by Rajan Philips-May 13, 2017, 6:47 pm
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the island on Thursday and Friday as the government’s guest to mark Sri Lanka hosting the 14th UN Vesak Day celebrations. Mr. Modi had tweeted earlier that he was looking forward to celebrating Vesak, interacting with Buddhist spiritual leaders, scholars and theologians, visiting the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, and going to Hatton to open the new Dickoya Hospital and address a public meeting after that. He has done all that and is now back in Delhi, leaving plenty of grain for political grinding in the Sunday columns. My quart of grain for today’s grinding includes what was broadcast earlier in the media in anticipation of Modi’s visit, and often in tone and terms that were not merely unwelcome, but even insulting. So much so that PK Balachandran, an Indian journalist based in Colombo, titled his pre-visit piece in the Indian media: “Controversies dog Modi’s second visit.”
Unsurprisingly, much of the unwelcome commentary emanated from sources that consider Ranil Wickremesinghe to be Sri Lanka’s sell-out Prime Minister and Mahinda Rajapaksa to be its only saviour, past and future. Surprisingly, however, the former President along with GL Peiris and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had an unscheduled meeting with the Indian Prime minister. The meeting reportedly was requested by Mahinda Rajapaksa. I have not been able to find out whatever happened to Wimal Weerawansa’s threat to protest with black flags on an exceptionally white-flag day. But who cares? The Rajapaksas have more important things on their mind.
Even as they were buoyed by the massive May Day crowd at Galle Face, they found the balloon already pricked by a hitherto little-noticed clause in the 19th Amendment barring dual citizens from holding elected office. None of the three principal brothers is now legally qualified to be President. And two of them will not forsake their status in America to become an MP, or even President in Sri Lanka. Patriotism is only for scoundrels, they might say.
The present government, on the other hand, can draw little solace from the predicament of the Rajapaksas. This government is fast becoming the past master of self-destruction. Nothing more will please a good number of the cabinet ministers than a free-for-all cabinet meeting at which the UNP and the SLFP stalwarts can physically go at each other. The legal illegibility of the Rajapaksas will only reinforce the antagonism between the two halves of the unity circle. Apart from self-destruction, the government is also losing credibility among the people. It is getting hammered by its many detractors on every issue, and although much of it is without good reason, the government has shown a singular incapacity to push back on its critics and defend its positions. The Indian file is a perfect illustration of the government’s ineffectual politics.
Pushy India and people’s grouses
Balachandran, in his article I referred to earlier, attributes what he calls “grouses (in Sri Lanka) against India and the Modi government in Delhi to India’s “pushy bid to establish its presence in the island to counter China’s moves to find a foothold here.” There are other factors as well, and these ‘grouses’ are shared by not only the majority Sinhalese, but also by the minority Tamils and Muslims. What might be added is that the ‘grouses’ are due not only to India’s pushiness but also to the ineptitude of the Sri Lankan government.
There are two sides to this criticism of the government’s ineptitude. On the one hand, there are those who are critical of the government because of their hostility to India. To them the problem with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is that it is giving in too easily to India and every other country. The opposing standpoint, and I will concede that to be my general position as well, is that the government is being thoroughly ineffectual in countering the patriotic bluff that doing anything with India is intrinsically detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests.
In Balachandran’s summary, the Sinhalese are riled by the proposed Economic Co-operation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) between the two countries and the wide ranging MOU that the two governments signed when Prime Minister Wickremesinghe visited Delhi in April. The Tamils are peeved that the Modi government is all about economic investments and trade on the premise that growing prosperity is the best solvent of ethnic problems, and shows no interest in promoting a constitutional solution as a necessary political companion to the economic thrust. To the island’s Muslims, Modi and his government are bastions of Hindutva fundamentalism in India and contributors to the globally orchestrated antipathy to Muslims living in non-Muslim societies.
I would argue that the Sri Lankan government, rather than its Indian counterpart, should bear greater responsibility for the loss of credibility and the rise of antagonism and/or indifference among the people in regard to the economic and trade question, as well as the constitutional question. According to Indian news media, even Indian officials are frustrated at the cavalier manner in which the Sri Lankan government makes announcements about the ECTA and MOUs. Indo-Lanka trade is not a public-opinion issue in India, but it is a huge one in Sri Lanka. And the Sri Lankan government, to the consternation of the Indians, has so far demonstrated no intention or plan to address public concerns over trade agreements by eschewing secrecy and by providing transparent information. The government’s approach to introducing constitutional changes is not any different either.
Clearing the cobwebs
The only ethnic group that is favourably disposed to Modi and his government, in Balachandran’s view, are the plantation Tamils who are descendants of South Indian Tamils brought by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries to work the island’s tea plantations. They are apparently happy that “India is turning its attention away from the Tamils of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and is looking at them at long last.” They are delighted that the Indian Prime Minister ceremonially opened a modern hospital in one of the plantation towns and went on to address them in a public meeting.
For that they have been called the Indian ‘fifth column’ in Sri Lanka in a political commentary before Modi’s arrival. An extract supposedly from the Indian Foreign Ministry website was inserted in the same commentary to highlight Sri Lanka’s apparently unique vulnerability vis-à-vis India on account of having in its bosom 1.6 million citizens of Indian origin. No other neighbour of India has the same heightened vulnerability as Sri Lanka. The provocative suggestion is that while other South Asian countries have been smart enough to ward off Indian intrusion, Sri Lanka has rolled over and allowed India to plant 1.6 million of its people in the estates as Sri Lankan citizens and India’s fifth column. This is either ignorance at best or revisionism at worst, and neither can be cured by re-canvassing old ground here.
There were other equally untenable interventions as well, even alluding comparisons to the experience of British colonialism in South Asia to India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s 30-year ‘civil war’. The much dead (KM) Panikkar was resurrected in one of the editorials as a reminder of India’s supposedly secret strategic designs for the Indian Ocean. After running afoul of every Prime Minister and running out of cabinet contention, the late RG Senanayake made a career for himself as a permanent Opposition MP by becoming the Lankan authority on Panikkar. Pannikar is no more relevant to 21st Century South Asia than RG Senanayake is relevant to 21st Century Sri Lanka. It is the government’s responsibility to clear the cobwebs of the past and project a clear vision for the future. One can only hope that the government has in it, hidden somewhere, what it takes to measure up to this other challenges.