When the Indian Government decided the other day to stretch the hand of friendship to the once strongly Marxist-Leninist JVP, which, in the late 1980s, was seen as anti-Indian, it appears to have come as a shock to some political circles and commentators in Colombo. But it should not have been so. If there is [...]


India’s diplomatic move takes many in Colombo by surprise


When the Indian Government decided the other day to stretch the hand of friendship to the once strongly Marxist-Leninist JVP, which, in the late 1980s, was seen as anti-Indian, it appears to have come as a shock to some political circles and commentators in Colombo.

But it should not have been so. If there is one country that keeps its eyes and ears close to the ground, reads the tea leaves better than any other, and has a greater understanding of socio-political developments in Sri Lanka, it is neighbouring India.

It is not that other countries based in Colombo or with genuine interest in which way Sri Lankan political winds blow do not have their spooks nosing around in the country. India has its advantages.

During my many years at Lake House, one of our past times was when my brother Mervyn and I were trying to spot the intelligence men and women in the various embassies—who were CIA, KGB, RAW, SIS, MI6, Mossad, and some small-time operators from other countries.

It became real cloak-and-dagger John Le Carre’s stuff when approaches were made to recruit you as a sort of spy—an information conduit and grist to an intelligence analyst’s mill—as happened to me while on the Daily News and as a correspondent for several foreign media in different countries.

The US Embassy’s new Defence Advisor/Attache, a former Vietnam War Helicopter Rescue pilot, whom I first met at a dinner by the French No. 2 and invited him and his wife home for a drink when they gave me a ride home, and after two more dinner meetings, tried to inveigle me to work for him, but I should stop writing for the New York Times as its correspondent in Colombo.

He obviously came from a rich family, as he was educated at a private university in the US. When the approach became too obvious, I had to not only tell him what I thought of his offer but also tell the CIA’s leg man (whose name I will not disclose as his father was a senior US diplomat and later a prominent Congressman) to inform his CIA station chief in Colombo that if the defence man is not removed, I will write about it.

I must say they acted fast. Within two weeks, he was withdrawn and posted elsewhere. Among those who knew the story from the first days was one of my close friends, a university colleague then at our Foreign Ministry, and later a Filipino diplomat (now passed away) in Colombo who had also been approached to pass on information, according to my Foreign Ministry friend.

The Indian intelligence service, which for some peculiar reason is called the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), probably to hide its real operations, is perhaps the most active of the foreign intelligence services working in Sri Lanka, largely because of its cultural, religious, and ethnic affinities with Sri Lanka and the physical proximity that makes its work easier.

Some might recall that when Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency in 2015, he was said to have accused RAW of playing a role in manipulating his defeat.

Whether that is true or not, RAW’s role in collating information and assessing developments in Sri Lanka is an essential part of India’s overall understanding of Sri Lanka, where it is heading, and whether political change might well occur in the months ahead.

Had President Ranil Wickremesinghe held the local government elections as scheduled, it would have been a fair indicator of popular thinking, especially after the months-long “aragalaya” which was unprecedented, despite attempts by political novices with great expectations, such as Namal Rajapaksa, to dismiss it as a people’s movement hijacked by aggressive political groups with their own agendas.

Aragalaya was a distinct marker of public thinking and caused an elected president to flee the country and resign while seeking sanctuary abroad, and the Pohottuwa government led by the Rajapaksas to collapse.

It could not be inconsequential, as Namal Rajapaksa would like to see it, to India and other foreign Colombo-watchers who had already recognised it as a decisive political movement that shook the edifice of political power in Colombo.

With the local government elections ruled out by President Wickremesinghe more for fear of losing than lack of funds to hold them, Colombo watchers had naturally looked for other indicators of political movement in the post-economic crisis months as a temporary president and a government that had lost public faith struggled to keep their heads above turbulent waters.

One way of assessing mood change is through public opinion polls. They may not prove accurate or even correct, as British pre-election polls and media analyses had predicted. But in the absence of significant milestones to assess developments, especially at a time of domestic economic convulsions, analysts have had to depend on what existing polls indicated and what social and mainstream media conveyed as public thinking.

Dr. Ravi Rannan-Eliya’s Institute of Health Policy is one study that conveyed monthly assessments of how political leaders were fairing in the public mind and how the public intended to vote in upcoming national elections.

Surely eagle-eyed Indian watchers focused on Sri Lankan affairs, especially the post-economic crisis period, could not have been oblivious to these monthly reports that clearly indicated JVP/NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s decisive lead in the polls over other possible presidential candidates.

They surely could not have failed to notice his steady rise in the approval ratings. Importantly, the JVP/NPP, with its Marxist leanings, would certainly have appealed to China as an important political-ideological adjunct in its Indian Ocean strategy, particularly with its strong ally, the Rajapaksas, and its Pohottuwa party cronies being discarded by an aggrieved public.

There is much more to be said about this diplomatic development, but a lack of space does not permit it.

Still, two points need to be underlined. India sees the meteoric rise of Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the NPP against the larger geopolitical picture, now with the emergence of a new Maldivian leader far less amenable to India than its predecessor and being enticed by China.

New Delhi would not welcome a new Leftist administration in Sri Lanka that has already been cultivated by China and is now far less inclined to prop up a Rajapaksa government with diplomatic and easy financial support, as it did in the past.

China sees a new ally in the NPP that will hopefully be at the helm before long.

India’s intention would, of course, be to neutralise any Chinese attempts to have both Sri Lanka and the Maldives in an even more conducive relationship than before.

But in Colombo, the rulers have other intentions. Besides hoping that India would soften NPP criticism of India and what is seen as its expansive goals in Sri Lanka, actively aided by a Sri Lankan government, they are also helpfully holding out economic and investment opportunities to Indian entrepreneurs promoted by a Modi government.

They hope that Indian diplomacy will aid the Colombo administration in this regard. It wants to see an NPP less critical of a burgeoning Indian presence and certainly pursuing a much softer line on Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP and carving out a new relationship between them.

Some political observers even think that the NPP’s official visit to India was either suggested by the Sri Lankan government or was encouraged when New Delhi first showed signs of inviting the NPP.

President Wickremesinghe’s policy statement to parliament, where he spoke of the role the JVP played in the Yahapalana government in which the UNP was the leading party and urged a new political marriage of sorts, smacks of a desperate Wickremesinghe, whose approval rating just now is 9% compared to Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s 50%, looking for a life-saviour to cling to.

That is, of course, if elections are duly held and democracy prevails.

But what if judgement is fled to brutish beasts? And men have lost their reason, as Mark Antony said at the funeral of Julius Caesar.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later, he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)

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