Sri Lanka: Working the India chemistry right

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N Sathiya Moorthy  5 February 2020

In the new Foreign Secretary of India, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Sri Lanka’s incumbent leadership has an old hand working with them. Shringla was heading the Division within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) that dealt with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Maldives (BSM). Today, the division has been restructured and recast as a separate division for the immediate Indian Ocean Region (IOR) neighbourhood. The division now comprises Sri Lanka, Maldives and India’s other southern sea-borne neighbours like Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, Comoros Islands, and French Reunion, as a sign of New Delhi’s increasing interests in and concerns over the larger Indo-Pacific periphery.

One thing is becoming clear with this increased Indian approach to the Indian Ocean. That Sri Lanka has become a greater pivot in this Indian re-structuring of the IOR division first and the recent expansion, to include nations from Madagascar to Sri Lanka. From an opposite perspective, Sri Lanka’s importance in India’s geo-strategic approach to the larger Indian Ocean neighbourhood might have diminished – if anyone wanted to say so. The truth lies in between, though in favour of the former.

It is here that both policy formulation and implementation on the one hand, and personal chemistry among leaders and institutions in the two countries assumes greater significance for both. Despite differences and distinctions within various levels, institutional arrangements, acceptance and acknowledgement have remained intact and have also grown from time to time. If there is a setback, it has not meant the two or either of them having to go to beginning at the beginning. Things might seem static at one point, but there was always the ease and poise for both to rediscover each other, revive old ties with the same enthusiasm and elan, as if nothing had gone wrong between the two, in the interim.

Form, not norm

Following the neighbourhood’s unwritten form – as against norm – Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa chose New Delhi as his first overseas destination. So did his Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena. So will do Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had followed the courtesy when elected President for the first time in end-2005. This is true of India’s other Indian Ocean neighbour, Maldives, too.

The Indian strategic community cannot expect similar courtesies from the ‘new neighbours’ who have been added onto the MEA’s IOR Division. Will it then dilute the continuing gestures from the existing neighbours, or will the latter continue with past gestures of the kind? Would the Indian strategic community look askance if future leaders of Maldives and Sri Lanka, for instance, were to break the practice? It would be one thing if they were to choose an anti-India Pakistan or adversarial Sri Lanka for their first overseas stop-over, but still be an entirely different proposition if they were to go to a third nation within the region or elsewhere.

The Indian strategic community was upset when Afghan President Ashraff Ghani chose China for his first overseas destination in office. They were first upset that it was not India, but they were even more upset when it happened to be China. It was in the case of the Nepali leadership, too, where however they acquiesced to the common ‘leftist’ ideology – yet, the rancour remained.

The reverse is truer in the case of Indian Prime Ministers’ choice of their first overseas destination in power. They have invariably stuck to the neighbourhood, though there is more than one nation in South Asia for him or her to choose from. Yet, not has Sri Lanka, for instance, been even in consideration, for full 25 years and more, no Indian Prime Minister – and there were many — after Rajiv Gandhi, in 1987, thought it necessary to visit Colombo on a bilateral even once, until incumbent Modi did in March 2015.

No member of the Indian strategic community had anything to say on it, other than parroting the official line that it was unwise for an Indian leader to visit Sri Lanka at the height of the ‘ethnic war’. The question would also remain if Modi too would have visited Sri Lanka as what was originally planned to be a four-nation, Indian Ocean neighbourhood visit (Maldives was dropped from the list) if there was no ‘regime-change’ in Colombo. Or, India has not done, nor has Indian strategic community, said anything to erase such impressions and perceptions in Colombo.


Unlike nations like Nepal and even the democratic monarchy of Bhutan, Sri Lanka, along with Maldives, have evolved a governmental system, where the topman decides – though after hearing out his aides and advisors. It’s like the Nehruvian era in the past and the continuing ‘Modi magic’ in India. It has been true of Maldives, where the 20-long-year Ibrahim Nasir regime followed by 30 years of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, institutionalised the governmental apparatus. In the case of Sri Lanka and Maldives, size too matter, though both, unlike the erstwhile Nepalese monarchy, now are democracies in their own right.

Nowhere else is such top-centric decision-making process worked even for Sri Lanka than in foreign and security policy, more so under the erstwhile Rajapaksa regime of President Mahinda R (2005-15). It also owed to the need for greater cohesion and coordination between the foreign and military policy-makers during the long years of ‘ethnic war’, where the Rajapaksas entered with the resolve to finish off the LTTE in their time in office.

The top-centric decision-making in Sri Lanka, especially the Rajapaksas, when it became all too visible, also owed to the apprehension of non-elite, rustic  rural political leadership of the State administration, that was on the backfoot all the time since the turn of the 20th century and continued through in the post-Independence era. There was the inherent apprehension that the urban elite that manned the policy-making tools and arms of the Government would thwart all their attempts to think and work differently.

It went beyond the BBC’s ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ tele-serial was scripted, and bordered on utter contempt for the non-elitist political leadership, even if it had won a massive electoral victory as the Rajapaksas have done on their return now. It is going to be so even otherwise, as the rival UNP, the nation’s GoP, is going through an unprecedented political crisis, which is slipping beyond personality issues and backgrounds.

The emergence of Sajith Premadasa, the party’s defeated presidential nominee, as the alternate power-centre to the urban elite in lost Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, may have a long story to tell. That the Premadasas too come from the southern-most Ruhuna-Hambantota district is only a coincidence. Predecessor President Maithripala Sirisena too had a rural background, and his problems with PM Wickremesinghe owed also to this aspect of the urban-rural elitist divide.

Adjustment problems

Establishment Sri Lanka may have to walk another mile, which might still keep receding, despite the changes initiated by the Rajapaksas in their long, earlier innings and continued, even if partly, under successor President Sirisena. It would even be foreign governments like that of the Indian neighbour, who too need to make the required re-adjustments, if they have to understand the other, and also communicate with the other.

It is in this background, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa talked about the need for the two nations to revive ‘troika-approach’ to problem-solving, which worked for both, especially his nation, during the war years. It involved three top officials of the three governments taking decisions at their levels after consultations with their political leaderships.

From the Sri Lankan side, President Gota Rajapaksa was a member of the team, as the then Defence Secretary. However, he has not since mentioned the ‘troika’, nor has PM Mahinda, after the Rajapaksas returned to power. If they would propose the same after the Sri Lankan parliamentary polls, which is due later this year remains to be seen.

VVIP visit

In between, Establishment India should consider if PM Modi, or any other VVIP in his place, should be visiting Sri Lanka, pending the parliamentary polls in that nation. If the argument against such a course is the possibility of the Rajapaksas’ rivals winning the parliamentary polls and the prime ministerial office, it is also the reason why an early Indian VVIP visit could set the tone for the post-poll future.

Like counterparts in the neighbourhood, India needs to deal with the Government that the people in those nations choose. Establishment India should acknowledge this fact. If Sri Lanka were to elect a Rajapaksa rival as Prime Minister, it is for them to work out the finer details of co-existence. It could well mean that by extending arguments of the kind that had kept Indian VVIPs off Sri Lanka on bilaterals for a quarter century and more, come back to play, all over again.

Given the nature of government apparatus in a neighbourhood nation like Sri Lanka, and the personalised style of decision-making in such countries, Establishment India needs to consider the need – as against wisdom – of having to deal with persons, not institutions of the Indian MEA/MoD kind. At the Kathmandu SAARC Summit, after announcing early presidential elections in Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa had PM Modi extending best wishes for a third poll victory in a row – which was also against the SAARC norms. Post-polls, Rajapaksa mentioned Indian agencies as among the global agencies that had contributed to the ‘regime-change’ in Sri Lanka.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai-Initiative)

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