Originally Published 2020-08-06 09:55:40 Published on Aug 06, 2020
Sri Lanka: Taking India ties forward, post-poll

The completion of the parliamentary polls in Sri Lanka this week should set the tone for a stable government for the next five years. This is a substantial time-period for the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to set in policy-changes, where needed, and put in motion those that he has decided upon since assuming office in November last.

The parliamentary polls were postponed twice owing to Covid-19 pandemic, and its very conduct at present has proved to be an add-on feature for the Gotabaya team, with his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minster. However, the ruling combine, led by the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), have sought a two-third majority in the 225-seat Parliament, to help them push through constitutional amendments, if not a new Constitution.

Domestic politics, and more so the economy, are at the focus of the Sri Lankan government just now, and it will continue to remain so for a considerable length of time. Post-poll now, the President can be expected to call in elections to the nine Provincial Councils (PC), which the predecessor government had found new ways to postpone, fearing sure defeat.

The ruling combine’s fears from the past were proved right, time and again. The presidential poll saw Gotabaya polling 52.25-percent vote-share. In the nation-wide local government elections in February 2018, the SLPP combine polled the single-largest 40 percent vote-share, without next-to-nil from the Tamil-majority North and relatively low in the multi-ethnic East.

National problem

Apart from domestic politics and economy, the government will have to take a re-look at the inherited foreign and security policies, as well. They were in turn a take-off from the predecessor Mahinda regime (2005-15). It is inevitable that the immediate and larger neighbour India is intrinsically linked to all three areas, as they also of common concern to both nations.

On two issues of domestic political concern, India was involved in the unsuccessful bid to resolve the ‘ethnic issue’ politically, and also in alerting Sri Lanka about the impending Easter Sunday blasts in the country, last year. On the blasts-centric security front, there is appreciation in Sri Lanka on the Indian assistance. The nation was aghast that Colombo did not act on actionable, specifics.

On the domestic political front, the India facilitated 13th Amendment still forms the core of any future solution to the ethnic issue. President Gotabaya has reiterated past Rajapaksa belief that certain portions of 13-A cannot be implemented and asked the stake-holders to look for/at alternatives.

Immediately after the LTTE’s exit in May 2009, the option was there for an incremental roll out powers promised under 13-A, to a Tamil Province. However, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which replaced the LTTE as the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamils, wanted more, and even got the draft for a new Constitution, put out under the previous regime.

Addressing an election rally recently, Prime Minister Mahinda clearly pooh-poohed the TNA’s poll manifesto demand a ‘federal solution’, after all but giving it up in favour of the new draft Constitution. He said that the TNA was seeking through political means what the LTTE could not get through military means -– a separate State.

A lot on this score will depend on the results of the elections, both at the national-level and also in the Tamil areas. The TNA hopes to win at least 20 of the 29 seats available to them, but the fight this time seems to be tougher than earlier – mainly because Tamil critics of the party, including the post-LTTE generation, feels that the party ‘wasted’ five long years under the previous regime, and did not bargain enough for their critically-needed parliamentary support.

In the early days of the parliamentary poll campaign, PM Mahinda declared that any political solution to the ethnic issue will address the concerns of all three communities – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslims – and not just one of them. The fact that the fourth ethnic group, the Upcountry Tamils of Indian origin slipped his mind is also a reflection on the ethnic pegging order, where India has emotional, though not political stake.

Currency-swap and ECT

Sri Lanka’s economy was the worst hit by Covid in relative terms than the rest of the world. Internal squabbles in the previous government was bad enough for a tottering economy, and the Easter blasts worsened the crisis, especially in the tourism sector, which is both a job-giver and forex-earner. Covid-19 only added to the woes when the Rajapaksa regime was settling down to business.

Taking a realistic view of the economic situation, Gotabaya, on his maiden overseas visit as President, sought a $ 1.1-b currency-swap facility from India. Prime Minister Mahinda, who followed weeks later, urged counterpart Narendra Modi to grant three-year moratorium on pending loans, totalling about $ 900 million.

After ‘technical discussions’, the two sides have agreed to (an initial?) $ 400-m swap, as sought for now. Discussions on the remaining swap-request and loan-deferment are pending.

However, sections within India is the Sri Lankan decision to ‘re-think’ India’s partnership in the tri-nation development of the Colombo Port Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), after the predecessor Government in Colombo had agreed to the same. It is to be noted that the new-found Rajapaksa fervour for not letting foreign interests to be in possession / control of ‘national assets’ has not applied to the much more controversial Hambantota Port, where China has a 99-year-old lien.

The Chinese lien over Hambantota was facilitated alternatively by the Rajapaksas’ predecessor regime and the intervening administration of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe, with support from an otherwise hard-line President Maithripala Sirisena. The latter also continued with Chinese involvement in Colombo Port City project, which Wickremesinghe had said, he would scrap, ahead of the victorious 2015 polls.

In recent weeks, Power Minister Mahinda Amaraweera reiterated the forgotten Colombo demand for Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) to surrender 25 oil tanks that had been leased out to the public sector entity in eastern Trincomalee, that too in the company of a Sri Lankan State enterprise. This should put at rest earlier suggestions for the two countries creating a ‘strategic buffer’ for both nations, utilising the remaining tanks.

The previous government in Colombo offered the China-built Mattala International Airport, not far away from Hambantota, to India, for conversion into a training facility. Mattala is the world’s ‘emptiest airport’, and yet the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government did not take forward their own proposal. It was also the case with their plans for inviting India and Japan to join hands to fund trilateral development of eastern Trincomalee port and town.

Post-Galwan China

Sri Lanka, along with other neighbours, has suddenly increased in importance for a section of the Indian strategic community, viz China, post-Galwan border clashes. Their concerns and expectations viz Sri Lanka lack clarity and specifics, but they see a China hand in every Sri Lankan move, and want New Delhi to gain an upper-hand in all neighbourhood affairs viz Beijing.

There is nothing to suggest that there are any ideological linkages between any government or ruling party in Sri Lanka and China, now or earlier. However, a realistic assessment of their own economic and diplomatic situation has forced them to lean onto China until other shoulders are firm and available, now and ever.

From the perspective of the Indian strategic community, New Delhi has given more to Colombo over the past decades than has got back in return – viz Pakistan earlier and China now. In the post-Cold War era especially, the Sri Lankan State and the majority Sinhala polity acknowledges an eternal need for veto-power’s consistent backing at the UNSC and by extension in such other UN affiliates as the UNHRC.

In Colombo’s perception, India had the political and diplomatic clout with regard to the affairs of South Asia, once accepted internationally as the ‘traditional sphere of Indian influence’, possibly no more. The Indian vote for the US-sponsored UNHRC resolution on ‘war crime probe’ at the UNHRC in 2012 was the clincher, in terms of numbers of political influence.

In his Independence Day on 4 February, President Gotabaya indicated that Sri Lanka would quit institutions that works against its interests. The obvious reference was to the UNHRC session in March 2021, when a co-authored resolution by Sri Lanka and the prime movers will come up for vote.

Both China and India will be voting members at the time, elected on a rotational basis. While in 2012, there were enough indications that some other Third World nations took the hint from India, they having no direct political interest in Sri Lankan affairs, China was known to have canvassed among some of them, to vote against the American resolution – and thus in Sri Lanka’s favour.

The Sri Lankan State, Sinhala and Tamil communities and also the international community will be keenly watching the Indian position at the time. That can dictate the future course of bilateral relations between the two IOR neighbours in South Asia, though there cannot be an overnight reversal, not until even a ‘neutral’ Sri Lanka can pay up China, its dues from massive debts incurred by two  different regimes through 15 long years.

This commentary originally appeared in South Asia weekly.

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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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