From the sidelines Was it accident or design that the president’s historic proclamation on holding the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election came at the same time that the president’s brother, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa was in New Delhi as the president’s special envoy, to hold talks with India’s top officials? A statement from the [...]


Northern elections – three ‘Ds’, three ‘Rs’ and the Indian conundrum


From the sidelines

Was it accident or design that the president’s historic proclamation on holding the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election came at the same time that the president’s brother, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa was in New Delhi as the president’s special envoy, to hold talks with India’s top officials? A statement from the High Commission of Sri Lanka in New Delhi couched in typically bland diplomatic language said India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid “welcomed the proclamation made by the President of Sri Lanka on 5 July to the Commissioner of Elections to hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council.”

The two ministers discussed a range of bilateral issues and reiterated their commitment “to strengthening the deep and abiding friendship between India and Sri Lanka,” the High Commission statement said. What it did not say was that Khurshid had urged that the 13th Amendment to the constitution (13A) be implemented, and requested that its provisions not be diluted. This was reported in the Indian media.

In Colombo, minister and cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella described Basil Rajapaksa’s visit as a mission to explain to New Delhi the proposed changes to the 13th Amendment (13A). If there were underlying tensions in the relationship caused by developments on the ground in Sri Lanka, the Indian officials did not betray them – publicly at least.

Menon’s visit 

Rajapaksa also met India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai. When Menon arrives in Colombo for talks with President Rajapaksa (slated for Tuesday 9th July) it is anyone’s guess how that meeting will be coloured by the polarized political climate that prevails in Colombo with regard to the Indo Lanka Accord and the 13A. A section within the government that seems to find favour with the SLFP leadership is lobbying intensely to either repeal the 13A or truncate the powers it confers to the provinces. The possibility of repeal would now seem remote with the announcement of the NPC election.

A Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) set up to discuss these issues is set to meet for the first time on the same day that Menon meets the president. With not a single Opposition party billed to participate so far, it is doubtful how useful the PSC’s one-sided conclusions will be, in an exercise that was intended to bring about an agreement on a solution to the national question. The only outward sign that New Delhi has influenced Colombo in its deliberations is seen in the government’s delay in presenting the 19th amendment, which contains the proposed changes, in parliament. It would appear that this move is on hold till after the NPC election in September, and after the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November as well.

Since the war’s end India has been consistent in applying a ‘soft power’ approach in its relations with its small neighbour. This is seen in the determined efforts to assist with reconstruction and rehabilitation in the conflict affected areas, the credit lines and grants for development projects, and the promotion of cultural and educational exchanges/activities. Sending the Kapilavasthu relics as part of the Sambudhatva Jayanthi celebrations was perhaps a high point in these efforts.

No free lunch

All the same there’s no free lunch. When Menon visited a year ago, he reportedly urged that the NPC election must be held. This was some months ahead of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council, where India was to lead the troika that would handle Sri Lanka’s review.

Menon’s visit this year comes ahead of CHOGM. It is known that Indian influence had much to do with Sri Lanka’s avoidance of censure from the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, and that paved the way for Sri Lanka to smoothly host the event. There have been calls for India to boycott CHOGM, a move which, if carried out, could undermine the summit’s success. So this time around part of the ‘good behaviour’ expected by India will be the conduct of a free and fair election to set up the first ever Northern Provincial Council.
Upto now India’s dialogue on key bilateral issues has been directed to the Rajapaksa brothers whom they know are Sri Lanka’s foreign policy decision makers.

This year Menon will have to figure out the conundrum of a situation where these three key figures no longer seem to speak in one voice. In Beruwela Mahinda makes a speech exhorting people to shun extremism. In Delhi Basil tells Indian media about the ‘three Ds’ – demilitarization, development and democratization’ (a ‘D’ that was conspicuous by its omission was ‘Devolution.’) And in Colombo, Gotabaya tells the ‘Daily Mirror’ we should not listen to India, the 13A should be repealed, there is no need for devolution and in fact there is no political problem at all. Which of these ‘chinthanayas’ is Menon to take as the official version?

Regional realities

Leaving aside for a moment the question of the ‘appropriateness’ of pronouncements on political matters by a public servant – even if he is the country’s top bureaucrat – the Defence Secretary’s comments are troubling in their implied rejection of positions adopted in important government-related documents such as the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ and the LLRC report. More disturbing perhaps is the correspondence between his views and those of extremists in government ranks.

Reflecting the importance attached to the current visits by top officials to and from New Delhi, a report in ‘The Hindu’ observed “The next few days could well chart the course of India-Sri Lanka relations over the next few years.” The arrival of a new Indian High Commissioner, Y. K. Sinha in Colombo, and a new Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh set to take office at the end of the month, could also bring some change in the style of diplomacy. Venkat Narayan reports that Ms Singh is known to be ‘tough as nails’ in negotiations. While her father is a Tamil she is married to her Foreign Service batch mate Sanjay Singh, a north Indian and former Secretary (East) who retired in April.

Colombo cannot hope to ‘wish away’ the reality that India is a regional superpower, a nuclear power, a candidate for a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council in the future, the world’s largest democracy, and Sri Lanka’s only neighbour. For India, the manner in which Sri Lanka sets about resolving its national question is no longer a ‘state’ issue resonating in Tamil Nadu alone, but a national one that will figure in its general election next year. It would seem unlikely that Delhi will switch to a ‘hard power’ approach in its relations with Colombo in the near future. But in the event Sri Lanka becomes too much of a liability for it domestically, can the possibility that India might just take off the kid gloves at some point be ruled out?

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