Why India and Why Now?

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy

At a time when the country should have been squirming and screaming more than ever under the unbearable weight of continuing fuel shortage, thanks to the faraway Ukraine shortage and import-disruptions, there is relative ease, if not outright peace on that score. That’s because their larger Indian neighbour is taking all the risks by readily diverting its supplies to the friendly southern neighbour, whose distress and needs are greater or worse than self. 

If someone thought that it’s what Prime Minister Narendra Modi dubbed his Nation’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ when he took over power way back in 2014, yes, it is. It’s even more. It is highly doubtful if the original Indian policy provided for the Nation taking risks of the kind for and on behalf of its neighbours, and bearing those risks all by itself. But India is doing it, all the same.

In Sri Lanka’s case, this is the second time in as many years that India is bearing the burden. Earlier, the Nation distributed Covid kits first and vaccines later, part gratis, part as priority-sales, when Indians were dying or suffering because of the pandemic. Sri Lanka was not the only beneficiary at the time, but it definitely was one. 

The Government thanked the Indian counterpart profusely, but not the political Opposition or the so-called civil society, whose main and only job continues to be criticising the Government and foreign Nations – not, praising or thanking them, when due. 

Indian hegemony

In this background, the Opposition SJB’s consistent India-centric criticism of the Rajapaksa Government on assistance and investments of the Government and also the private sector in that country should raise eyebrows on this side of the Palk Straite. The SJB criticism to the India deals, if it’s any, is unlike the patented opposition of the left-leaning JVP. 

The JVP is yet to dismantle founder Rohana Wijeweera’s ‘Five Classes’ for his forgotten militant cadres. The third, and the centrality of the Wijeweera’s theme was the perceived ‘Indian hegemony’. That was at a time when post-Partition India could not even stand on its two feet on the political and economic fronts, especially after the ‘Chinese aggression’ of 1962 that it lost badly. 

That was also when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dictated that India would not interfere in the ‘internal affairs’ of other nations, starting with smaller neighbours. The thing about Nehru’s declaration is that India under his stewardship actually practised it. 

Yet, Rohana, with his limited exposure to neighbourhood geo-politics and geo-economics divined that India was Sri Lanka’s enemy number one. Had it been so, India would have insisted on a different negotiated solution to the plight of the Upcountry Tamils of Indian origin (IOT). New Delhi, again after Nehru’s time, would not have allowed Sri Lanka the possession and ownership of the strategically-located Katchchativu islet by deviating from the UNCLOS-defined ‘median line’ for determining the IMBL between any two or more maritime neighbours.

The JVP did see the good side of India at the height of the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Sri Lanka when New Delhi rushed all kinds of help and assistance even in those early hours, again before assessing and providing for the damage caused nearer home. In political terms, the JVP acknowledged, though in private, that the Indian troops that came to assist Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans left once a certain level of regularity, though not normalcy had been restored. It was unlike even the IPKF pulling out, only when told, by President Ranasinghe Premadasa. 

Yet, on both occasions, the JVP did note (again in private) that the fact India could rush military men and material showed that New Delhi did not require a military base in the country, as they had thought. If India needed one, it would have thought of ways to stay back – not exit as fast as they came. 

Though unacknowledged, the JVP and the rest of them all did notice that India let the uneconomical Hambantota Port offer to pass by only because it did not desire a permanent presence of any kind other than diplomatic presence in the southern neighbourhood. In contrast, China, which was hired to build and operate the port, got its proverbial pound of flesh. China obtained a parcel of Sri Lankan territory at Hambantota, by getting the Sri Lankan debt converted into equity. 

Govt-in-waiting, but…

The JVP’s constituency politics, however, low on vote-count, is understandable, but not that of the SJB, which sees itself as the Government-in-waiting. Fair enough, the SJB is the second largest party in the country after the ruling SLPP of the Rajapaksas, however distant. 

The party’s leader Sajith Premadasa, son of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, is a presidential aspirant, and he has not hidden it from anyone. Even recently, when other names were floated as possible future presidential candidate of the SJB combine, Sajith personally shot them down. In doing so, he declared that he would be the candidate whenever presidential polls are held. 

The debate over Sajith’s suitability as the presidential candidate can wait, though there is an increasing tendency in the Opposition camp just now that anyone can defeat President Gotabaya, after all the economic and political mess under his stewardship. 

Again, as the chosen leader of the main Opposition party, Premadasa Jr stands a fair chance of winning the alliance nomination. But using the rule-book that his camp threw at the parent UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, for denying him the nomination, the Sajith camp too, will have to go through the processes and motions before a decision is taken. 

If that is all for another day, there are matters and issues that the SJB and Sajith P have to consider with a more open mind when it comes to economic and security policies, as they fancy themselves as successors to the current regime – sooner than at the end of President Gotabaya’s five-year elected term. The India deals and India relations are one such.

Friend and relative

Clearly, Sajith and the SJB is fighting the ruling SLPP on the domestic front. It has every right duty to engage the Government party and leadership in a war-of-words, or street-protests, as it did recently over the alleged mismanagement of the economy. There is also some truth in those allegations, but not all the current mess in the economy should fall at President Gotabaya’s or even the Rajapaksas’ doors. 

The SJB’s UNP parent, on whose ticket Sajith fought and lost the 2019 presidential polls to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, too was managing or mismanaging the economy as much as the SLPP’s SLFP parent – again under the Rajapaksas, too. But it should stop there. There are policies and political principles that should govern public conduct for those that want to rule this country or any other. 

They need to interact with other Governments, and they should not be embarrassed to do so, if and when the need arose. The Rajapaksas, even while being seen as anti-India and pro-China did not waste words. To them, as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now Prime Minister, often said, ‘China is a friend. But India is a relative, an elder sister.’ 

Against this, the SJB, while in the Opposition, is openly referring to the private sector Adani Group from India, as the ‘notorious friends’ of Prime Minister Modi. Such language might have been in the employ of Opposition politicians in India, but a future Government in a neighbouring country cannot come down to such low levels, after all.

This does not mean the SJB cannot and should not criticise the Government processes through which the Adanis were allotted mega wind-power projects in Mannar and Ponneryn, both in the Tamil-majority Northern Province. Here again, they should not be saying that the Indian investor gained access through the ‘back-door’. 

If the SJB has problems with the processes employed, then it should be addressing the Government. If need be, it can even take it up with Parliament or approach the local courts – not shame an investor, whoever be and from whichever country he comes from. In its current economic situation, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans are in no position to insult any foreign investor, starting with an Indian investor, who is putting in his big money, where others are putting only their mouth.

Independent of the right and the wrong centred on the Adani investment – which began with the much bigger, joint sector WCT project in Colombo Port – it would be worth their while for the SJB leadership, and also that of the JVP, to take a look into the mirror, to see what they had said or done when all those big-ticket Chinese investments came. Simply nothing. 

At least the JVP came out with the statutory noises against the then Rajapaksa Government. The UNP (of which the SJB was an invisible part) not only did not say anything when it all happened, it even acquiesced to converting the Hambantota construction-cum-concession deal into a debt-equity swap. 

Premadasa was a senior member of the Government under UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe when the Nation handed over a part of its territory on a 99-year-lease. Even at the height of his quarrels with Ranil for the presidential nomination, Sajith did not refer to the swap-deal or the wanton surrender of Sri Lankan sovereignty to China.

There is a difference. The Chinese investments gave Sri Lanka its flashy roads, whose economic use still remains far from the incomes required to pay back the China debt, whenever but however, did not give a single Sri Lankan any job or boost family incomes. The Adani investments are not going to deny any Sri Lankan a job. 

It is true of Indian public sector investments in the unwieldy Trinco oil tanks farms, and also the Sampur Power Project, which had taken many avatars before settling for the current ‘solar’ scheme. Maybe, the SJB could work with and on the Government to ensure that it is so, and not otherwise.  

Sajith could also ask his economist-parliamentarian, Harsha de Silva, about the economics of investments, where the investors would seek to maximise the benefits for all stake-holders through synergy, which would also cut costs for them all. In the absence of such a professional approach, the SJB’s blind reservations to Indian investments, starting earlier with the Trinco farms, would only bog down the party in the Rajapaksa-Premadasa southern Hambantota District politics, and nothing more. Here, the UNP-SJB’s traditional vote-bank is market-driven and pro-liberal, a constituency that understands the problems of the economy than the aspirational party is ready to accept!

The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected]