Reaching out to India

Despite an earlier souring of relations, Sri Lanka’s former president is now intent on improving bilateral ties with India. Neville de Silva reports

Twenty-nineteen is a crucial year for India and its small neighbour Sri Lanka – perhaps even more so forthe latter, which might well be heading for two critical elections: one for the presidency, the other for parliament.

The physical proximity of the two countries and their centuries-old cultural, linguistic and racial affinities have led to political developments in one country spilling over into the other, sometimes with chilling effect. So Indian understanding of the nuances of Sri Lanka’s major political parties and the country’s unresolved national/ethnic issues form an important underpinning in Colombo’s political and bilateral considerations.

HEIR APPARENT: Namal Rajapaksa, son of former president Mahinda
HEIR APPARENT: Namal Rajapaksa, son of former president Mahinda

During the chequered  history of post-independence Indo-Lankan relations – the 1980s and 2014 being the most troubled – changes in the geostrategic equation in the Indian Ocean and the rise of India as a counterweight to fast-developing China in regional politics have made Sri Lanka’s leaders re-think and recalibrate their own approaches to India and aim for a strategic balance in their relationship with China and India.

With international strategic concerns shifting to the Indian Ocean (in which Sri Lanka sits right in the middle) and Colombo’s perceptible swing in the last several years towards China, which has its footprint planted firmly in Sri Lanka, New Delhi’s friendship and understanding are considered important. This is especially so as the two countries, separated by a narrow strip of water, face possible regime change in the coming days and months.

A new generation of ambitious politicians is emerging in Sri Lanka, determined to keep the Rajapaksa clan– unarguably the country’s most dominant political family, which has ruled for a decade or so– alive and kicking for high office. The Rajapaksas’ tenure saw the government, in May 2009, militarily defeat a separatist insurgency led by the ruthless Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and they have used that victory to remain politically powerful and popular.

New Delhi’s friendship and understanding are considered important

Now Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and the then defence secretary credited with heading the successful offensive against the LTTE, is the front-runner to become president and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s newly formed Sri Lanka Peoples’ Party (SLPP) to form the government.

Today, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s main foreign interest is to reforge ties with India, which became soured during the last Rajapaksa years.

In late 2014, a few months before the 2015 presidential election, Rajapaksa alleged that India was pushing for regime change, claiming that Indian intelligence was interfering in Sri Lanka’s poll and calling for the return of an intelligence agent posted in Colombo. The man was recalled, with India’s ‘South Bloc’ saying it was just carrying out a routine transfer.

But for Rajapaksa’s supporters, who suspected covert Indian intervention, it was an attempt to overthrow a Sinhala Buddhist hero who had defeated a secessionist force. And the Rajapaksa government’s expectations that newly elected Indian PM Narendra Modi, who swept aside the Congress Party (which had helped the LTTE at various stages of the long war), represented a welcome change and would be a faithful ally, were sorely disappointed.

The fact that Rajapaksa was invited to Modi’s inauguration was misread by Rajapaksa and his advisers as Sri Lanka now having a genuine friend in Panvati, the Indian prime minister’s residence.Even if Modi and Washington were engaged instrengthening bilateral relations to meet new challenges posed by China’s westward push in the Indian Ocean, Rajapaksa had other friends among senior politicians and important media in India.

One of the closest was a senior BJP politician Dr Subramanian Swamy. He called on the former president at his private home in the country’s deep south on his birthday last August and invited him to Indiato participate at a BJP conference. Subramanian Swamy was doing a good turn for an old friend.

During his three-day stay as Swamy’s guest, Rajapaksa was able to have a meeting with Prime Minister Modi. At that meeting Rajapaksa introduced his son and heir apparent, Namal, now a junior MP. In doing so, he was letting Modi know –if he did not already – who was lined up to take power in Sri Lanka in five years’ time.

ALLIES: Rajapaksa (l) with Dr Swamy last August
ALLIES: Rajapaksa (l) with Dr Swamy last August

If the Swamy invitation to an old friend came as no surprise, what did surprise political circles in Sri Lanka was the invitation extended to the former president to deliver the inaugural address at the third annual meeting of the ‘Huddle’, an influential gathering of intellectuals, politicians, journalists and others for an exchange of ideas. This was organised by The Hindu newspaper group, run by the respected Kasthuri family and now chaired by N.Ram, one-time editor of the prestigious Chennai newspaper. Namal was once again by his father’s side on this occasion, when Rajapaksa met Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi – a fourth-generation political figure meeting a third-generation politician-in-waiting, ready to assume his father’s one-time mantle.

Ram had built up a close relationship Rajapaksa and had interviewed him during his early days. I had met Ram at an Asian journalists’ seminar in China in 1987, when he was flying high in leftist intellectual circles. Given Ram’s political and journalistic credentials, the invitation to Rajapaksa to deliver the inaugural address on ‘The future of India-Sri Lanka ties’ was not only propitious but truly symbolic, against the backdrop of a political scenario that would unfold in the coming months.

It is interesting to note that in his address, Rajapaksa ignored the 1980 period when Indian war planes intruded into Sri Lankan airspace for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, in support of the Tamil population in northern Sri Lanka – which, incidentally opened a way for the cornered LTTE leadership to escape. Nor did he mention the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka’s north in 1987 and the consequent armed insurrection in the country’s south against Indian military presence, resulting in two simultaneous and separate wars in Sri Lanka.

He even avoided any reference to the highly controversial Indo-Sri Lanka Accord that many here believe was thrust down then Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene’s throat, forcing him to pass a 13th amendment to the constitution to set up provincial councils.

In late 2014, Rajapaksa alleged that India was pushing for regime change

Rajapaksa’s main concern was how to improve bilateral ties and create a mechanism outside the routine diplomatic and administrative arrangements. He referred to what he called the ‘troika’ mechanism, which existed on both sides. The one in Colombo consisted of defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (now vying to be president), minister Basil Rajapaksa and presidential secretary Lalith Weeratunga. On the Indian side were all career officials: the national security adviser, the foreign secretary and the defence secretary. However, in the last days of the Congress government, its leader was weak and ineffectual and nothing fruitful happened.

Now Rajapaksa is setting the stage for electoral changes in Sri Lanka and India. He wants a smooth relationship with India when his son Namal takes the stage as president after 2025, when he will be 35 and eligible to contest.

But there is one hitch. Brother Gotabaya has presented himself as the likely presidential candidate. The question is, will he call it a day after one five-year term or will he like the comfort of the presidential seat and insist on a second term? If that happens he will block Namal’s chances in 2025.

So now Mahinda Rajapaksa is showing India’s political leaders who he has groomed as a future president. He does not want anyone to set up political road blocks, and is hinting that a smooth Indo-Sri Lankan relationship would be possible under Namal’s presidency. India’s leaders, he seems to be suggesting, should work for better ties from their end.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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