The meeting between Premier Modi and Mahinda Rajapaksa in India is said to have laid the foundation for goodwill between them
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s one-on-one meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sparked fresh political debate both in Sri Lanka and India. It is more so because the 40-minute closed door discussion took place at Panchavati or the Prime Minister’s official residence in New Delhi amidst perception in Sri Lanka that India’s Research and Analysis (RAW) played a clandestine role in 2015 in the installation of the present Government by unseating Rajapaksa from office.
It is true that only Sri Lankan people voted out Rajapaksa. Be that as it may, the perception here is that the RAW played a role, particularly by ensuring the support of the Tamil political parties based in the north and the east, and the upcountry, to make President Maithripala Sirisena the common candidate at the 2015 Presidential Elections.
In fact, President Sirisena was clad like Modi during the election campaign. It was interpreted as a move to make a symbolic psychological appeal to Tamil voters who are emotionally attached to India because they have their origins there. However, all these are matters with scope for interpretation in multiple ways.
Instead of engaging in a hair-splitting theorising exercise, it is worth to get down to facts in analysing Indo-Lanka ties in the current context.
The key figures who served in the Rajapaksa Government admitted openly during their public interactions and media interviews after the 2015 electoral defeat that they enjoyed healthy relations with India during the height of war, but they were soured after the Modi Government assumed office in May, 2014. That was at the tail end of the Rajapaksa regime.
The delegation was accorded accommodation at Le Méridien Hotel in New Delhi. Besides, a bullet-proof vehicle from the fleet assigned to Modi had been deployed to transport Rajapaksa
There is reference to the troika mechanism established at that time to sort out outstanding bilateral issues related to the war efforts here.
In fact, the Troika mechanism is viewed as a real topic for a case study for students pursuing international relations as their major. It involved the key officials of both sides. Former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga comprised the Troika representing Sri Lanka.
The Indian Trokia consisted of then Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Advisor M.K. Narayan and former Defence Secretary Vijay Singh.
Menon published a book ‘Choices’ fleshing out details as to how the troika mechanism worked in the interests of both countries and the war being brought to a successful end.
In an interview with this columnist, after the book was published, Menon said, “I think the book makes it clear that we had a professional, productive and good working relationship with our Sri Lankan counterparts and interlocutors. The ‘troika’ mechanism which we started to deal with sensitive and urgent issues, in particular, worked well and showed consistent results”.
Basil Rajapaksa also confirmed it in a similar interview. All in all, it is a known fact the Rajapaksa administration had good relations with India at one point. It is also a fact that such relations soured later during his term.
The Modi-Rajapaksa dialogue has to be viewed through the prism of these developments only. Rajapaksa was in New Delhi to deliver a public lecture on “India-Sri Lanka relation: the way ahead” organised by the Virat Hindustan Sangam, led by BJP MP Subramanian Swamy.
On the sidelines of it, Rajapaksa, and his entourage- that included his son MP Namal Rajapaksa, Kandy district MP Lohan Ratwatte and former External Affairs Minister prof. G.L. Peiris- met with the leaders of both the ruling Bharatiya Janatha Party(BJP) and the main opposition Indian National Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi. With Modi the dialogue was one-one-one.
In his speech, Rajapaksa referred to Menon’s book ‘Choices’ and said eradication of terrorism in Sri Lanka was an immense advantage to India as well
The two leaders decided not to divulge what was discussed. The only official line communicated was that the interaction laid down the foundation for goodwill between them.
Prof. Peiris, who accompanied Rajapaksa, said it was for warming of ties. “The rapport is now built,” he said.
Modi also referred to his friendship with Rajapaksa saying that it even preceded his becoming the Prime Minister of India.
In this manner, India is obviously reaching out to Rajapaksa. May be, it is that India has sensed how the political wind is blowing in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, it may be trying to adjust its relations with him.
Whatever it might be, it sent a strong message to the Sri Lankan political parties and politicians. It is learned that none of the controversial issues such as the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) and the leasing out of the Mattala Airport and the Trincomalee Oil Tank, were touched upon. So, it is purely an attempt to break new ground in terms of relations.
The delegation was accorded accommodation at Le Méridien Hotel in New Delhi. Besides, a bullet-proof vehicle from the fleet assigned to Modi had been deployed to transport Rajapaksa. Besides, the Indian Government had informed the Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi that it would be ready to grant any form of assistance if required in respect of this visit.
Rahul on economic themes and election campaigns
Besides, the delegation also met with the Congress leaders that included Rahul Gandhi, former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and Opposition Leader Anand Sharma.
According to political sources, Gandhi, who is supposed to spearhead the Congress, said that the Indian society had been gripped by issues triggered after demonetisation, the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax and farmers’ issues. In his remarks, he tried to draw a parallel with Sri Lanka, and said that the economic themes would dominate the election campaigns of both the countries.
Tamil Nadu MPs at dinner hosted for MR
Alongside, Menon hosted a dinner in honour of Rajapaksa in New Delhi. On behalf of the BJP-led Indian Government, Minister Maneka Gandhi was also present at the event. Interestingly, some MPs from Tamil Nadu were also present at the event and were mingling with the invitees at the dinner.
Actually, it was inconceivable some time ago to expect Tamil Nadu MPs at events attended by Rajapaksa. In the past, in fact, there were public protests when he visited India. There was exception this time.
Menon was seated near the main table at the dinner function and spent two or three minutes talking to each member of the delegation. In his speech, Rajapaksa referred to Menon’s book ‘Choices’ and said eradication of terrorism in Sri Lanka was an immense advantage to India as well.
Menon, in his casual interaction, said he divided his time between India and the United States. He has undertaken some teaching assignments in the United States under a fellowship programme.
In this manner, India is obviously reaching out to Rajapaksa. May be, it is that India has sensed how the political wind is blowing in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, it may be trying to adjust its relations with him
Douglas seeks India’s support
Simultaneously with the visit by Rajapaksa, a Sri Lankan parliamentary delegation- headed by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya- was in New Delhi on a familiarisation tour at the invitation of the Indian Government.
Modi held formal talks with this delegation which comprised MP Vijitha Herath of the JVP, Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan, EPDP leader Douglas Devananda, Ministers Mano Ganeshan and Rauff Hakeem. Secretary General of Parliament, Dammika Dasanayake was also present.
Both Jayasuriya and Modi addressed the meeting engaging in diplomatic talk. Then, each member of the delegation was accorded time to speak.
Devananda had three suggestions to make to the Indian leader- to develop flight connectivity between Jaffna and various Indian cities, the expansion of the 50,000 housing scheme launched by India in the north and the east and a political solution based on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Sampanthan stressed the need to evolve a political solution and cited the current juncture as the most opportune time for it. He said it should not be missed.
Hakeem sought India’s assistance for the development of railways in the eastern province of Sri Lanka.
This interaction was not in the limelight as such because the attention of Indian media was focused more on Rajapaksa’s visit.
Sajith, others clash at Cabinet over CoL
The Cabinet of Ministers met on Tuesday as usual with President Sirisena in the chair. The topic of cost of living was discussed at great length.
Housing and Construction Minister Sajith Premadasa struck a note of criticism on the soaring cost of living, but he was confronted by his Cabinet colleagues in this regard.
Let alone, Premadasa remained in his conviction that the prices of essential items were sky high.
“If you talk to ten people on the road, nine of them will say that the cost of living is high. If you prove otherwise, I will retract my remarks,” he said.
President Sirisena too agreed with Premadasa.
Ministers Malik Samarawickrama said Kabir Hashim viewed that the prices of some items such as rice had been stabilised, but there was scant media coverage for it.