Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna arrives in Sri Lanka on an official visit tomorrow. He is flying in almost under the radar because Indo-Lanka bi-lateral relations, which have highs and the lows from time to time, are right now, out of the focus. Not that it needs to be the central point of Sri Lankan life at all times, but at this very moment, it has been overcome by numerous other issues.
This, however, is no excuse for the Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs, G.L. Peiris, to have timed his tour of West African states on the eve of his Indian counterpart's official visit. India ranks, by all accounts, be it in trade, security, people-to-people exchange etc., as Sri Lanka's number one partner. The Sri Lankan Minister returns to the country just in time for the visit and to host a dinner. If diplomacy is only about dinners, the world might well be a better place. But that's not how the world is wired today.
No known preparatory work is being undertaken at the Colombo Foreign Office and whatever work is being done, it's certainly not being done under the supervision of the Minister. Officials are 'headless' and limited to making the protocol arrangements for the visit. Both the Minister and the Government had a nasty experience last year when the Minister went to New Delhi for bi-lateral talks thoroughly unprepared and came a cropper. He got trapped into issuing a joint statement where the draft was prepared by New Delhi and he had to blindly oblige. The terminology used by the Indian Government was an insult to the Minister's own Government in Colombo. It said that there was a need for "genuine reconciliation" in Sri Lanka and as we said in this space at the time (May, 2011), it contained "unsolicited counselling on the one hand, titillating offers of gifts and tantalizing threats".
On the other hand, has the Minister actually finally surrendered, or is he even protesting, that the important subject of India has been removed from his watch? It was a well known fact that during the recent 'war' years when Indo-Sri Lanka relations were a tight rope walk for both sides, the Ministry and the Minister were sidelined from the equation. A troika -- the President's Secretary, Defence Secretary and the then Advisor to the President (and later Minister of Economic Development) ran the show from Sri Lanka's side, and quite effectively too. Is it this team then that is in charge of Indo-Sri Lanka relations even now? In this day and age of transparency, such a crucial question remains unanswered as far as the public is aware.
There is no credible Opposition to ask these questions, nor will the Government let it be known. Foreign Office officials are themselves in the dark most of the time. When the Minister went to New Delhi on that disastrous visit last April, he did not take a single official with him and there is no command structure that deals with India at the Foreign Office.
This is, however, not the first time that the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry has been divested of its India brief. Back in the early 1980s, President J.R. Jayewardene opted to hand over the India desk to the Minister of National Security. India had then become more of a national security issue with the northern insurgency in full steam. Even so, a senior official of the Foreign Ministry, sitting in the Foreign Office, was seconded to liaise with the National Security Minister and would accompany him on the Minister's visits to New Delhi. India exploited the personal political rivalries in the ruling party then and worked in secrecy to hammer out the controversial Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 with an influential Minister not handling national security.
Today's bi-lateral issues are no longer exclusively national security matters, as they range from the issue of poaching by fishermen in the waters in the Gulf of Mannar, the IMBL (International Maritime Boundary Line) demarcating the sea boundaries of the two countries, the CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) which India is strongly canvassing for, the Free Trade Agreement, people-to-people contact and visa issues, the Sethusamudra Canal project and Indian nuclear projects in Tamil Nadu that will have an environmental and economic impact on Sri Lanka. How thorough are the Sri Lankan officials and their political leaders with their briefs on each of these subjects? Particularly so, when they are dealing with a thoroughly competent and professional bureaucracy on the Indian side.
When one studies the exchanges between the two countries in the years gone by, it is patently clear that the Sri Lankan diplomats could not only match their Indian counterparts, but that Sri Lanka's political leadership was hands-on. Together they made quite a formidable team in any negotiations. The records of yesteryear reveal that negotiations on vexed issues like Kachchativu, the repatriation of stateless persons were professionally handled on the Sri Lankan side. Alas, the same cannot be said today. The avalanche of incompetent political appointees to the Foreign Service and a directionless political leadership are cause for worry. Recently, the Fisheries Minister was to complain that the Foreign Office officials were not up to the challenge when they were negotiating fishing rights in the Palk Strait.
It must be clearly noted that the financial loss to Sri Lanka annually by the thousands of Tamil Nadu fishermen flagrantly poaching in Sri Lankan waters is as much as India's contributions for housing projects in the North. It also exposes the crocodile tears Tamil Nadu politicians shed for the Sri Lankan Tamils when they allow their voters to take the bread out of the mouth of the Sri Lankan Tamils of the North.
India's two main concerns with Sri Lanka, however, remain China's increased presence in its southern neighbour and what effects that would have on India's own national security, as well as the issue of minority rights here. The latter creates both, a refugee problem in India and also, gives them a handle to interfere in Sri Lanka's domestic politics. Given the fact that the poaching issue is something that chiefly stems from domestic political compulsions with the Tamil Nadu state, New Delhi's concerns extend beyond Tamil Nadu's parochial interests. These concerns need to be addressed. Not because India is big and can swallow us but towards the promotion of good neighbourliness and putting India at ease.
In a pre-visit interview, the Indian External Affairs Minister is reported to have said that Sri Lanka's own security is relevant to India, and a Sri Lankan Government MP touring India is reported to have said that China has conceded the fact that Sri Lanka must give preference to India's legitimate interests. The Chinese, of course, will make no public comment on that so we will not know the truth or otherwise of that claim. The Indian Minister going to the south of Sri Lanka on his visit appears to send the message that India's interests in Sri Lanka are no longer confined to the north, (where it is pouring in aid thereby establishing a firm grip) and that India has no intention of acquiescing to any other interlopers getting any prescriptive rights in parts of this island-nation by their presence.
Like what we see in the case of the immediate post-LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) report period, the Government moves very slowly in studying the situation and responding professionally. The approach seems to be one of frantic firefighting rather than fire prevention. It will be interesting to see how the Government fares with the Indian Minister's visit.
One thing must be uppermost in the collective minds of the Sri Lankan leadership. Friendship with India is paramount, but it cannot come at the cost of this country's sovereignty.