A bit of arm twisting by India may be good for Colombo
Two weeks back, during a Cabinet meeting, as some of his Cabinet Ministers exchanged verbal barbs over the proposed changes to the 13th Amendment, President Rajapaksa, who had been quietly listening to the heated exchange of words, broke the silence to remind them that he knows how to obtain the required two-thirds majority, in order to pass the proposed amendments, if he wishes to do so.
He was not bragging and if recent history is any guide, he had been masterful in that particular manoeuvre. However, after much foreplay, his government, which initially planned to pass the proposed amendments as an ‘urgent Bill’ – notwithstanding that its urgency itself is a matter of wild imagination – suddenly went on the back foot. The reason, which is now public knowledge, should be disturbing to some of the nationalist elements within the government and the nationalist forces, such as the Bodu Bala Sena, which has covert support from the regime. The big neighbour to the North, India, for the first time, has made its concerns known to Colombo and worse still, those concerns were announced in the form of an open communiqué issued by External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson, Syed Akbaruddin. That was after a meeting between Prime Minister Singh and a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation.
The statement noted that the ‘proposed changes raised doubts about the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government to India and the international community’ and that PM Singh had told the TNA that he was deeply concerned about the welfare and well-being of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.
Last week, when he met the editors of the national newspapers and the heads of electronic media, the President, responding to a query, said he was not aware of any Indian concerns other than what he had read in the newspapers. However, the fact of the matter is that what he had read in the newspapers was, in fact, a media communiqué issued by India’s powerful South bloc. Whether New Delhi’s decision to go public with its concerns over Colombo is meant to be an affront to the Sri Lankan leadership is a different question. But, the media communiqué was pretty much plain talking.
International politics has a hierarchy, in which the dominant powers, hegemons, set economic and political structures and the norms of behaviour in international politics, and regional powers, regional hegemons, curve out their own spheres of influence and exert influence in shaping the practices of international politics in its sphere of influence. The small powers, which lack comprehensive power to project, are supposed to play by these norms. Being a small power is not a matter of national pride or the lack of it. That is the existential reality of international politics.
Ascendance as a great power
India has for too long remained a regional power, and is on the ascendance to be a great power as its economic clout expands. Sri Lanka, on its part, has historically been suffering from a problem as per accepting India’s status. At one point, political aggrandizement of then President J.R. Jayewardene at the cost of India went a step too far, that India armed a nascent militancy in its Southern neighbour and sent troops to the island to enforce a Ceasefire Agreement as part of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord.
Two and a half decades have passed since then, but the norms and behaviour patterns of international politics have not changed much. And, India’s status quo in its sphere of influence remains unchallenged; if not, it has been further reinforced by an active endorsement by the superpower in decline, the US, which views India as the liberal democratic counterweight to authoritarian China, the other Asian behemoth on a steady rise to world dominance.
Partly, it is this fanciful idea of using China against India that prompted the key protagonists of the regime in Colombo to ignore Indian concerns. However, J.R. Jayewardene, who suffered from some misconception, and believed that the US would rush to his rescue when the Indians twisted his hand to sign the Indo-Lanka Accord, learnt a lesson in international politics the hard way. The Chinese are also hard-nosed practitioners of the Realist theory of international relations, who, conveniently walked away from its authoritarian colleagues in Tripoli to Tehran, when the ruling despots were in distress.
Second, the misplaced belief of the absolute nature of internal sovereignty would drive the current regime in Colombo to an open confrontation with its mighty neighbour, which carries an increasing international legitimacy, and that practising liberal democracies such as Japan wants as part of a democratic security umbrella to counter rising authoritarian China.
Internal sovereignty is not absolute and especially when the regional power next door has persistent concerns about the democratic rights of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, it cannot help that such matters would spill over and move beyond the traditional parameters of internal affairs. The situation is further compounded by the fact that the 13th Amendment, which was meant to provide a substantial devolution of powers to the ethnic minorities, were incorporated as part of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, signed jointly by Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi and President J.R. Jayewardene. In a separate note, the notion of internal sovereignty becomes futile, when the Constitution, the law of the land, is tampered at the whims and fancies of the ruling cohort. The President’s reminder to his Cabinet colleagues of his ability to obtain the two-thirds majority is a case in point in this regard.
Third, what could have also bolstered Sri Lanka’s misconceptions was quiet Indian diplomacy, which, was sometimes described as India’s hands off approach towards Sri Lanka, during the peace process, to the annoyance of the then Ranil Wickremesinghe administration. This Indian approach was in stark contrast to its high-handed policies on the island nation in the 80s.
That was partly because, with its economy growing, thanks to the gradual implantation of free market policies since 1992, India shed its decades old paranoia. Helped by its new found confidence, India’s foreign policy towards the rest of its neighbours, barring Pakistan, took a liberal bent. The incumbent regime in Colombo should not misjudge the flexibility on India’s part as its weakness.
Indian-American academic and Professor, Manjari Chatterjee Miller, in an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs journal, delivers a scathing attack on India’s ‘dysfunctional’ foreign policy bureaucracy, which she blames has prevented India, from achieving a long-term foreign policy planning, akin to China’s strategy. One reason, she highlights, supported by her interviews with Indian diplomats, is that Indian foreign policy decisions are driven, largely, by personal decisions of individual diplomats. If that is the case, in-coming Indian High Commissioner, Hardeep Puri, who served as the Political Secretary of the Indian High Commission in Colombo during the height of India’s high-handed diplomacy in the 80s, is bad news. Then Indian High Commissioner, J.N. Dixit, in his memoir Assignment Colombo recalls Puri and his wife Lakshmi, who was then the Information Counsellor of the Indian mission, were regularly at the receiving end of the nationalist Sri Lankan media at the time.
Foreign policy disposition
A recent article by Puri written to ‘The Hindu’ newspaper, paints a foreign policy disposition, that is different from his predecessors.
“Sovereignty has never succeeded in providing a cover against genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. To suggest that India does not support country-specific resolutions is absurd. Even more, that we have a principled position on this.
“… Notwithstanding assurances to India, the ‘Brothers’ running Sri Lanka appear to have no intention to move on political reconciliation and devolution. This ‘majoritarianism’ in total disregard of respecting and protecting the rights of minorities is a narrow and calibrated political strategy designed to safeguard Sinhalese parliamentary strength. The recent attacks on the Muslim trading community in the heart of Colombo by fanatic Sinhalese, allegedly led by Buddhist monks, are manifestations of similar callous and cynical disregard for the rights of linguistic, religious and cultural minorities. India did the right thing by supporting the resolution on war crimes.“
That is not exactly the typical diplomatic talking. Sooner the incumbent regime gets that message is better for bilateral relations.