Originally Published 2004-07-20 05:45:31 Published on Jul 20, 2004
The Sri Lankan Premier Mahinda Rajapakse has completed his three-day visit to India over the weekend from July 17 to 19. He was here on the invitation of the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.
Sri Lankan Premier India Visit: An Opportunity Lost?
The Sri Lankan Premier Mahinda Rajapakse has completed his three-day visit to India over the weekend from July 17 to 19. He was here on the invitation of the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. <br /> <br /> Mahinda Rajapakse marked his first official visit to a foreign country as Prime Minister, by responding to the invitation of the Indian Prime Minister and also became the first Prime Minister from any country to visit the newly installed Indian Government. It was Dr. Singh's desire to ensure that Rajapakse enjoyed this honour. <br /> <br /> India was seen as reciprocating the gesture of then Foreign Minister designate, Lakshman Kadirgamar who visited India within days of his party assuming power in Sri Lanka after the April 2 General Elections and also a second time later. It was also a continuation of the visits by the former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe. <br /> <br /> The dynamism in Indo-Lanka relations is being maintained by the present high profile visit though such a visit could have been organised better and been longer, to take maximum advantage of such a high profile opportunity. <br /> <br /> The invitation from Dr. Singh to Mahinda Rajapakse took over a month to materialise into a visit. And finally when dates were finalised, and the three-day official visit from July 17 to 19 announced, it meant that with the delegation arriving on Saturday evening, effectively had just two days left for discussion. <br /> <br /> This happened because the dates for the visit came just before the July 20 session of the Sri Lankan Parliament, which meant that Rajapakse had to be present for the session and hence the curtailed visit. This meant a cramped schedule, which would certainly curtail detailed discussions or an extended delegation. <br /> <br /> Even, the tightly packed schedule of the Sri Lankan PM was a result of the initiative taken by the Indian High Commission to arrange for the Prime Minister to meet several Indian leaders. The Sri Lankan foreign office was not able to finalise appointments at this end, according to news reports from Colombo. <br /> <br /> Sri Lanka had definitely lost an opportunity to make the most of such a high profile visit. What suffered as a result was that there were no concrete moves either on the defence pact to be signed between the two countries, which has been hanging fire since the previous United National Party (UNP) led Government failed to finalise it. Detailed discussions were put off for later because of curtailed visit. <br /> <br /> The Ministry of External Affairs of India had classified the Sri Lankan Premier's visit as a "working visit", as it had done for the previous visit by former PM Ranil Wickremasinghe in October 2003. <br /> <br /> In a press release announcing the Sri Lankan PM's visit, MEA said that, "Relations between India and Sri Lanka are characterized by close political understanding, growing economic relations and expansion and consolidation in other areas of collaboration." <br /> <br /> However, at a time when Sri Lanka wants India to play a more involved role in the peace process in the strife torn nation, the Sri Lankan Foreign Office could have handled their Prime Minister's visit much better. <br /> <br /> The latest visit does not seem to have taken the relationship beyond the joint declaration by the two previous Prime Ministers, Vajpayee and Ranil Wickremasinghe in October 2003, when Ranil Wickremasinghe visited India. In the joint statement issued then, following discussions between the two premiers, it was said that two sides were to commence discussions with a view to conclude a defence cooperation agreement at the earliest.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The defence cooperation is hanging fire since then and has not been taken forward despite visits by the previous Sri Lankan Chief of Defence Staff and Army Commander, Lt. Gen Lionel Piyananda Balagalle. The presence of the Defence Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake as part of the Prime Ministerial delegation could have helped expedite the defence cooperation agreements and his absence certainly meant a certain lack of momentum in this regard. <br /> <br /> However, what has materialised from the visit is the extended line of credit to Sri Lanka, decision to expedite the defence agreement soon and also a move towards concretising the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). The visit has marked the increasing relevance of India in Sri Lanka and the improvement in India- Sri Lanka ties. <br /> <br /> The Visit <br /> <br /> Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Minister of Trade, Commerce and Consumer Affairs and Anura Dissanayake, Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Lands and Irrigation accompanied the Sri Lankan Premier on this visit. The delegation from Sri Lanka also included Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the Prime Minister and Sunimal Fernando, advisor. <br /> <br /> With regard to the recent visit, what was a significant development last week on July 14 was that the President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga cancelled an upcoming trip to India by Fernandopulle who was scheduled to hold discussions with several Indian companies. The Presidential Secretariat notified the minister on the night of July 13 that President Chandrika had not granted permission for the trip. Anura Dissanayake, was supposed to accompany Fernandopulle on that occasion. However following the cancellation of the visit, the two found themselves as part of the Prime Ministerial delegation which visited India over the weekend. Why and how the cancellation of the visits by the two ministers and being made part of the delegation is not clear. <br /> <br /> Sri Lanka sought Indian economic and technical assistance for rural reconstruction and infrastructure development when Mahinda Rajapakse met Indian External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh. Nirupam Sen, Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, who was present during the meeting, said that the two sides had exchanged views on the peace process in Sri Lanka. Natwar Singh was reported as promising "some economic assistance" to the North and East of Sri Lanka. <br /> <br /> J N Dixit, National Security Adviser met the visiting Prime Minister and said that he "conveyed the Government's policies which were based on long-term Indo- Sri Lankan friendship and upholding of Sri Lanka's interests". <br /> <br /> In an immediate gesture, the Indian Government extended a special US $ 150 credit line to Sri Lanka for petroleum products from India. The loan is expected to ease the additional pressure on import prices in Sri Lanka considerably and also strengthen the exchange rate where the Sri Lankan rupee has seen a steady fall against the dollar.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conveyed the decision to his Sri Lankan counterpart. He also informed him about India's willingness to offer a line of credit of 100 million USD for up gradation of rural infrastructure. A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office said that the specifics would be worked out during consultations between the two sides. <br /> <br /> While reviewing the Sri Lankan peace process, Singh highlighted New Delhi's support for a solution, which protects the rights of all Sri Lankan citizens while maintaining the territorial integrity of that country. Both leaders expressed satisfaction over the way bilateral relations were developing. <br /> <br /> Earlier, the Prime Ministerial delegation held discussions on July 18 with Indian finance and agriculture ministers in New Delhi. Following the meeting with the Sri Lankan Premier, Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram said that India was looking at new areas for enhancing economic cooperation with Sri Lanka including agriculture with a line of credit also in the plans. He said that the double taxation avoidance treaty with Colombo would be reviewed. <br /> <br /> He said that future areas of cooperation would include milk and dairy processing where Sri Lanka is interested in involving Amul, to help develop its local dairy industry. Anura Dissanayake made a visit to Gujarat to see the operations of the Cooperative and see if it could be replicated in Sri Lanka. Fruits, horticulture and road infrastructure, where the Sri Lankan delegation had evinced interest in the Golden Quadilateral Project also figured among the areas discussed by the two sides. <br /> <br /> Sharad Pawar, Food and Agriculture Minister also called on the Sri Lankan Premier where the Sri Lankan delegation obtained a promise for Indian technological expertise for Sri Lanka's agriculture sector. Fernandopulle was reported saying after the talks, that Sri Lanka would be able to import wheat from India at concessionary prices. Very recently there had been a furore in Sri Lanka about rising wheat flour prices, as a Singapore based company Prima supplying wheat flour enjoys a monopoly. Fernandopulle who was at the forefront of the controversy had threatened then to break the company's monopoly by importing Indian wheat and making the market competitive. <br /> <br /> The delegation had held discussions with Indian officials regarding security and trade agreements. Mangala Moonesinghe, Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India, said that Sri Lankan delegates had agreed to the proposals from India regarding the agreements. Detailed discussions would he held in Sri Lanka regarding the Indo Lanka FTA when a high powered delegation led by Secretary of Commerce will visit to strengthen and expand the scope of the FTA from August 16 to 18. The delegation is also expected to concentrate on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which would move further ahead of the existing FTA. <br /> <br /> Rajapakse also had discussions with Oscar Fernandes, Minister of State for Statistics and Programme Implementation. The meeting with T R Balu, Minister of Road Transport and Highways and Shipping did not materialise, however. <br /> <br /> Discussions have also taken place about the ferry service between Colombo and Kochi (Kerala). High Commissioner, Moonesinghe said that a MoU would be signed between the two countries shortly in this respect. <br /> <br /> The visit is a pointer towards the importance given by the present Indian Government, which has reciprocated the Sri Lankan Government's gesture of giving importance to India's role in the region. <br /> <br /> (The writer is a member of the Research Staff at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and focuses on studying developments in Sri Lanka. E-mail: [email protected]) <br /> <br /> <em>* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.</em>
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