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The most powerful Sri Lankan president comes calling

June 08, 2010 14:48 IST
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a man full of surprises, as the LTTE's V Prabhakaran discovered to his detriment. So what will come out of his visit to India, wonders Col R Hariharan

As Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa visits New Delhi from June 8 to 11, it will be as a head of state stronger than ever before. The three things he achieved in his first term -- wiping out V Prabhakaran and his Tamil Tigers, re-election for a second term with increased margin of votes, and an unprecedented victory in parliamentary poll with 60 per cent mandate from the voters -- give him the confidence to talk from a position of strength to New Delhi.

Added to this, Rajapaksa, in spite of his deceptive simplicity, has cleverly turned the Sinhala triumphalism in the wake of victory in the Eelam War to eliminate potential rivals. The popular hero of the Eelam war, General Sarath Fonseka, is facing court-martials. And the suave and articulate United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is locked in a survival struggle to retain his position as party leader.

With Sri Lanka under his sway for the next seven years, New Delhi will be contending with a rejuvenated Mahinda Rajapaksa -- the most powerful head of state from Sri Lanka ever to visit the Indian capital.

Is New Delhi ready for the rejuvenated Rajapaksa? It should be, because Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has his own success story. He is stronger politically after an enlarged mandate from the people for his second term in office. The destructive coalition partners and opposition he faced in his earlier term have been cut down to size. The Congress-led coalition's economic management, despite complaints of absence of transparency, cronyism and corruption, has maintained the country on the growth path. Dr Manmohan Singh's aspiration to take the India-United States relationship is getting a further lease of life. Of course, this is largely due to the US coming to terms with the limitations in building a win-win relationship with China ignoring India.

In spite of all this, New Delhi continues to show a subsuming hesitancy in handling Sri Lanka. If we look at the silent support New Delhi had provided the president ever since he was elected in 2005 and all along thereafter, both sides appear to have worked out a flexible model of collaboration, co-ordination and at times mutual condescension.

The collaboration came with India providing Sri Lanka all facilities, short of modern weapons, to improve the capability of its armed forces. It provided real time intelligence to control, curb, and destroy the international logistic and support system of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But the Indian leadership could not trumpet its support as it had to tread the ground carefully at home as the ruling Congress-led coalition was weak and depended upon octogenarian leader Karunanidhi and his Dravida Munnetra Kazagham in Tamil Nadu. The shrewd Tamil Nadu chief minister milked the Eelam issue to gain maximum clout in New Delhi and divided the sympathy votes for Eelam Tamils at home in Chennai.

As the war is over, logically India should be expecting dividends from Rajapaksa for its support. And the expectations are probably on three major fronts: equity for the Tamil minority, closer economic bonds, and greater strategic convergence between the two nations, with India remaining a favoured partner on Sri Lanka's strategic horizon. President Rajapaksa's style is to turn compulsions into favours to be dispensed at a time and situation of his choosing. So how will India handle him?

As K Venkatramanan of The Times of India said in a recent seminar, the Eelam war and its aftermath in Sri Lanka has thrown up a few international discourses. India has to show a sustaining interest in handling these discourses to fulfil its responsibilities as a nation. What are these discourses?

Human rights and humanitarian issues

How to deal with Sri Lanka (or any other nation in a similar situation) that has chosen to ignore international calls for improving its accountability on human rights as it feels it infringes its sovereignty? The European Union and the UK will continue to pressurise Sri Lanka on this count in the coming months. What should be India's attitude on this moral issue cloaked in politics? India cannot afford to be either wholly idealistic or coldly realpolitik when human rights skeletons are rattling in its own counter-terrorist operations. Can India continue to depend only upon backroom diplomacy to prevail upon Sri Lanka to produce results, particularly when it is dealing with an ever more powerful Rajapaksa?

Increased profile of the US and China in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka's war and its aftermath, both the US and China asserted their roles with greater visibility and gained a strong foothold. India facilitated this by playing a muted role due to self-imposed restraints owing to internal political considerations. After the war Sri Lanka is facing two major problems in resolving which it needs international help.

The first is the huge financial outlay required to rebuild its north and east, and to speed up economic recovery to repair the crippling effect of war. The second is the growing pressure on Sri Lanka articulated by the UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon and in the UN human rights forums.

Though India can match either the US or China in meeting Sri Lanka's economic needs, only the US and China, as UN Security Council members with veto powers, can influence the UN's course of action against Sri Lanka. This is going be crucial as the international lobby against war crimes in Sri Lanka is gathering more momentum. So logically, President Rajapaksa will have to accommodate the US and China more in the national strategic spectrum without treading upon India's toes. Will he do it is a more difficult question than can he do it. And what is going to be New Delhi's strategy?

The Tamil issue

During the war, many Sri Lankan Tamils rightly or wrongly perceive India as the villain that helped Rajapaksa bury their Eelam dream. Of course, in their passionate denouement they conveniently forget that India had always been opposed to an independent Tamil Eelam. But this disenchantment with India has not been countervailed by an increase in favourable Sinhalese attitude towards India. Even half-hearted Indian efforts to bring ethnic amity in Sri Lanka are still looked upon by many of them with suspicion. So unlike in the past, India has a problem at hand in making its voice heard in Sri Lanka in the midst of the cacophony of its detractors.

As the Tamil issue has an umbilical connection with Tamils in India and the diaspora elsewhere, its tugs and pulls go far and wide. This should not be understood merely in terms of electoral politics in which it continues as a peripheral issue. It has larger moral and social implications for the Tamil society and its sensitivities. It should not be forgotten that the Tamil society is only recently overcoming the sense of exclusivity and alienation that had bugged it since the early days of India's independence.

A recent manifestation of this phenomenon was seen in the strident calls that came from the Tamil movie industry for a boycott of the non-political International Indian Film Academy awards function in Colombo. Thus, India's actions and their impact on Sri Lanka continue to be relevant to the Tamil people everywhere regardless of their attitude to India.

This sensitivity rules the minds of many among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora still recovering from the elimination of the Tamil Tigers as a powerful entity. They are smarting under the loss of face as many Sinhalese are trumpeting their triumphalism. And President Rajapaksa had shown no hurry to address Tamil sensitivities on the issue of autonomy, perhaps because there is no Prabhakaran to threaten Sri Lanka's unity. He has largely chosen to ignore the need for animation on the 13th amendment that is serving only as a wallpaper for the Tamil issue. India had been promoting its full implementation as a face-saving device; but Rajapaksa had so far shown a marked reluctance even to save India's face, let alone tackle the Tamil issue head on. So what is India's strategy?

Economic discourse

For some years now India had been building its economic relations with Sri Lanka. By signing its first ever Free Trade Agreement in 1998, India has shown Sri Lanka has a preferred status in its relations over other South Asian countries. It is not merely Sri Lanka's demonstrated capacity to remain with the highest human development index and highest GDP among South Asian countries that triggered India's economic foray. Sri Lanka's domination of the Indian Ocean also has a part to play in its economic strategy.

In the last nine years since the FTA came into play, India-Sri Lanka trade has increased by four times to US $ 2719 million (in 2009). In fact, in the SAARC region Sri Lanka is now India's second largest trading partner. The two countries set up a Joint Study Group in April 2003 to enlarge the scope and content of the FTA and work out a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. After 13 rounds of negotiations the CEPA has been given a final shape. 

The CEPA when signed will take the mutual trade between the two countries to higher levels of cooperation and coordination. The proposed agreement addresses four areas: trade in goods; trade in services; economic cooperation (in mutually agreed areas like fisheries, energy, pharmaceuticals, textiles, financial, infrastructure, tourism etc), and investment issues. In real terms it provides for seamless customs procedures, consumer protection standards and procedures.

There had been some delay in signing this agreement due to the opposition from sections of the local business community in Sri Lanka. This is understandable as India is already a dominant trading partner with large economic clout. Both countries will have to convince them of the advantages of signing the CEPA. Of course, traditional India-baiters among political parties now using the CEPA bogey will have to be tackled politically. President Rajapaksa, who is supportive of the agreement, will probably sign it at a time of his choosing -- a politically opportune moment.

From India's point of view, signing the CEPA is important as it signifies the growth of relations between the two nations to a higher level. It could also signal the graduation of SAARC from a talk shop to a forum of solid achievement, as the CEPA would set a precedent for other members to enhance economic cooperation. Thus, it will have implications for the region and beyond. So how is India going to push it through?

Talks in New Delhi

Considering the complex issues cooking on the India-Sri Lanka platter for some time, President Rajapaksa's visit assumes importance. However, according to media reports emanating from New Delhi, out of the 11 agreements under negotiation, only five have been finalised and are ready for to be signed. The five agreements do not include crunch issues. They relate to cooperation to fight terrorism, transfer of sentenced prisoners, mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, cultural cooperation, and Indian assistance for small development projects in Sri Lanka. So apparently there are not going to be any dramatic breakthroughs except for the usual diplomatic rhetoric.

But President Rajapaksa is a man full of surprises, as Prabhakaran discovered to his detriment. So what is going to come out of his visit? We will have to wait and see.

Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: colhari@yahoo.com   Blog: www.colhariharan.org
Col R Hariharan