New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi representing the Bharathiya Janatha Party captured more than 50% of the seats in Lok Sabha. After decades India is having a strong government in the centre. It was mentioned that a strong India is good for Sri Lanka. In absolute terms it cannot be and it solely depends on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.
During the time of President Jayewardene, the Sri Lankan Government adopted a pro-Western foreign policy when India was aligned with the Soviet Union although the official policies of both governments were non-aligned. Economically India was following a closed economy where the Sri Lankan economy was liberalised after a difficult period of a closed economy.
The Indian Government was strong at that time and Indira Gandhi who fought a war with Pakistan and helped to create a separate state in East Pakistan called Bangladesh was the Indian Prime Minister. The Tamil militant movement was rising in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu supported the movement. In retaliation of Sri Lankan foreign policy, India supported training of Tamil militants in the Indian soil.
At the time of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi when he was under pressure from Tamil Nadu and when Colombo was not cooperating, he had to invade the air space of Sri Lanka and drop dry rations for the benefit of northern Tamils. President Jayewardene’s friends did not come to our rescue. The Sri Lankan Government was advised to settle the matters with India. That was the result of strong Indian Government.
During the time of Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister, her Indian counterpart was Indira Gandhi. Foreign and economic policies of both Governments were aligned so that there were no issues pending and several issues were sorted out amicably.
"The election campaign of the BJP was centred on economic achievements of Modi and anti-corruption approach of BJP. It is obvious other than to the Sri Lankan Government that with communal feelings and biases, a nation cannot achieve far-reaching economic goals. For sure Modi understands this"
When Sri Lankan Prime Minister John Kotalawala had spoken in favour of the West at the Bandung conference in 1955 which was the first African-Asian Conference, it was reported that Indian Prime Minister Nehru asked Kotalawala why he had not shown his script before speaking. Kotalawala shot back asking why Nehru had not shown his script to Kotalawala. This was because Ceylon at the time was adopting a pro-Western foreign policy and India was not. Therefore, Sri Lanka will have to toe the line of India when there is a strong centre in India.
Some are equal more than others
In foreign relations although theoretically all countries are equal whether they are big or small, practically they are not. Some are equal more than others, if I quote George Orwell. One cannot ask that how India is interfering with our domestic affairs where we do not interfere with Indian domestic affairs. It is like managing a village thug at the village level. One can become his henchman and do whatever he asks to do or else one can challenge him complaining to the police – theoretical police not the real one – and face endless problems.
Rather than going to these extremes, one can still manage him at arm’s length and earn his respect as well. One should know how not to antagonise him and also how not to appease him all the time. This is called diplomacy.
How Sri Lanka managed India in the recent past was very interesting. Students of foreign policy should study this. It was neither aligning with them nor working against them and there was no diplomatic management either. It was pure deceiving.
The Indian Government wanted to destroy the LTTE. In the first place they did not want the persons responsible for the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, which was a great humiliation to India, to exist, and in the second place they did not want a terrorist organisation with air and sea powers to exist in its borders. No super power does like that. Therefore India supported the crushing of the LTTE. The Sri Lankan Government boasted that they have managed India well unlike during the time of President Jayewardene. There was nothing to manage in Indian affairs during that time since we were aligned with India.
During that time and after the war Sri Lankan leaders promised the Indian leaders that soon after the war a political solution which would go beyond 13th Amendment to the Constitution would be implemented. This was mentioned in the discussions with several world leaders including the Secretary General of United Nations.
Once when the Indian Foreign Minister came to Sri Lanka he had discussions with the President and soon after the discussions Indian foreign Minister held a press conference and said that the President was in favour of implementing a political solution beyond the 13th Amendment. Later the President denied this claim. For the past five years Sri Lanka managed India like this.
Robert Knox on Sri Lankans
Robert Knox, a sailor in the service of English East India Company was captured by the King of Kandy Rajasinghe II in 1660 during the time of Dutch rule of the lowlands and was detained for nearly 20 years in the interior of Ceylon. After his escape he had written a book called ‘A Historical Relation of Ceylon’ which was published in 1681 in England. In this book in Part III, Chapter I, Concerning the Inhabitants of this Island under the sub heading Their Disposition, Knox stated as follows:
“………They are crafty and treacherous, not to be trusted upon any protestations: for their manner of speaking is very smooth and courteous, insomuch that they who are unacquainted with their dispositions and manners, may easily be deceived by them. For they make neither account nor conscience of lying, neither is it any shame or disgrace to them, if they be catched in telling lyes: it is so customary……..”
It was further stated as follows: “……..Of all Vices they are least addicted to stealing, the witch they do exceedingly hate and abhor; so that there are but few Robberies committed among them. They do much extol and commend Chastity, Temperance, and Truth in words and actions; and confess that it is out of weakness and infirmity, that they cannot practice the same, acknowledging that the contrary Vices are to be abhorred, being abomination both in sight of God and Man…..”
We have come a long way from 1680 but our leaders are proving to the world that we still have the bad genes of our ancestors. It should not be done at diplomatic level under any circumstances.
The China card
One other card played by Sri Lanka was the China factor. When there was pressure from India, Sri Lanka was lenient towards China in order to balance that pressure. This had antagonised the West as well. Now it is going beyond the balancing level to a dangerous game.
India is aligned with the West. If Sri Lanka is going to be aligned with China, Sri Lanka will have to face the wrath of both the West and India. With a strong Government in India and being both in the BRICS organisation, China would like to have strong relationship with India. At a decisive point, there is a possibility of abandoning Sri Lanka by China as happened during President Jayewardene’s time with West and in recent times in respect of Sudan by China. We have to be ready for these power politics.
Sri Lanka has one advantage now. That is that the central government does not have to depend on Tamil Nadu in governance although the Tamil Nadu regional governing party won a very large number of seats in the centre.
Another advantage Sri Lanka would have, if India can be managed successfully, is that Sri Lanka would be protected by India from the West if there would be any dispute. This is the same principle of managing the village thug. He will not allow outsiders to come and poke their fingers to his territory.
Some think that since the new Indian Prime Minister is a nationalist – correct word is racist – and the Sri Lankan President is also like that, there would be a harmony with them. India is a well-established secular state and BJP would not be able to change that ground scenario. They use this in order to get power but we have seen BJP governments in the past. They were not biased towards one community as the present Sri Lankan Government.
The election campaign of the BJP was centred on economic achievements of Modi and anti-corruption approach of BJP. It is obvious other than to the Sri Lankan Government that with communal feelings and biases, a nation cannot achieve far-reaching economic goals. For sure Modi understands this.
Sri Lanka must solve internal problems
What Sri Lanka has to do is solve its internal problems and do justice to the Tamils. There is no international support for a separate state here unless the Sri Lankan Government does not provide an acceptable solution to the issue. Let alone 13+ and even 13, with the limited implementation of 13th Amendment, governance of the Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils is disrupted by the Government purposely by using respective governors. It looks like the centre fears decentralisation. Fear is a clear sign of weakness and not of strength.
If the 13th Amendment is not appropriate – it is not actually, with a lot of flaws – we should have a better solution with a new constitution. If the Government can do this simple thing, not so simple anyway, the country does not have to spend time on managing various super powers. Action is the need of the hour, not reaction.
However from the press release of the Presidential Secretariat after the recent visit of the President to India and from certain recent remarks of the Leader of the House, it seems to be that the Government is going to be adamant, most probably in order to secure the vote base of short-sighted, whether they are educated or not, Sinhala Buddhists – probably including the writer as well.
The complacent majority and their voices should realise that all of us are in rough seas. This is not the time to build castles in the air.
(The writer is a Chartered Accountant by profession and holds a Master of Business Administration degree awarded by the Postgraduate Institute of Management of University of Sri Jayewardenepura.)