Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is neither a stranger to the inner circle of New Delhi politics nor an unfamiliar personality in the North Block. However, during the last one year, his profile has undergone a welcome makeover. This seasoned political leader, known more for his failures than successes in his repeated forays for power, pulled a political coup of sorts. With the help of current Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena, another political veteran though from the opposition, Wickremesinghe thwarted former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid for power twice!
The duo defeated Rajapaksa’s bid for a third term as president in January, and seven months later, they outsmarted Rajapaksa’s attempt to come back to power using his loyalists in the seemingly more powerful coalition – the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – in the recently held general election.
As a result Wickremesinghe now enjoys power with public endorsement of his political agenda twice within a year. In spite of political obstacles the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena duo had made some progress in living up to the expectations of the public. Their promises include increasing the accountability of the president to the parliament, empowerment of the prime minister and cleaning up the administration of corruption and cronyism. Their work done so far, though still not completed, has restored Sri Lanka’s credibility which was eroded both at home and abroad by former president Rajapaksa’s autocratic style of governance.
Wickremesinghe is heading a national alliance government – the first since 1977 – in which the ruling United National Party (UNP) and the main opposition, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), have come together. This has increased the chances of promoting a national agenda to focusing on development in an environment of unity, peace and harmony. Former president Rajapaksa failed to do that despite his success in getting rid of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) once and for all. He frittered away five years of peace that followed the military victory in May 2009 by focusing on strengthening his support base. As a result, the socio-political environment was vitiated by acrimony, distrust, religious and ethnic polemics and strife.
This has increased the chances of the present government making further progress in its reform agenda despite widespread cynicism in the political milieu. But Wickremesinghe would be more confident than ever before when he visits New Delhi today for the first time after becoming prime minister.
There is a lot of convergence in the outlook of the Indian and Sri Lankan leaderships than before. Wickremesinghe’s agenda to correct Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China after Rajapaksa had succumbed to its “fatal” charm in areas of strategic security and trade was one such area of convergence. So it was not surprising to find the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena duo welcoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s renewed efforts to build a broadened and enduring relationship with Sri Lanka when he visited the island nation a few months back. They reciprocated his desire to get rid of other kinks in the relationship between the two countries that had appeared during the earlier regime. This makes the Sri Lankan leader’s New Delhi visit a special one as the Sri Lankan government probably enjoys greater credibility in the corridors of North Block than under Rajapaksa.
Both Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have also shown their readiness to act upon the concerns of both India and the West including the US, which were dealt with superficially during ten years of Rajapaksa’s rule. These issues are sure to be included in the Modi-Wickremesinghe talks even if they are not aired in public owing to sensitivity over some of them in both countries.
Both India and the West were irritated by Rajapaksa’s ploy to twist their concerns over his government’s dismal human rights record during and after the ethnic conflict to whip up Sinhala nationalism and encourage xenophobia for his political advantage. Similarly, he distorted their insistence on resuming the political dialogue process with the Tamils to resolve their long-standing demand for equity with the Sinhala majority as an encouragement to Tamil separatism.
This had created problems for India as its negative fallout in Tamil Nadu politics adversely affected the fortunes of successive governments in New Delhi. This had cramped India’s efforts to meaningfully contribute to build a win-win relationship with Sri Lanka. This weakness was exploited by China to enter Sri Lanka in a big way.
Though the coalition era has ended in New Delhi, the issue of ethnic amity in Sri Lanka will continue to influence India’s policy not only owing to its impact on Tamil Nadu politics, but also in the interest of national security. India and Sri Lanka are geographically too close to each other, making their national security interests complimentary than contentious. This makes it necessary for them to build a relationship that can be mutually reinforced, notwithstanding their unequal sizes and strengths.
The political dispensation for Sri Lankan Tamils will continue to remain one of lynchpins for the progress of India-Sri Lanka realtions. The Wickremesinghe government had tried to break the impasse in resuming the dialogue process with the Tamils within the ambit of 13th Amendment (13A) to the Constitution which is supported by India. However, it will be politically difficult for the Sri Lankan government to grant land and police powers envisaged in the 13A to the provincial councils. We can expect this issue to come up when Modi and Wickremesinghe meet, though it is a moot point whether it would go beyond making cordial statements.
For both India and the West, Rajapaksa reneging on his promises to them extended their concerns well beyond matters of Sri Lanka’s internal politics; it became a challenge to their strategic power assertion, particularly after he got cozy with China and provided a welcome strategic foothold for the Dragon in Sri Lanka in India’s close proximity and in the Indian Ocean sea lanes through which a bulk of the global maritime trade is conducted. This assumes special significance in light of China increasing assertion of its naval power in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Indian Ocean.
From the Sri Lankan perspective, there are some issues where it needs India’s help and understanding. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) discussion on Sri Lanka’s follow-up actions taken on the US-sponsored resolution passed three years back would come up on Friday, after the report of the UN Human Rights Commissioner is presented. Though the US is likely to modify its insistence on a UN-sponsored international inquiry by accepting a domestic inquiry with the assistance of the UNHRC, Sri Lanka needs Indian support to broaden its support base. Though the US move has met with some political criticism in Tamil Nadu and agitation by fringe elements, egged on by the Sri Lankan diaspora, India has always supported domestic inquiries in preference to international ones. In view of this, the compromise solution suggested by the US would probably be supported by India.
The second issue is India-Sri Lanka trade. During his Colombo visit, Prime Minister Modi had revived the idea of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between India and Sri Lanka. India had mooted the idea and it almost came through in 2008. However, in the face of protest from local businesses, the Rajapaksa government developed cold feet and gave it up. Sri Lanka is facing exceptional economic crunch and problems of debt-servicing. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had been lukewarm to the idea of lending more to Sri Lanka to service Chinese loans.
So Sri Lanka urgently needs to hold India’s hand to see it through this crisis. However, it will be difficult for the Sri Lankan government to openly support the CEPA as it is probably a no-go area in Sri Lankan politics. However, it appears the country would not be averse to work out an economic arrangement similar to CEPA though it may be called by a different name. This was indicated in a report in The Sunday Times, Colombo which quoted Sri Lankan deputy foreign minister Harsha de Silva as saying that CEPA issues were likely to be among other important issues during the bilateral talks between Modi and Wickremesinghe. He added, “We must push for such agreements with countries like India. However, we must not blindly enter into such agreements. We must study in detail our own experiences and that of other similar countries to negotiate the best deal for us. Any bilateral or multilateral trade agreement that benefits Sri Lanka must be pursued.” (Daily Observer)