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Harin Fernando is right Sri Lanka is part of civilizational India and should aspire to be part of economic India

09 Mar 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

Every attempt by successive Sri Lankan governments to open up the local economy to the world has been obstructed by a minority of individuals and groups with vested interests. The picture shows Colombo Port City, a project funded by China, and these groups have been skeptical of such foreign investments

  • Those days, I noted, when the queues get shortened, the country would revert to the old habits
  • How much of a window to India that Sri Lanka could now aspire to be is open to question

Eighteen months back, when the people languished long hours in lengthy queues to buy that elusive gas cylinder and regular blackouts punctured the day and night amidst economic hardship, there was an unusual unity. Hundreds of thousands people who gathered at the Galle Face Green protest site and took part in many demonstrations across the country came from all walks of life. Petty ethnic politics that pitted people against each other was relegated. That was not just because the Rajapaksas- who resorted to ultra-nationalism to prop up their familial regime- were finally revealed to what they truly had been for all that time: a corrupt kleptocratic familiocracy.
That was also because traditional Tamil politics that equally thrived in pitting Tamils and Sinhalese to appear more nationalistic than their peers were forced to scale back. You did not have Sritharan, Vigneswaran and Elilan’s wife, Ananthi, at the ‘Go Gota Gama’.
Those days, I noted, when the queues get shortened, the country would revert to the old habits.

Now, the usual culprits who thrived in conspiracy theories and echo chambers of insular nationalism have crawled back from their hiding places, and they have a smaller, but probably growing receptive audience. This could even be a measure of economic recovery in the country, which had recovered from the nadir of troubles, though not out of the woods.
In the North, the main Tamil party, ITAK, had elected an unabashed terrorist apologist as their new leader. In the South, nationalist rabble-rousers and so-called civil society activists, most of whom are card-carrying members of the JVP or the Peratugamis (frontline socialists), and the rest, self-seeking money grabbers, are back in action.
A few weeks back, Tourism Minister Harin Fernando caused outrage in those circles and clickbait television news, owned by the wheeler-dealers, when he referred to Sri Lanka as part of India.
This article is not in defence of Harin Fernando; that is not my intention, but this is a defence of his commonsense observation. Sri Lanka, by any account, is an integrate part of the social, cultural and civilizational landscape of the Indian subcontinent.Those who choose to deny this historical inheritance, amplify differences and seek similarities elsewhere have groomed their own monsters. Pakistan is a case in point. 
Harin Fernando was addressing an Indian audience. What better thing could he say to curry favour, the largest tourist market, potentially the largest source of inbound FDI, andthe world’s fastest-growing large economy?  Minister Fernando’s comment should be better understood in terms of its desire to be part of the evolving India-centric supply chains that could provide the best shot at prosperity for Sri Lanka.  
 At a time an increasing number of Dravidian activists in South India who like their Sri Lankan sidekicks have not grown up beyond the Dravidian social cultural ecochamber; amplify the differences with the North, the  Sri Lankan minister’s desire to pride himself in that large Indian civilizational heritage should strike a chord in Indian observers.
But, the local jokers were up in arms with a feigned outrage. Some fellas, civil society activists whose full membership travel in two three-wheelers, went to see Buddhist high priests. Other con artists like Wimal Weerawansa tried to cook up a conspiracy theory, but failed.
Smaller nations seeking to leapfrog in economic growth do not have the luxury of economics of scale or large markets that make the larger countries an appetizing destination for foreign capital. They have to rely on their  intrinsic advantages, of their geography or unique domestic advantages, be it advanced human capital, business-friendly investment law, superior infrastructure and connectivity with the rest of the world, etc., 

Successful smaller states have presented themselves as a window to a large economic area, for instance, Hong Kong to Mainland China and Singapore to South East Asia.  
Sri Lanka could have become the window to India in the 80s and probably in the early 90s when New Delhi underwent liberalization. Instead, we were forced to fight a nihilistic terrorist war, which had enjoyed Indian support at its early phase, because J.R. Jayewardene thought he could be cocky with the powerful yet insecure larger neighbour, whose prime minister Indira he likened to a sacred old cow, and Tamil elites in the North, as usual, undercut the country for their petty nationalist goals.
How much of a window to India that Sri Lanka could now aspire to be is open to question, considering that New Delhi is more open, connected and welcoming than Sri Lanka to the rest of the world. 

This brings us to the second option, which is to bind ourselves to the India-centric supply chains. Many local pundits have recently grown an interest in Vietnam, which is now one of the largest exporters of merchandise. But, the vast majority of the export volume of Vietnam as well as Hong Kong consists of products of the China-centric supply chains; others are finished goods by Chinese firms that had relocated to avoid American tariffs on Chinese exports.
Once the ecosystem infrastructure is established, global chip makers and advanced electronics are moving there, partly owing to America-led ‘friendshoring’ of critical supplies.
This is something that Sri Lanka could aspire to be, linking itself with India-centric supply chains, which, among others, would provide a reason for Chinese firms to invest in Sri Lanka.
However, a gas pipeline linking Trincomalee with India saw the usual naysayers and conspiracy theorists up in arms. The same folks, who decry the high electricity tariff, owning to high generation cost, are also opposing large-scale investment on renewable energy projects by Adani Group. Local tech grads who recently claimed the dwindling workforce owning to the migration of local talent suddenly changed their tune when the negotiations on the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India were renewed.
 Sri Lanka’s much-hyped ICT exports of a little over $ 1 billion could be expanded manyfold by linking itself up with India, with exports of nearly $ 200 billion in ICT and related services a year.
Sri Lanka has lagged behind the rest of the world, though we have invested heavily in human capital because every attempt by successive governments to open up the local economy to the world has been obstructed by a minority of individuals and groups with vested interests.
As the country is rising from the ashes of the economic apocalypse, these usual culprits are back to their old form. Unlike Vietnam or even Singapore, Sri Lanka does not have laws or political latitude to put them in their place. Therefore,we are trapped in a cycle of low growth,an eternal contest between selfish insularity and enlightened openness, which the former has prevailed throughout our independent history. It would not be different this time if the usual culprits were given free reign yet again.