We live in an age of strongman leaders whether it is in India, China or the US. And Sri Lanka has also elected such a leader as President.
The emergence of strongman politics is a reflection of the contemporary global order, which is constituted by the geopolitics of tensions and negotiations, rather than an order determined by global rules and norms.
However, it is not that the global order was ever committed to equality; historically, global rules and norms were always lopsided towards the powerful. The big powers chose the time and chance for exceptions as they impinged on their interests, and that is also why we have seen the many conflicts and wars over the decades despite the establishment of the United Nations.
The change we are seeing in recent years is the continual aggressive moves of the big powers whether it be in relation to security, trade or development financing. This is the context for understanding the recent visit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to India and its outcome. And this current order raises challenging questions about the role of people to people relations in the region, in a time when the emphasis is on state to state relations shaped by strongman regimes in power.
Security and development
Predictably, the meetings between the Indian and Sri Lankan leaders have focused on security and development. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on November 29, 2019 emphasised a “stable, secure and prosperous Sri Lanka” and announced a US$ 400 million credit line for development support. The poignant focus was on “cooperation against terrorism” along with US$ 50 million credit line for programmes to combat terrorism. This vocal focus on terrorism brings up the broader politics of security, which relate to India’s security anxieties about China and the inroads of other threats to its regional order.
Indo-Lanka relations have always revolved around the tensions and problems for Sri Lanka of geopolitical existence under the regional hegemony and security perimeter of India, and in parallel seeking development and security assistance from other great powers. Historically, this has been the context for India’s interventions in Sri Lanka, including the Indo-Lanka Accord which followed Sri Lanka’s shift towards the US during the Cold War. Furthermore, India’s positions on the Tamil question are also inter-linked with such geopolitical concerns.
The Tamil media here in recent days have highlighted Prime Minister Modi’s statement with respect to Tamil aspirations and the 13th Amendment:
“I am confident that the Government of Sri Lanka will carry forward the process of reconciliation, to fulfill the aspirations of the Tamils for equality, justice, peace and respect. It also includes the implementation of the 13th amendment. India will become a trusted partner for development throughout Sri Lanka including North and East.”
Three decades after the Indo-Lanka Accord, how will the great changes within India – the significant shift from the Congress governments to the BJP’s consolidation of power, the drastic changes to the political economy of India with liberalisation of its economy and its neoliberal development aspirations, and the recent moves in Kashmir – affect its position on the Tamil question? The lukewarm comment of “also includes the implementation of the 13th amendment” perhaps signifies a wait and watch approach dependent on the broader movement of Indo-Lanka relations.
Devolution and majoritarianism
President Rajapaksa gave a candid interview to The Hindu on the side lines of his visit to India. Given the significance of his comments on devolution and the 13th Amendment as well as the 19th Amendment in relation to executive powers, I quote his comments here at length:
“My approach, as I told the Foreign Minister, is that it is more important to give the [Tamils] development, and a better living. In terms of freedoms, and political rights there are already provisions in the constitution. But I am clear that we have to find ways to directly benefit people there through jobs, and promoting fisheries and agriculture. We can discuss political issues, but for 70 odd years, successive leaders have promised one single thing: devolution, devolution, devolution. But ultimately nothing happened. I also believe that you can’t do anything against the wishes and feelings of the majority community.
Anyone who is promising something against the majority’s will is untrue. No Sinhalese will say, don’t develop the area, or don’t give jobs, but political issues are different. I would say, judge me by my record on development [of North and East] after five years. … Look, the 13th amendment is part of the constitution and is functional, except for some areas like control of police powers, which we can’t implement. I am willing to discuss alternatives to that. … The 19th amendment (passed in 2015) is a failure and if we get two thirds majority in parliament we will drop it from the constitution.”
We are again back to debating development versus devolution, instead of understanding how devolution is about participatory development. Furthermore, the devolution debate was precisely about the fears and aspirations of the minorities in a country with majoritarian politics mobilising the “wishes and feelings of the majority community”.
Next, constraining devolution is also about centralising power. The worrying statement about scrapping the 19th Amendment, is reflective of the broader approach of consolidating centralised power. In the age of strongman leaders, even more than before, security and development are the reasons given for consolidating state power.
Returning to geopolitics in the Indian Ocean, it is not just about security and development. It is positioned to extract deals in return for much-needed financial resources for smaller states with dire economic problems.
For over a decade now India-China-US interests in Sri Lanka have undermined the democratic and economic fabric of the country. The big powers are likely to utilise the same levers now as they have in the past of reconciliation, development financing and accountability.
However, when a strongman regime buckles under the pressure of the carrots and sticks of global strongman regimes, it may domestically relieve the pressure through scapegoating minorities and instigating xenophobic reactions.
This is where, we must not lose sight of people to people relations, including between countries. In this context, the role of Tamil politics across the Palk Straight, amidst geopolitical moves and the development and security fix seeking to bridge Delhi and Colombo, cannot be ignored. Would opportunistic politics in Tamil Nadu play a destructive role again, and would Tamil nationalist politics centred in Jaffna fall for hopes of Indian intervention, both polarising the Tamil and Sinhala population in Sri Lanka? And what becomes of the Muslim communities with the global and regional Islamophobic forces mobilising the discourse of “terrorism”?
There has been little discussion after the election of the recently opened Jaffna International Airport with connectivity to South India and the future of the KKS harbour and ferry service to Tamil Nadu. Those transport links, like the Jaffna-Colombo railway, are critical for people to people relations necessary to counter the politically constructed fears and xenophobia that is also the hallmark of strongman politics.
Safeguarding and taking forward the democratic checks on executive power in the 19th Amendment as well as the democratic potential of devolution in the 13th Amendment are now a priority. Democratic space and economic justice should be our progressive national call to refute regressive geopolitical programmes of security and development, and to challenge the mobilisation of majoritarian sentiments for regime power consolidation. The need of the hour is a democratic movement for rebuilding inter-ethnic relations that engages the people in the North and the South ahead of the parliamentary elections.