”Time and again Colombo turned the tables on Delhi whenever the latter tried to be intrusive. It cannot be otherwise in the unfolding scenario. In geopolitical terms, India’s priority ought to have lied on regional stability rather than the cut and the thrust of the US-led ‘new great game’ in the Indian Ocean”.
by M.K. Bhadrakumar
India has shifted gear on Sri Lanka and is edging toward an overtly intrusive mode. That is, if the outgoing foreign secretary Nirupama Rao’s remarks are to be taken as more than a parting shot.
“They (President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government) have to look at it carefully. As per the video (BBC’s Channel 4 documentary on Sri Lanka), there were human rights violations during the last few days of the war they were fighting. It cannot be justified in any way.
But it was a war zone. It should also be taken into consideration that there were tragedies in Sri Lanka.” Colombo is not going to like these words.
Rao added, “We must take care of it in the neighbourhood. We have to avoid jumping to conclusions (about) any third party’s involvement. We have to be directly involved in dialogue with them. After all, India is the closest neighbour of Sri Lanka.” The shedding of the Indian ambiguity follows the demarche by the United States in Colombo threatening that the study instituted by the United Nations secretary-general on Sri Lanka would be taken up at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Shorn of diplomatese, Rao’s message seems to be: ‘India has to be directly involved. Or else…’
Colombo is unlikely to react. Instead, it stoically went ahead with the ‘spontaneous invitation’ by Rajapaksa to Rao to have breakfast with him. Interestingly, though, Colombo leaked to the press on the same day that Rajapaksa is preparing to make another visit to China in August—his fourth in the past 4 years.
He last visited China 8 months ago in November. China has emerged as Sri Lanka’s biggest investor. Its projects include the construction of an international airport in Hambantota (where China built a port earlier), a 248 million dollar expressway connecting Colombo with the international airport at Katunayake and a 855 million dollar coal power plant at Norochcholai.
Unsurprisingly, China backs Rajapaksa’s rejection of the controversial UN study. The contrast couldn’t be sharper. Delhi has made a mess of even the housing project it began for the displaced people in Sri Lanka with the work hopelessly lagging behind schedule, and is instead lecturing Colombo. China, which could have lectured Colombo, is instead focusing on economic, political and military cooperation.
A crucial difference is the domestic politics in India. The Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu is tiptoeing toward a historic watershed. The DMK’s impending disintegration is prompting political parties across the board, including Left parties which are ‘ideology-based,’ to position themselves to pick up the crumbs that may soon fall from the high table. In sum, Sri Lankan situation lends itself to Indian politicians to whip up raw passions of Tamil identity.
However, India’s pressure tactic is not going to work. First, it is next to impossible to destabilise the Rajapaksa government, which enjoys a genuine democratic mandate, having won three resounding victories in the past two-and-a-half year period. There is little likelihood of the Sri Lankan opposition led by the United National Party (UNP) mounting a credible challenge to the Rajapaksa government in the near future.
The UNP, in fact, faces a serious leadership crisis at the moment with the leadership of Ranil Wickremasinghe, nephew of former president J R Jayawardene, being directly challenged by Sajith Premadasa, son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa. It also happens to be a significant realignment of emergent social forces on the Sri Lankan political landscape, with a ‘hardline’ section of the Buddhist clergy backing Premadasa.
Equally relevant is the misconception among the opportunistic Indian politicians that the Tamil National Alliance (MNA) is a monolithic entity. Admittedly, there may be ‘plebian’ voices within the MNA that collaborate with Indian politicians to whip up Tamil chauvinism. But then, there are also influential TNA leaders of great sophistication who understand that politics is the art of the possible who would like to work with the Rajapaksa government.
The paradox is that the TNA’s victory in the recent body elections in the north and east also suits the Rajapaksa government. In a manner of speaking, the calculus bears striking similarity with what happened in the last Assembly election in J&K. A discerning observer would notice from the recent Sri Lankan results that there is a strong undercurrent of alienation from the political establishment as a whole, including the TNA.
What we may expect, therefore, is that the TNA may shift incrementally to a stance of bargaining with the Rajapaksa government for a power-sharing deal for the North and the East – not very dissimilar from the politics of the National Front of Omar Abdullah in Srinagar. Indian politicians who share the podium in Chennai with visiting TNA politicians seem unable or unwilling to grasp these eddies of Sri Lankan politics.
Delhi, of course, is ‘clear-headed.’ It understands the Sri Lankan chessboard. But the ‘China factor’ is becoming its all-consuming passion. India, US and the European countries find themselves arrayed on the same side in sending a message to Rajapaksa to distance himself from China.
Time and again Colombo turned the tables on Delhi whenever the latter tried to be intrusive. It cannot be otherwise in the unfolding scenario. In geopolitical terms, India’s priority ought to have lied on regional stability rather than the cut and the thrust of the US-led ‘new great game’ in the Indian Ocean.
M.K.Bhadrakumar is a retired Indian diplomat who served in Sri Lanka as First (political) secretary