But China’s Jinping reveals why all roads will start from Beijing Hallelujah! It was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Second Advent to Sri Lanka. And even as he stepped foot on the newly made tarmac at Katunayake’s Bandaranaike International Airport last Thursday evening, he would have whiffed in the hot breeze that blew from abroad, [...]


The Second Coming of Modi with the Indian Gospel of Salvation


But China’s Jinping reveals why all roads will start from Beijing

Hallelujah! It was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Second Advent to Sri Lanka. And even as he stepped foot on the newly made tarmac at Katunayake’s Bandaranaike International Airport last Thursday evening, he would have whiffed in the hot breeze that blew from abroad, the distinct touch of strong soy sauce; and, no doubt, wondered what a difference two short years can make to the culinary choice and habits of a nation and how fickle taste buds can be.
On his first coming in March 2015, two months after the fall of the anti-Indian Rajapaksa regime and the rise of the Sirisena government, familiar Indian masala had held exclusive sway over the island air. Now it ranked, heavy with hoisin.

But yet, if it were any consolation to Modi, it was the same cheerleader welcoming committee that waited to greet him on the last rung of the plane’s airstair,  led by the Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe even as he had been present on that late March 12th night two years ago when he first arrived on Lankan soil. And though Ranil looked a wee bit worse for wear and appeared smothered in an oversized jacket and baggy loosely hanging trousers — he was not the epitome of sartorial elegance unlike Modi — the full blown warmth this lover of India expressed in his whole countenance toward the visiting monarch, remained the same.

Two years ago on that breezy 13th day of March, he had had his official ceremonial welcome at the steps of the old Lankan Parliament at Galle Face. During the period it would have taken the forces to fire  the nation’s 21 gun salute in his honour, his eyes, no doubt,  would have strayed off shore to view with abhorrence the sight of that abominable Chinese dumpling set in the first throes of rising from the Indian Ocean two months ago now, thankfully, abandoned to the sea; and he offered from his heart a flower of prayer and muttered under his breath a word of thanks to the Hindu pantheon of gods for ennobling the people of Lanka with the wisdom to prevent the island’s drift east against the northbound Indian current. Then Lanka had seemed firmly anchored to the Indian sea of influence, embedded in its suzerainty.

But the Chinese have their own gods, too, in fact over a hundred specialist deities, including Caishen, the god of wealth, and Long Wang, the king of the seas. And last week as  Modi, from his presidential suite at the Indian owned Taj Samudra, stared at the Indian sea lapping on Lanka’s Galle Face shores he would have seen firsthand Cashien’s and Long Wang’s  immense power to wreak miracles: not only  to make the Chinese  Port City, condemned to the sea t wo years ago, boldly rise  from the sea again against Indian wishes but also to bury the best strategically based objections of India in the Indian Ocean seabed in its stead.
And all this had happened, despite the promising address  he had made on that Friday the 13th of March two years ago in the Lankan Parliament, promising this, promising that, and promising that even the dreams he dreams for India will be the same dream he dreams for Lanka.

WALK THROUGH THIS WORLD WITH ME: Chinese President Xi Jinping invites Lanka as travelling companion on the Silk Road to prosperity

Then he had told Lanka’s MPs: “The future that I dream for India is also the future that I wish for our neighbours. Our path will be easier, the journey quicker and destination nearer when we walk step in step. We have been formed from the same elements; and, from our interconnected histories. “
Then he had spoken of the oneness of the peoples: “India and Sri Lanka do not have a land boundary, but we are the closest neighbours in every sense. No matter where you look in India or Sri Lanka, the many strands of our links — religion, language, culture, food, customs, traditions and epics — come together into a deep and strong bond of familiarity and friendship. “

Then the ‘murunga aththe’ hanging piece of high praise for Lanka: “Sri Lanka is a leader in advancing cooperation in South Asia.  And, it is important for the future of the Indian Ocean Region. Sri Lanka`s progress and prosperity is also a source of strength for India. So, Sri Lanka`s success is of great significance to India.”
Then the reassurance: “And, as a friend, our good wishes, and our support and solidarity have always been with Sri Lanka. And, it will always be there for you. “
Then the unsolicited advice note from the Indian agony uncle, promoting the concept of federalism and the need for greater devolution of power in this small nation of only 25,000 square miles with a population of 21 million with 70 percent of the  populace Sinhalese:

“When we accommodate the aspirations of all sections of our society, the nation gets the strength of every individual. And, when we empower states, districts and villages, we make our country stronger and stronger. You can call this my bias. Today, my top priority is to make the states in India stronger. I am a firm believer in cooperative federalism. So, we are devolving more power and more resources to the states. And, we are making them formal partners in national decision making processes.”

Then the bait of economic prosperity: “In India, the growth momentum has been restored. India has become the fastest growing major economy in the world. The world sees India as the new frontier of economic opportunity. But, our neighbours should have the first claim on India. And I again repeat, the first claim on India is of our neighbours – of Sri Lanka. “

And finally the final Indian aim to physically link Lanka with India, to reconnect the umbilical cord nature severed millions of years ago and made Lanka an island: “I recall the lines of a famous song ‘Sindu Nadiyin Isai’ composed by the great nationalist poet Subramanian Bharati in the early 20th century: ‘Singalatheevukkinor paalam ameippom’ (we shall construct a bridge to Sri Lanka) I have come with the hope of building this bridge – a bridge that rests on strong pillars of our shared inheritance; of shared values and vision; of mutual support and solidarity; of friendly exchanges and productive cooperation; and, above all, belief in each other and our shared destiny.”

If in 2015 he said “I bring the greetings of 1.25 billion friends; and millions of fans of Sri Lankan cricket,” then last week he brought, as he said he did, “ the greetings of 1.25 billion people from the land of the Samyaksambuddha, the perfectly self awakened one.

But though the source of Indian greetings may have changed from the cricketing turf of Eden Gardens in West Bengal in 2015 to the hallowed ground of Buddha Gaya where Siddhartha trod and attained enlightenment, to suit the venue of his speech in 2017 at the BMICH participating in the 14th UN International Vesak celebration as chief guest, his underlying message remained more or less the same.

Addressing the UN Vesak event last Friday, he reaffirmed Lanka’s Buddhist links with India; restated his wish “that India and Sri Lanka will work together to uphold the ideals of Lord Buddha and promote values of peace, accommodation, inclusiveness, and compassion in the policies and conduct of our governments’ and reinforced hope in Lanka’s economic breast by stating that India is committed to the economic prosperity of Lanka’s citizens. He said: “India’s rapid growth can bring dividends for the entire region, especially in Sri Lanka.”

“Today,” he declared, “India’s development cooperation with Sri Lanka amounts to US Dollars 2.6 billion. And, its only aim is to support Sri Lanka in realizing a peaceful, prosperous and secure future for its people. Because, the economic and social well being of the people of Sri Lanka is linked with that of 1.25 billion Indians. Because, whether it is on land or in the waters of the Indian Ocean, the security of our societies is indivisible.”

And, apart from implying India’s justified worry about the raging Chinese inroads in to Lanka’s sovereign terrain, he expressed his fond faith that “I believe we are at a moment of great opportunity in our ties with Sri Lanka. An opportunity to achieve a quantum jump in our partnership across different fields.”

LET’S WALK HAND IN HAND BUT KEEP STEP WITH ME: Indian Prime Minister Modi upbeat and in full swing in Dickoya as he joins hands with President Maithripala and Prime Minister Ranil

Same singer, same song?  His speech was nothing more than a rehash of the promises he made and fulsome praise he had heaped on Colombo two years ago. Except for his line about the security of the two nations whether it is on land or water being indivisible. Apparently the Hindu Gods who had smiled on Modi’s prayers two years ago had lost the battle, though not the war, to the household Gods of China.

But even as Modi was painting his vista of Lanka’s future as India’s bell boy whose fortunes depended on India’s prosperity, 3000 miles away from Colombo in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping was busy setting the stage to welcome  29 world leaders to the launch of China’s Belt and Drive Forum where he would unveil China’s ambitious ‘Project of the Century’: To rebuild the ancient Silk Route and repave it, tile by tile, with the trust of Chinese gold.

In his speech last Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed why, if all roads once led to Rome two thousand years ago, all roads will begin from Beijing in the 21st century.

Outlining the ambitious 100 billion dollar project to world leaders in attendance, Xi announced the guiding principles with which China would begin the titanic adventure: the long march would begin with the Confucian first step.

He declared: “First, we should build the Belt and Road into a road for peace. The ancient silk routes thrived in times of peace, but lost vigor in times of war. The pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative requires a peaceful and stable environment. We should foster a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation; and we should forge partnerships of dialogue with no confrontation and of friendship rather than alliance. All countries should respect each other’s sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity, each other’s development paths and social systems, and each other’s core interests and major concerns.”

And promising there will be no strings attached, no sovereignty issues, no human rights problems, no territorial integrity questions, no concerns  for nations’ individual social systems, no trespassing on nation’s core interests or idiosyncratic development tracks pursued but a simple policy of ‘live and let live’ with a bohemian sun illuminating  the path, the Chinaman  invited the rest of the world to join him on his Grande Tour, and to step  foot on the ancient  silk trail that would lead the world to a European Shangri-la or a legendary American Eldorado; and make mankind experience the magical metamorphosis of turning from cocooned worms into exotic butterflies taking majestic flight.

Whist India’s Modi was trying to  impose on Lanka the Hanuman Bridge — to be built on the self same ridge that was the death of Ravana — to link the two land masses together and join the Indian road network that will link Lanka  to India and her  immediate neighbours Nepal and Bhutan, China’s Jinping was offering Lanka the chance to join China – never mind the warts of past human rights violations and even future ones, never mind the rash provoked by western associations – and jump aboard the Oriental Silk Express, with all fares fully paid, as an equal travelling partner on the silk route to prosperity.

In the light of this, Modi’s long standing demand to join India on a sub continental road ride looks parochial and greatly limited in its vision.
There is a lesson for India from all this. Never be overt in the attempt to dominate the affairs of a neighbouring sovereign state. Take a bamboo shoot from the Chinese panda method. China’s intrinsic strength stems from her five thousand years and more history of studied patience, where even as her great wall was built brick by brick, dynasty after dynasty and took 2000 years to render it as it is now, she grew from being a regional power to take note of to become one with credible ambitions to world domination. And she did it without trampling on another’s toes but with the same stealth and seeming sloth of her national mascot: the giant panda bear.

India, however, has acted differently, more like a rampaging cow with pretentions to sanctity in a china shop of porcelain, even arrogantly towards her neighbour Lanka. And followed the unspoken, unjustified but very Indian road rule: the one who has the big truck has the right of way. If the panjandrums holding the Red Fort in New Delhi’s Foreign Office should ever wonder why the Lankans display a love hate relationship towards India, they need look no further than to India’s many attempts to bully this island nation, to smother Mother Lanka until she gasps for air to escape suffocation and gain relief from the flatulence expelled from her leaders flaunting her imposing bulk.

This nation has not forgotten how Indira’s India gave not only refuge to Tamil terrorists but also provided the wherewithal for them to be trained  on Indian soil to wage terrorist war on Lanka. How bags of Mysore dhal were dropped from Indian planes ostensibly to feed the northern Tamils in violation of Lanka’s air space and without paying heed to international conventions. How the 13th Amendment were forced down Lanka’s throat to be swallowed whole by J. R. Jayewardene’s government and to establish provincial councils as a forerunner to a federal state. How it used the Tigers to intervene and interfere with the internal affairs of this country, how it had used the Indian origins of the Tamils of Lanka to play its moral card to do so; and even now, how in Dickoya, last Friday, Modi had changed his tune from that he had sung at the UN International Vesak convention in Colombo and became more upbeat in the hilly heartland of tea where according to the2012 census, nearly 900, 000 Lankans of Indian origin reside. To them he spoke as if their ancestors had never left their godforsaken Indian homes two centuries ago to toil on the tea plantations under British command.

He declared: “You are the children of Tamil Thai. You form an important link between Indian and Sri Lankan people and government.  We see you as part of seamless continuum of our ties with this beautiful country.  It is my Government’s priority to nurture these links. And, shape our partnership and engagement in a manner that ultimately contributes to the progress of all Indians and all Sri Lankans, and also touches your lives.  You have kept your bonds with India alive.  You have friends and relatives in India.  You celebrate Indian festivals as your own.  You have soaked our culture and made it your own.  India beats in your hearts.”
Strong stuff to remind Modi’s so called Indian Diaspora where their roots of loyalty really lay: across the Palk Strait in Tamil Nadu. Quite statesman like, wouldn’t you say to express such sentiments, with the Lankan president and Prime Minister on the same dais?

And that’s not all. Bent on striking a blow for Indian tourism, he announced that India’s national carrier Air India will begin direct flights from Colombo to Varanasi in August. Good. But then he went on to say: “This will ease travel to the land of Buddha for my brothers and sisters from Sri Lanka, and help you directly visit Sravasthi, Kusinagar, Sankasa, Kaushambi and Saranath. My Tamil brothers and sisters will also be able to visit Varanasi, the land of Kashi Viswanath.”
But why the distinction between his Sinhalese brethren and Tamil brothers and sisters? Does he think that amongst the Sinhalese there are none who worship Hindu Gods and, when their Nandi Vakiam tells them to do, wish to cleanse their sins in the sacred waters of the Ganges, India’s holiest river? Or that amongst the Tamil community there are no members who follow the teachings of Gautama the Buddha, India’s greatest son? Why this pedantic distinction? Why, when this country is striving to achieve a common Lankan identity, harp on racial origins taking religion as an excuse to draw a distinct racial divide?

And talking of this newly declared benefit to  his Lankan brethren on his second advent to Lanka, what about the decision he grandly announced in the Lankan Parliament on his first coming two years ago that thenceforth that Sri Lankans will no longer need a visa to visit India? Has that pledge, the grand announcement on visa on arrival, been fulfilled? It will be interesting to note what the Indian High Commissioner has to say on the matter and clarify whether the doors are locked and visas demanded from Lankans  to visit their closest neighbour in spite of the  chieftain’s  ‘open sesame’ promise smoked from his peace pipe? If Modi promises a quantum jump of benefits to Lanka, it will require a quantum leap of faith from Lanka’s side to believe in the new Indian testament.

But if there is a lesson to be learnt for the ‘rope trick’ famed India from the art of the Chinese sticks magic string trick, on how to develop upon the embedded love for India the majority of Lankans bear, especially due to the land being the birthplace of the Buddha, then there is a lesson for Lanka, too, to learn from her former colonial master’s colonial actions  when mulling over China’s professed avowals of altruism to invite Lanka as her ‘all expenses paid’ travelling partner on the silk road to gain the cornucopia of plenty, the Greek and Roman gods once held in their hands and gave to those only deemed worthy.

The lesson for Lanka lies in the origins of the British Empire. The British never went in quest to conquer India. It was pure serendipity that made the Kohinoor diamond of the empire the star gem on the British crown. The British advent to India was a classic case of the flag following trade. And when the East India Trading Company established by Royal Charter in 1599 to counter the Dutch monopoly on pepper set up its operations in India and were called upon to settle internal rivalry between the many kingdoms that formed the India of today, they still maintained that ‘trade not territory’ was the one and only reason for their presence in the Indian sub continent. Theirs was to sit in judgment on internal disputes but only to conduct trade for the mutual benefit of all. And they never ceased to repeat the prayer ‘trade not territory’. But within a few years, the British Government, in order to protect its lucrative trade interests was moved to intervene and soon gobbled up the whole of India.

Lanka: India’s spokesman

If the Rajapaksa ship of state tilted heavily towards the Chinese horizon till it sunk in the Red Sea, then it is to the credit of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government that they have been able to raise the hulk  from fathomless depths and to keep it on even keel and steer it safely through the Indo- Sino canal to port.

This week saw Lanka’s diplomacy at its best. Ranil Wickremesinghe after having welcomed the Indian Prime Minister and afforded him the best of all possible welcomes and seen him off, swiftly flew to be the guest at the court of China’s President Xi Jinping just when he was inaugurating  China’s ambitious project to make the world rediscover the ancient silk route from China to Europe.

Where once the previous Lankan government had placed all its betting chips on the Chinese red and ignored the rivaling Indian black, the present regime has followed counsel and emerged to be quite adroit in walking the tight rope of diplomacy, even without a safety net.

Since its rise to power, after the initial teething problems had been settled and ground realities perforce had caused a shift on its previous anti Chinese stance, which was not different to the previous regime’s anti Indian stance, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s wise focus has concentrated on performing the great balancing act. And hasn’t he succeeded?

This week, in Beijing, Lanka was so bold behind the bamboo curtain to even assume the role of India’s spokesman. Special Assignment Minister Sarath Amunugama who accompanied Prime Minister Wicremesinghe said India, which skipped the high-profile meeting, would have joined “very happily” in the One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative of China. “Unfortunately, the issue is going through the heart of Indian interests. If it is some uncontested region, India would have negotiated its way out. Here especially the Kashmir issue getting dragged into it, makes it difficult for India to be flexible,”

The Lankan Prime Minister Wickremesinghe himself said this week that India and China are
“talking”, even though the Modi government had boycotted the Belt and Road Forum.  “Don’t think that New Delhi is not talking to China. Besides it’s a bilateral issue for them to sort out.”

The Sirisena- Wickremesinghe government had made Lanka the most wanted belle of the ball. On the southern flank she has promised the capital and the ancient port of Hambantota to the wily Chinaman. On the northern front she has promised her oil tanks to the sweet talking Indian. But she has still not surrendered her heart to either but has kept them dangling like two puppets on her string.

It certainly takes great skill to stay neutral between two formidable foes. And some gumption to defend the mongoose in the serpent’s nest.

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