Any new change of regime in India, and to a lesser extent Pakistan, will always have a huge impact on Sri Lanka’s political and economic future – far greater than any, similar changes in other parts of the world. Thus the entry of Narendra Modi as India’s new Prime Minister with a ‘sweeping’ majority by [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka under the Modi radar


Any new change of regime in India, and to a lesser extent Pakistan, will always have a huge impact on Sri Lanka’s political and economic future – far greater than any, similar changes in other parts of the world.

Thus the entry of Narendra Modi as India’s new Prime Minister with a ‘sweeping’ majority by the BJP (Bharatiya Janatha Party) ousting the Congress Party from its pedestal is an occasion to take stock of the country’s future relations with its giant neighbour and whether a new policy is in the making.

That however won’t be the case; in fact the new rulers of India, Modi in particular, are expected to be tougher with Sri Lanka on the national issue pertaining to the rights of minority Tamils.

“Modi will constantly remind Sri Lanka (more than any other previous Indian leader) of its promises and the implementation of the 13th amendment to the Constitution,” said Senior Minister Tissa Vitharana this week.

In fact all three speakers including Prof. Vitharana, during a special discussion at the Sunday Times Business Club on Thursday on the new Indian government and its impact on Sri Lanka, concurred with the view that Sri Lanka needs to gets its house in order as India would want to see more (than just watch from the sidelines) increased devolution of power in northeast Sri Lanka.

Another conclusion that came out of a very, interesting discussion on the Indian equation in Sri Lankan politics was that the country’s economy will not move at the pace or speed anticipated by the Government (towards its goal of the ‘Miracle of Asia’) unless the national question is resolved. The economy will grow but not to the high 8-10 per cent levels envisaged was the general view of the three speakers – Prof. Vitharana; Eran Wickramaratne, Opposition MP; and Suresh Shah, Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

A possible misreading of the politics in India at the moment is that the Congress Party has been vaporized by the electoral verdict which saw the BJP winning an overwhelming majority, and that Tamil Nadu politicians won’t be a headache for Sri Lanka anymore.
India’s electoral system is based on the British-introduced, first-past-the-post structure and though the BJP won less than 40 per cent of the entire national vote, it secured a massive number of seats. If it was similar to the proportional representation electoral system practiced in Sri Lanka, the margin of victory in terms of the number of seats would have been much less. For example, at the last 2010 parliamentary polls, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s UPFA won 39 per cent of the vote against 22 per cent by Ranil Wickremasinghe’s UNP and in terms of seats it was 144 (UPFA) and 60 (UNP). Now in India, the BJP won 39 per cent of the vote and secured 335 seats against Congress Party’s 19.5 per cent and 59 seats.

While the picture emerging is Congress being routed by the BJP raising questions about the future of dynasty politics and the Gandhi family; local foreign affairs and political analysts are cautioning against any belief that Tamil Nadu has no control or influence over the Centre in Sri Lanka’s political future. Tamil Nadu politicians have been the thorn in Sri Lanka’s political crisis and every previous Indian regime has been pandering to their demands particularly on the ‘Tamil’ question in Sri Lanka.

The nationalist tendencies of the BJP along with its ‘perceived’ ability to ignore the Tamil Nadu equation in Sri Lanka politics is also being touted by some Government politicians like Wimal Weerawansa as a positive outcome for Sri Lanka. However it is clear from the three speakers, in addition to other commentators, that the foreign policy dynamics in India will remain the same, if not harden on Sri Lanka’s national question.

It was further pointed out that Modi will be a hands-on leader, very much in control and a firm decision-maker unlike his predecessor Manmohan Singh who was considered weak and unable to withstand outside pressures.

Sentiments urging Sri Lanka to be cautious against current perceptions that the level of interference in Sri Lanka’s affairs would be less than before, were interestingly expressed in the presence of two top Indian High Commission officials – counsellors handling political and economic/trade affairs, who are bound to report to their superiors on the local analysis of the Indian polls verdict.

Prof. Vitharana in his comments indicated that Modi wants the Tamils to be given their due place in society and that the Indian leadership is bound to be ‘knocking on the doors’ all the time to ensure that it happens.

Another pertinent view, that counters the euphoria over the new Indian leadership and the perception that it would ignore southern realities, is that Modi will further develop India based on the support of all states, including Tamil Nadu. The fact that Modi’s stature as a leader grew after he transformed his Gujarat state into an economically successful state, lends credence to the view that Tamil Nadu political realities is not going to be ignored. Another view that emerged at Thursday’s discussion was that India’s foreign policy is and has always been designed to serve its own home dynamics; for that matter any foreign policy of a country is to protect its own interests. Thus with no shift in policy the Sri Lanka issue is very much on the table in Modi’s list of priorities.

Benefits for Sri Lanka in business and trade? Modi is a pro-business leader who was backed by Indian powerhouses like Tata and Birla and would be very business-friendly in internal and external trade relations.

This is a positive in terms of economic benefits to Sri Lanka if, as the speakers at the discussion pointed out, the country’s leadership plays its cards wisely and tactfully. For, at the end of the day, a resolution of the national question and reasonable devolution of power in the northeast will be a pre-requisite for Sri Lanka’s economy to bloom to become the new economic powerhouse in South Asia.

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