As is the case now, most judgements on the conduct of foreign policy by UPFA leaders were clothed in emotion, euphoria and expectations based only on hope. The realities were seldom factored in. The latest round of talks in India underscores this clearly. Some exhorted that President Rajapaksa and Premier Modi were cast in the same mould and suggested that things could therefore change. Others said woes between New Delhi and Colombo would be a thing of the past. The irrepressible official Spokesperson and Media Minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, who is known to add weird humour to any serious Government business, declared at a news conference, “We are at ease” and added “now Mr. Modi can take independent and strong decisions on any issue.”
Those are bad enough. There was something worse. Neither the virtually defunct Ministry of External Affairs nor those at the Presidential Secretariat more reputed for their ‘buying sprees,’ had formulated a position paper on the ground realities that portended after Modi’s historic ascent to power. At least the Sunday Times editorial last week warned, quoting an Indian political analyst, there would be “no substantial change” in the Modi Government’s foreign policy towards Sri Lanka, but probably a “greater assertiveness and result orientation”.
If the Sri Lankan foreign policy pundits did not know enough to put down on paper, they could have done so verbally, to project the reality — that the BJP Government was no different to that of the Congress Party when it came to the conduct of India’s foreign policy. That message came loud and clear in New Delhi disproving the mind-set of some UPFA leaders.
If Premier Modi did articulate it during talks with Rajapaksa, the same views were expressed by his External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, when she visited Sri Lanka as Leader of the Opposition. She headed a parliamentary delegation. She told a packed news conference on April 21, 2012 at the Hotel Taj Samudra that President Rajapaksa had given an assurance he would implement the 13th Amendment and “go beyond.” The Sunday Times account on her news conference on April 22, 2012, among other matters reported “…When a journalist pointed out that government ministers had denied reported assurances given by the President to Indian External Affairs Minister (S.M.) Krishna in January, the Indian Opposition Leader replied, there is no question of ministers saying and denying anything. The President himself said he would concede both the 13th Amendment and the plus.”
This week, External Affairs Minister Peiris praised Swaraj as a “source of strength that can add renewed vigour and better understanding to further strengthen traditionally robust friendship” between the two countries. It was Peiris who had confirmed that Rajapaksa had promised “13 plus” to Krishna, and it was only then that Krishna had announced President Rajapaksa’s pledge to have 13 plus. Had Peiris asked Krishna not to announce it, the Indians would not have done so. Now, the UPFA is saddled with this promise to India.
Rajapaksa’s visit no doubt was salutary. He was one of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) leaders who were invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. The world watched live on television as President Pranab Mukherjee swore in Premier Modi on Monday evening. The event was a lesson not only on how the world’s largest functioning democracy worked but also how arch-rivals at the polls campaign who traded acrimonious accusations respected hallowed traditions. The vanquished former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul were among those present and mingled with the BJP victors. The next morning, Premier Modi even called on his predecessor at his private residence with a bouquet of flowers. Other than those ceremonies, the Rajapaksa visit also laid bare some embarrassing, serious deficiencies on the foreign policy front and raised fears of re-igniting the cold war between Colombo and New Delhi earlier than feared.
After the swearing-in ceremonies, it was nightfall. Rajapaksa and his entourage returned to the Taj Palace Hotel along Sardar Patel Road on Monday night. Bedtime was not early for Premier Modi. Officials in New Delhi say he kept up till midnight at Hyderabad House, the state guest house where he then stayed, to be briefed by External Affairs Ministry Secretary Sujatha Singh and others. Besides Pakistan, issues involving Sri Lanka drew his attention in large measure. He had raised incisive questions and briefed himself. Hence, when Rajapaksa and an entourage of seven met Modi and his officials, the Indian Premier was ready. When he called for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment and “go beyond,” Rajapaksa is learnt to have explained that such things could not be done overnight. Modi was to reply that it was now over five years since the separatist war ended. At one point, the Indian Prime Minister had turned to External Affairs Ministry Secretary Sujatha Singh and queried what assurances were given by Rajapaksa to his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. She had replied that it was to fully implement the 13th Amendment and go beyond it. Further confirmation that Premier Modi had been fully briefed for the 20-minute encounter with Rajapaksa came when he called for the “early launch of the 500 MW Sampur coal fired power project.”
Eight different agreements for the establishment of this power project were signed on October 7 last year in the presence of President Rajapaksa. The signatories were External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and then visiting Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. Ministers Basil Rajapaksa, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena and Pavithra Wnniarachchi were also present. The project was to be run by Trincomalee Power Company Limited (TPCL) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), with both holding equal shares. Among the agreements were a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), a Land Lease Agreement (LLA), a Coal Supply Agreement (CSA), an Implementation Agreement (IA), Agreement with Sri Lanka Board of Investment (BOI), Deed of Adherence, Extension Joint Venture Agreement (JVA), and Extension Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). Construction work on the US$ 512 million project was to begin within a year.
At the conclusion of the Rajapaksa-Modi talks in New Delhi, officials in India’s Ministry of External Affairs were incensed by the media statement put out by the Sri Lankan side. They opined it did not correctly reflect the discourse. The standard practice in such situations is for both sides to obtain each other’s concurrence over such statements or issue one jointly. In this instance, its importance was greater because Sri Lanka was beginning a fresh dialogue with a new Indian administration. However, the Sri Lanka’s official statement said “President Rajapaksa described the initiatives Sri Lanka has taken with regard to rehabilitation, resettlement, reconstruction and the ongoing reconciliation process in the country.” Besides that, it added, “President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Modi also discussed the issue of fishermen of both countries and measures that can be taken to find a permanent solution through a process in which the views of the fishermen from both countries can be taken into consideration. Both agreed that talks between the fishermen and the meeting of the joint committee of officials must continue.” It is clear the statement kept Sri Lankans in the dark about the issue of the 13th Amendment raised by Premier Modi and his request that the Government implements it.
The Indian anger was exactly over this. This led to Indian External Affairs Ministry Secretary Singh joining the media briefing by the Indian Government’s official spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin. The new Indian Government wanted both Indians and Sri Lankans to know the full story. The exercise of briefing the media would otherwise have only fallen on the shoulders of the Additional Secretary (External Publicity). That was how EAM secretary Singh strongly articulated Premier Modi’s assertions on the need for the Colombo Government to fulfil the assurances given to India. Needless to say it was embarrassment to the Sri Lanka delegation which did not want to reveal any references to the 13th Amendment. If the latest news release diplomacy showed what is being disseminated without professional expertise was to the country’s detriment, there was another highly damaging faux pas. Jaffna’s Mayor Yogeswary Patgunarajah, a member of the Rajapaksa entourage, was to tell New Delhi Television (NDTV) that the President had, during talks, agreed to grant police and land powers to Provincial Councils — a remark in staggered English that caused acute embarrassment again to the Sri Lankan side. Patgunarajah represents Minister Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).
Since no such assurances had been given, who allowed Patgunarajah to play spokesperson for Rajapaksa’s delegation? If no one did, it clearly shows that those taking part in such missions are not properly briefed. They are let loose — like loose cannon, as was the case in Geneva when all types of green were are permitted to speak on Sri Lanka. The Jaffna Mayor was taken to show that the Sri Lankan Tamils supported the Rajapaksa Government, but when she goes on Indian television she must know what she is saying.
Adding to this litany of events was another. An official news release from the President’s Media Unit spoke of President Rajapaksa and his entourage conducting “bilateral talks” with the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. Any student of foreign affairs albeit general knowledge knows all too well that the Indian President does not have executive powers and is only a titular head. Hence no visiting Head of State or Government holds bilateral talks with him. The correct parlance was that President Rajapaksa and members of his delegation paid a courtesy call on the Indian President.
Just a day after his return to Colombo, President Rajapaksa responded to Premier Modi’s call for the fuller implementation of the 13th Amendment and go beyond. He asked Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva to summon a news conference and declare the UPFA Government’s stand. Minister de Silva said, “The 13th Amendment was forced down on us. We have managed to continue with it. Now there is discussion about its implementation. Earlier, it was about setting up of a Northern Provincial Council. Some said we would not hold elections in the North. Now the NPC is a reality. Now some are calling for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. There are practical problems in implementing some of the provisions.”
Minister de Silva, who is Leader of the House, added, “India is the closest neighbour. But no one can dictate terms to us. We are ready to listen to them. Since President Rajapaksa took over, there have been several discussions and visits. The dialogue continues. What we say is that the people of Sri Lanka and Parliament should decide on the solution and an outsider does not have the right to dictate the solution….”
Minister de Silva’s remarks raise an all important question. On the one hand, he notes that no outsider has the right to dictate a solution to Sri Lanka on matters relating to reconciliation. On the other, the Government of Sri Lanka, the President of South Africa Jacob Zuma told his Parliament last year, had requested assistance from him in the country’s peace and reconciliation process. He said he had therefore appointed Cyril Ramaphosa as the Special Envoy for this purpose.
In the light of recent developments, a number of questions confront the Government. Minister de Silva’s articulation of the Government’s position that any reconciliation effort would be through the PSC virtually sets aside Premier Modi’s call for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment and go beyond it. Thus, it is a clear rejection of his request and places Colombo and New Delhi on a collision course again. Added to that is the South African initiative which is clearly the formulation of new set of measures. In that process, there is also the question whether South Africa will take on board the 13th Amendment and related issues. That would literally mean an “India plus” element being included.
- From the political column of ST