There was a time when victory over enemies was about bashing heads, seizing their women and enslaving their children. It still happens of course. The cost-effective way is for the powerful to dictate, the weak to submit, hands to be shaken with the key representatives of the respective parties facing the camera, a show of bonhomie and crisp statements about long-standing historical friendships. Heads don’t get bashed, but enslavement is what it is all about.
Well, ‘enslavement’ might be too harsh a word actually. But let’s say “privileged access to resources, terms of exchange skewed in favor of the mighty, drafting or vetting policy regimes or rather using the word recommendation for what is really directive and a general do-as-I-please on all matters”. Students of politics would call it colonialism or in the poli-speak of diplomacy post-colonialism, the ‘post’ affix being the sweetener.
This, however, is not a comment on the nature of subjugation or the exercising of hegemony. It’s about India. India, we know. Only too well. We need not enumerate the many instances when India demonstrated friendship. Just mentioning the acronym IPKF would do to nudge the memory of all the politics that came before and after that noun entered the political discourse of this country.
And yet, as they say, beggars cannot be choosers. Pride needs to be swallowed. Most importantly, self-aggrandizement aside most political leaders in this country have had little qualms over pride-guzzling, especially since they stood to lose very little. And so, as per the ideological predilections and political maturity/naivete of the particular set of people running the country, both in the name of expedience as well as for the most frivolous of reasons, we’ve seen ‘the robber barons’ being invited (that’s J.R. Jayewardene’s pithy capture of his government’s thinking by the way). Again, as for preference, the enemies of the particular friends of the moment, were cold-shouldered or vilified. When reality knocked on the door of course, there was a lot of stammering and stuttering, the giving of assurances and an embarrassing re-submission. That’s China, by the way.
But this is about India. The Government has clearly indicated that despite running to China (‘looking East,’ it said when Brexit burst the bubble of delusion about the West’s ability and willingness to help) India’s interests will not be ignored.
Interests. Interesting word. In bilateral relations that are marked by a power imbalance it refers to two things: business and strategic imperatives. The encomiums notwithstanding it’s not about those lovely little things such as love, friendship, shared histories, good neighborliness, etc. Business and strategic imperatives, let us repeat.
Just consider the draft MoU between the governments of India and Sri Lanka. The objectives are spelled out in the language of give-and-take and signed with notions of equality: “…To achieve greater economic, investment and development cooperation in a progressinve manner, through joint ventures and other cooperative activities that will ensure the well-being of the people of the two countries on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.”
There’s nothing about any projects on India in which Sri Lanka is to get involved. So what’s the benefit to ‘the people of India’? Profits and strategic advantages, what else! The entire document is about Indian involvement in key sectors such as energy and entrenchment in strategic locations such as Trincomalee.
Smuggled into a bunch of line items related to power plants, storage facilities and refineries is India’s long-standing interest in securing a lot more than a foothold in Trincomalee by way of taking over the oil tank farms. Here’s the wording: ‘To form a Joint Venture to develop the Upper Tank Farms in Trincomalee, while signing a land lease agreement for 50 years in favour of Lanka IOC Ltd. for the Tank Farm’. Need we say more?
Throw in Indian ‘largesse’ in ‘fostering better understanding between the two militaries’ (note the ‘neutrality’ and the ‘equality’ implied!), the ‘generosity’ in undertaking a hydrographic survey for Sri Lanka, the supply (they don’t use the word ‘sale’) of Indian helicopters and other lovely things, and we are essentially talking about a patron-client relationship in the making.
The key advisor to this government on economic affairs, R. Paskaralingam has revealed that India was keen to have the said MoU inked during the forthcoming visit to that country by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister. To his credit, Paskaralingam has stated that ‘after discussions it was decided to consider the proposals of India initially.’
India’s High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu, in a speech made recently, has said that Sri Lanka can sign agreements at its own chosen speed. He’s a diplomat, let’s not forget. Paskaralingam has put things as bluntly as his bureaucratic training permits. Reading between the lines, as we must, we have to conclude, ‘bad news’.
The Sinhala people always knew what’s what of ‘bilateral relations’. They laughed it off with an adage but the wry humor said it as it was. For example, the well-known saying ‘inguru deela miris gaththa vagei’ (it’s like exchanging ginger for chillies), meaning ‘an injudicious exchange’.
That’s about ditching one invader for another. There is that play in the game involving the West (led by the USA), China and India, and it would be useful to assess the most favourable terms of enslavement (beggars can’t be choosers, we already said that). We’ve had a bellyful of Indian chillies. That much can be said.
Malinda Seneviratne is
a freelance writer.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com. Twitter: malindasene