President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s trip to India has set the stage for a new chapter in bilateral ties between Sri Lanka and India (AFP)
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s trip to India has set the stage for a new chapter in bilateral ties in the changing strategic and economic environment. The President led a small delegation comprising officials to New Delhi as his first official overseas visit .
That India’s focus is more on economic and strategic interests became apparent even during the term of the last Government since it was less and less assertive on power devolution based on the provincial council system introduced under the 1987 Indo- Lanka accord.
India used to lay emphasis on power devolution since 1987, but it became less vocal particularly after current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power in 2014. Now he has retained power for the second consecutive term. Instead of dwelling too much on the political question here, he chose to pursue economic and strategic interests with Sri Lanka.
- They primarily discussed economic and defence cooperation
- They identified Islamic terrorism as the most imminent threat
With the establishment of a new Government in Sri Lanka, both countries look to a new chapter in which power devolution does not take the centre stage. It became visible after the President’s visit to New Delhi. According to informed sources, the two leaders primarily discussed economic and defence cooperation. Anything pertaining to the 13th Amendment or the provincial council system hardly came up during bilateral discussions. The only difference is that the Indian Prime Minister referred to it in his statement made to the press along with President Rajapaksa after the conclusion of the visit last week. When doing so, Modi would have kept in his mind the Tamil Nadu factor as well as the sensitivities of Sri Lankan Tamils. Today, the Modi Government is not beholden to the Tamil legislators from Tamil Nadu in running the Government because his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has the absolute majority. So, he does not require to pander to the interests of Tamil Nadu much. As such it gives him ample space to proceed with his economic and strategic interests with Sri Lanka.
That he made some remarks about the provincial system and the reconciliation process here is virtually public posturing. Alongside, President Rajapaksa said forthwith in his press interviews there in New Delhi that nothing could be done as far as the implementation of the 13th Amendment was concerned without the support of the majority community in Sri Lanka. The President did not mince his words about it. Unlike the previous Sri Lankan leaders, he was forthright in his comments in this regard.
Political landscape has changed much in Sri Lanka since the introduction of the 13th Amendment in conformity with the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord. Though police and land powers are mentioned in it, no President has given them to the provincial councils. Therefore, the provincial councils have not properly been functional at any time. Now, even the elections to the provincial councils have been delayed. Accordingly the system remains dysfunctional. After the war concluded in 2009, the then Indian Government was keen on seeing the Northern Provincial Council being constituted. Now, there has been no election even to the northern and eastern provincial councils over a technical glitch in the law. But there is no external pressure being applied for the immediate conduct of elections to the provincial councils.
In such a context , the Sri Lankan delegation that headed to New Delhi is optimistic that there is an opening for a new chapter of bilateral ties with India -that is basically for economic development and defence cooperation. With both the countries being the victims of radical Islamic terrorism, a new avenue is created for such cooperation in terms of intelligence sharing, de-radicalisation, military training and the supply of defence equipment.
Both Sri Lanka and India have identified Islamic terrorism as the most imminent threat . Also, President Rajapaksa has first hand experience in countering terrorism . Therefore, the two sides will prioritise defence cooperation . That is the very reason for the Indian side to offer a US $50 million Line of Credit for the purchase of military equipment .
Pakistan woos Sri Lanka
No sooner had the presidential entourage returned that Pakistani Foreign Affairs Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi arrived in the country with a message of felicitation . He was also carrying an invitation for the President to visit Pakistan at his earliest convenience. Pakistan and India are South Asian rivals. Tension has escalated to new heights. But, both countries woo Sri Lanka.
In his interview with Daily Mirror, Qureshi, commenting on the bilateral ties , said ‘Let’s make for the last five years’.
Actually the bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and Pakistan were not at their best during the last few years mainly because the priorities and the attitudes of the former Government were different. Now Pakistan is intending to make up the last five years in its ties with Sri Lanka.
Pakistan also offered assistance to Sri Lanka to combat extremism and to implement de-radicalisation. Pakistan offered a US $ 200 million Line of Credit. Now, there is renewed request by Pakistan to make use of it.
The new Government, in its foreign policy, seems to be looking to the East. As part of this exercise, the Government also engaged with Wu Jianghao who is the special envoy sent by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China is not obviously pleased with the Government’s remarks that it will renegotiate the Hambantota Port deal. The envoy reportedly expressed concern in this regard, but both sides agreed to forge ahead with their traditional bilateral cooperation in a manner that will not harm friendship.
Govt yet to settle down
The government is striving hard to settle down. It is yet to assign subjects and institutions to the ministries. It has made it difficult for the Government to function in full gear. It has made some fresh initiatives like offering tax concessions. But the challenge lies in raising revenue for the state coffers. It has to make up for the lost revenue. The Government believes it can do so by stimulating the expansion of economic activities.
The main opposition United National Party(UNP) is still reeling from the defeat at the presidential elections. It came as a shock for some UNP MPs who really believed that naming of MP Sajith Premasasa as the presidential candidate would have given a fresh impetus to the party and rejuvenated its vote base at grassroots level.
The UNP seniors including Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had an informal discussion on Monday regarding what had gone wrong. They discussed that a research firm belonging to one MP produced misleading findings and suggested that Premadasa would win comfortably.
However, they observed that it was a bogus report produced merely to secure nomination for Premadasa from the party hierarchy. Therefore, one senior MP suggested that inquiries should be made from that member for providing a falsified survey report.
Once nomination was given, an actual survey had been done, but its findings were not favourable to Premadasa. The UNP could not raise donations sufficiently because such surveys indicated an imminent defeat for Premadasa.
Today, it is reported that as much as Rs. 900 million is in arrears for campaign financing done in the run up to the presidential elections.
Now both the Government and the opposition have to brace for the snap General Elections coming up at the end of April or early May . Internal strife will not augur well for any of them at this juncture.