Another Bridge to Sri Lanka

These are interesting days for Sri Lankan foreign policy. After running a successful election campaign that criticized former President Mahinda Rajapakse’s pro-Beijing policies, Maithripala Sirisena has announced his intention to pursue a more non-aligned “middle path, in friendship with all nations.” Both Beijing and New Delhi are watching the new regime closely to see if Sirisena will really shift Sri Lanka’s foreign policy orientation in the coming days. But so far, Sirisena has played safe. New Delhi will play host to Sirisena’s first state visit as President. To please Beijing meanwhile, the new President has approved a $1.5 billion port city project to be built by China on an artificial island off Sri Lanka. It’s a typical tightrope walk to keep both sides in animated suspense.

If anybody could, New Delhi would relate to Colombo. Not too long ago, India was playing the same game itself. For the most part of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, New Delhi tangoed with Moscow during the Cold War, despite publicly pronouncing ‘non-alignment’. The alliance wasn’t irrational. In the 1950s, while India sought to rebuild its post-colonial economy, the Soviets were far more forthcoming and magnanimous in aid than the Americans. Leaders like John Foster Dulles and Richard Nixon were particularly disenchanted with India’s Prime Ministers. Finally, in 1971, with the war for Bangladesh forming a backdrop, New Delhi signed a historic defence cooperation treaty with Moscow, unprecedented at that point in Indian foreign policy.

In many ways, Colombo seems to be going through the same phase. After decades of civil war, Sri Lanka wants to rebuild. And in rebuilding, it needs aid. Where it finds aid, Colombo will go. Much like New Delhi, Colombo also recognizes the need for friendly relations with both regional superpowers. But over the recent past, Beijing, like Moscow, has been gracious in pouring in billions of dollars in aid. India, by contrast, lags far behind in the race, tied up by both political and economic factors.

Trends of aid flowing from New Delhi to Colombo over the last couple of years have been on the increase and Prime Minister Modi is likely to ramp it up in the months to come. But aid isn’t the only thing Colombo needs. Most of the challenges associated with rebuilding Sri Lanka post the civil war revolve around political reconciliation. Despite the defeat of the LTTE, Sri Lanka remains a polarized country. The Tamil-dominated North and Sinhalese-populated South remain highly suspicious of each other. That is why both President Sirisena and his predecessor have often spoken of the need for ‘reconciliation’. Unless Sri Lanka’s north and south reintegrate with each other, development projects in the north will generate more political friction than tangible progress.

China has no real role to play in the reconciliation process, but India does. Over the years, the Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil cause has drawn heavily from leaders and supporters in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu. Even following the collapse of the LTTE, regional leaders and ideologues in Tamil Nadu have spoken out for the Tamil sentiment, often being critical of Colombo for its lack of progress in investigating allegations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army during the defeat of the LTTE. Political pressure from Tamil Nadu forced New Delhi to vote against President Rajapakse in the UNHRC a couple of times and also compelled it to repeatedly nudge Colombo on the devolution of powers to the northern Tamil provinces. Even today, regional leaders in Tamil Nadu hold considerable influence over Sri Lanka’s Tamils – often, much more than the political sway of Sinhalese Sri Lankan leaders themselves.

As Sirisena bids to reintegrate and reconcile differences between Tamils and Sinhalese in his country, this influence exercised by Tamil leaders in India will come in extremely handy. If India’s Tamil politicians were to sympathize and align themselves with the objectives of Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s Tamils will be much more likely to accept the reconciliation programme furthered by their President. This, perhaps, could be New Delhi’s biggest grant-in-aid to Colombo in its bid to rebuild.

Much like its ties with other neighbors, New Delhi’s partnership with Colombo has largely played far below its potential. Of all its neighbors, Sri Lanka is probably India’s most important. Colombo might be in need of rebuilding its country, but Sri Lanka still is no quintessentially poor South Asian country. The average Sri Lankan’s annual income, in fact, is higher than that of the average Indian’s. Sri Lanka ranks the highest among all South Asian nations in multiple development indices. Even politically, Sri Lanka is New Delhi’s most stable neighbor.

Look elsewhere. In Pakistan, political instability has now become the norm rather than the exception. Bangladesh, for all its recent promise, is engulfed in the sort of political turmoil that some believe might inevitably culminate in a nationwide Emergency. Nepal is in a deadlock over its draft constitution. But despite decades of civil war, Sri Lanka is in one piece and looks most unlikely to break up. Democracy has now begun to take root. For all the charges of nepotism and authoritarianism leveled against him, President Rajapakse didn’t stay in office a day longer than the electoral vote mandated. All this makes Sri Lanka the most crucial player in Modi’s South Asia policy. If New Delhi and Colombo help each other out, South Asian cooperation will become more real than it presently is.

(c) 2015, Swarajya