Since coming to power, the key interlocutors of this government have been intimating a quest to ‘amend’ the 13th Amendment to the constitution. Such pronouncements are not just political theatre. They betray a real conviction born out from the nationalist ideological orientation and a belief that this is the opportune local and global moment to strike. They confide that India, the underwriter of the 13th amendment is no longer ‘really’ interested in it. They contend that Narendra Modi who has unilaterally abolished the special status and split into two, the Muslim Majority Jammu and Kashmir State would not be swayed by Tamil Nadu politics. Modi, a Hindu nationalist would easily relate to the sensitivities of the Sinhala nationalists, they flutter. After all, why would Modi care to perpetuate the legacy of the Congress Party and its late Premier Rajiv Gandhi, they challenge you to the debate.
In truth though, these are fatal miscalculations which if acted upon would have dreaded consequences. They are born out from a sense of self-induced delusion. Last week, what was dubbed as the first virtual summit between Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi might have pricked the bubble.
Aside the usual pleasantries and political niceties, the essence of the differences was relegated to the latter half of the joint statement: “PM Modi called on the Government of Sri Lanka to address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect within a united Sri Lanka, including by carrying forward the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.”
In truth though, these are fatal miscalculations which if acted upon, would have dreaded consequences
“Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa expressed the confidence that Sri Lanka will work towards realising the expectations of all ethnic groups, including Tamils, by achieving reconciliation nurtured as per the mandate of the people of Sri Lanka and implementation of the Constitutional provisions.”
The Prime Minister refrained from any mention of the 13th Amendment and instead referred to the ‘mandate of the people’ which the government has interpreted as a carte blanche for constitutional reforms. His presidential sibling Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his official visit to New Delhi in November last year also argued that the full implementation of the devolution of powers as promised by the 13th Amendment was not feasible “against the wishes and feeling of the majority [Sinhala] community.”
However, there is quite a difference between the infeasibility of the full implementation of the 13th Amendment and rolling back on the already existing provisions or plotting to scrap it altogether. The nationalist interlocutors of the government are gung ho about the latter prospect. By appointing a vocal critic of the 13th Amendment, Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara as the state minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, the president had not helped to ally concerns. Such gestures may even be in congruence with the general mood of the receptive audience of the ruling party. However, when the domestic political calculations conflict with external needs to avert potentially disastrous systemic consequences, the latter should take precedence over the former. There is also a historical analogy of one fate-defining-miscalculations that haunted Sri Lanka for decades. In the early 80s, then-President JR Jayawardene, an overrated egoist thought he could out manoeuvre Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He debased her in private talk, and once referred to her as an sacred old cow. His ostensibly pro-American policy in a world of bipolar rivalry did not go down well with New Delhi, the key non-Warsaw bloc partner of the Soviet Union.
Make matters worse, he mishandled the anti-Tamil riots in 1983, giving the excuse for Mrs. Gandhi to arm and train Tamil militants in Sri Lanka. Later, her son, young Rajiv Gandhi put JR in his place and made him sign the Indo-Lanka Peace accord.
When it comes to crunch, the egos of the small country leaders and their domestic adoration are not strong enough bulwark to withstand the blows of great powers. International politics, then, now and future, is decided first and foremost by the relative national power of the states. The simple logic is that when you don’t have the wherewithal don’t antagonize your mighty neighbour.
India has been liberally accommodating Sri Lanka’s interests since the late 90s. Without the green-light from New Delhi, Sri Lanka could not have fought the war against the LTTE to the end. For most of the time, India had been concerned, yet accommodative of Sri Lanka’s economic interests in its relations with China. It has gone an extra-mile to play nice to its smaller neighbours, though behind the façade there lies an overwhelming sense of entitlement, a product of historical inheritance of India’s neighbourhood policy. It bursts out when it feels being snubbed, such as when it blockaded Nepal after Kathmandu plotted to pass a citizenship law that discriminated against the people of Indian descent or in New Delhi’s active involvement in the Maldivian politics after the ex-president Yameen suspended parliament and became a Chinese lackey.
There are two ‘make or break’ elements in India’s relations with Sri Lanka. The first is the China factor. After the deadly face-off with China on the shared border, India is extra-vigilant of China’s growing geo-economic influence in Sri Lanka and the region. Geo-economics over time acquire geopolitical manifestations. Once bitten, India is unlikely to fall for Chindia mantra of economic interdependence, which proved to be extremely skewed against India even during its best of times.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is right to recognise India’s security concerns over China’s role and address them through a policy of ‘India first’ when it comes to strategic security concerns of India. He has also been critical about the 99-year lease of the Hambantota port given to China’s State-owned China Merchants Port Holdings, a deal which is bound to have serious geopolitical implications and sovereignty concerns for Sri Lanka over time.
New Delhi has also been appreciative of the President’s posture, and that might give him leeway in other matters.
However, the 13th Amendment is not one of them. It is the second ‘make or break’ element of Indo-Sri Lankan relations. Scrapping it, diluting it or pooh-poohing it could well be interpreted as a snub at multiple fronts. It is a slap on the face of India’s foreign policy Czars and their vaunted neighbourhood policy, a snub to Modi and a middle finger to Tamil Nadu. Repercussions would equally be daunting. It would be the beginning of the end, if not the end itself. Smart leaders strive to avoid dangerous foreign policy minefields.
A commonsense advice to the government would be not to touch the 13th Amendment. Leave it where it is. True that it has created a white elephant, but it is a useful political instrument that had partially dampened the Tamil’s popular mobilisation for a separate state and addressed part of Tamil political aspirations. It has done so without negating the primacy of the Centre over the periphery. The opponents of the 13th Amendment overstate the extent of devolution under the 13th Amendment. In practical terms, it operates within a structural framework that is firmly subordinate to the supremacy of the institutions of the central government. On the other hand, Tamil nationalists understate the property of devolution through the 13th Amendment. But they are asking power for sake of power, and have failed to make use of even already available provisions.
As much as it is harmless as it exists now, the full implementation of the 13th Amendment is not feasible without opening the Pandora box and feeding into an insatiable appetite of Dravidian nationalism. Leave it where it is and the government keep itself from harm’s way. Tinker with devolution, it would be a recipe for troubles.
If it really cares about the cost of a white elephant, probably a better approach would be to institute a mechanism that would coordinate between the Central government and Provincial councils in undertaking national policy. Sri Lanka can explore a mechanism similar to China’s defacto administrative decentralization from Beijing to Provinces (Where the Centre not only devolves administrative powers but also set targets and enforce rewards and sanctions depending on performance).
There again, this might not work for the Northern provincial council, and perhaps in the East as well. However, this could be the perfect efficiency booster for the other seven provinces. The 13th Amendment is one such instance. True that it was imposed upon.
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