls, next only to the 10 won by the three-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), down from 16 held in the previous House.

Deepening linkages

In this background, PM Modi’s announcement of a $ 15-m grant for the ‘promotion of Buddhist ties between the two countries’ has not gone down well with a section of the Tamil polity and society in Sri Lanka. According to JS Narang, the “grant will assist in deepening people-to-people linkages between the two countries in the sphere of Buddhism, through constructions and renovations of Buddhist monasteries, capacity- development, cultural exchanges, archaeological cooperation, reciprocal exposition of Lord Buddha’s relics, strengthening of Buddhist scholarship, and supporting the clergy”. Continuing with the precedent set by Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, such grants and cooperation are an Indian acknowledgement of the age-old cultural and religious ties between the two nations on Buddhism front. This should not be (wantonly) confused with the greater Indian involvement on the language-based ‘umbilical cord’ connection between the Tamil-speaking people in the two countries, more so in political terms through the past decades.

At the summit, the two sides also decided to cooperate in the field of defence and security, something that is already happening. In the changed circumstances of Sri Lankan domestic politics, this should reflect President Gota’s ‘India Frist’ foreign policy, which was reiterated by Sri Lankan FS, Adm Colombage, through a series of media interviews, locally. Yet, the devil in the detail, and in India-Sri Lanka relations, it is over the ‘ethnic issue’, apart from the equally ubiquitous ‘China factor’, which at times is of greater concern to New Delhi – and by extension, the entire region.

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