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UNP-SLFP domestic rivalry threatens to distort foreign policy

23 October 2018 12:15 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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That India played the most pernicious role of a destabilizer of independent Sri Lanka is an incontrovertible empirical fact. That phase of overt Indian interference, which saw arming and training of nascent Tamil separatists and then the ‘parippu’ drop and the induction of Indian peace keepers lasted less than a decade. However the monsters that India helped create haunted this country for three decades, robbed us two generations of prosperity, and a hundred thousand lives.   


This is not uniquely our plight. A cursory glance of India’s relationship with its neighbours, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal, would reveal that India has expected them to subordinate their national interest to New Delhi’s strategic interest. In each of these countries, India made a big mess. Though now it is trying hard to amend its course, and address the image problem, old habits die hard.  


India’s overblown geo-strategic interests in its ‘sphere of influence’ and peace and prosperity of small and medium size states therein are not necessarily mutually inclusive. India has a skewed relationship between relative limits of its actual material resources and enlarged geo-strategic interests it inherited from the British Raj. This asymmetry is better defended, and cost efficiently so, when the regional states are weak and in trouble. When they are in peace, other regional players step in- and India’s resource limits and opportunity cost of domestic trade- offs make it difficult for it to keep up with those competitors. That is what India is experiencing in the context of China’s economic expansion.  


No wonder that some Indian analysts are publicly complaining that the Congress government had compromised India’s most formidable leverage on Sri Lanka by letting Colombo to finish off the LTTE once and for all.  


In this backdrop, it is perfectly logical for Sri Lankans - or South Asians for that matter - to have a healthy dose of skepticism. However, getting paranoid by their big neighbour is a folly and is counter- productive. Going to town with unsubstantiated allegations makes things worse. Instead, they should all be reasons to devise means for proactive engagement with India and give it an economic stake. So that New Delhi would have a self- interest in Sri Lanka’s stability.  


Last week at the Cabinet briefing, President Maithripala Sirisena reportedly alleged that Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s intelligence agency, was plotting to kill him. He added that it might be acting without the knowledge of PM Modi. He was referring to a revelation by self-styled anti-corruption buster Nalaka Kumara, who had alleged that the former TID Director, DIG Nalaka Silva sought his assistance to assassinate the president. He has since claimed that an Indian national has threatened to kill him. The Indian national, whom the Indian embassy has described as mentally unstable was later arrested by the police. He is now in remand custody. The President’s remarks made headlines following day. Most importantly, it was picked up by the influential ‘The Hindu’ newspaper. Its correspondent Meera Srinivasan has said that she had verified the report with four cabinet ministers. The president’s media division later denied that the president had implicated RAW in the alleged allegation plot. However, notwithstanding the denial, unfound allegations unleashed a whirlpool of diplomatic activity to salvage the bilateral partnership. The president later telephoned PM Modi to clarify his remarks, after which a rather bland press statement was issued by the president’s office, effectively telling the people, everything is just fine. In a separate statement, the office of Premier Modi echoed same sentiments. The Prime Minister’s Office (in New Delhi) declared: “The President of Sri Lanka stated that he categorically rejected the reports in sections of media about him alluding to the involvement of India in any manner whatsoever in an alleged plot to assassinate the President and a former Defence Secretary of Sri Lanka.”  


 However, another statement issued by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office after his meet up with Indian PM in New Delhi last week was a spoiler. The press release stated, Modi expressed disappointment over the delay in the Indian funded projects. It added, “Premier Modi said, he had spent the most of his time allocated to diplomatic matters, on Sri Lanka, and expressed his discontent over the response of the Sri Lankan government towards the assistance given by India.”  
It added, that Modi said that if there was any hint of any problem, it should be broached to him or India without hesitation.  


 This flew in the face of the two previous statements by the offices of Messers. Sirisena and Modi. That also contradicted a diplomatically worded press statement issued by India’s Ministry of External Affairs about the meeting between the two prime ministers. The Indian statement said the main item on the agenda was a review of the “progress” in Indian projects.  


This brings out another element that has been holding back this government from evolving a unified position on anything: simmering disagreement between the President and PM, which has progressively worsened since the local government elections.  


Now, disturbingly, these petty politically calculated animosities are spilling into foreign policy. Interestingly, the president’s remarks on the RAW came in the context of a wider disagreement over the handing over of the development of Eastern terminal of the Colombo Port to a joint Indian-Japanese and Sri Lankan venture. The President vehemently opposed the proposal, claiming that giving ports to the foreign entities would leave Sri Lanka without a port to berth its own ships.  
There is an ideological divide between the lifelong SLFP stalwart Maithripala Sirisena and more economically liberal minded UNP. However, that divide has been deepened by politically calculated rhetorical posturing, especially on foreign direct investment.That has effectively dissipated the investor enthusiasm. Sovereignty concerns are cited as justification for opposing many such public-private partnership projects involving foreign entities. But, the blunt truth is that more often than not, it is electoral calculations of economic nationalism that are at play. Sri Lanka has lost a good deal due to this already.   


Now to make matters worse, the country’s foreign policy has also been dragged into this no-hold -barred contest. Granted that economic development through international cooperation dilutes the absolute notion of sovereignty. Such concerns could well be heightened in an asymmetric relationship where big powers take a stake. However, such partnerships also entail immense benefits to the host country. They increase connectivity, bring in much needed capital, and technology, and facilitate the economic catch- up of countries whose development has been held back by misplaced statism of economic policy. Thus the real challenge is to engage in a rational trade off of opportunities and threats. However, the internecine rivalry within the unity government, especially between the President and the UNP, is adding too much raw emotions, and opportunism to the discourse. That distorts the whole picture.   


Sri Lanka’s real danger has always been within. That is its opportunistic politics. In the past, divisive ethno-nationalism of primarily of Tamils and advanced by the Tamil political elites exposed this country to foreign, mainly Indian influence and intervention. Now the two main Sinhalese parties have taken it to a new low. They are dabbling their political calculations in the country’s relationship with both India and China. They should learn from the mistakes of recent history and desist from this dangerous gamble.   


Author can be contacted on @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter   

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