The significance of President’s India tour

22 July 2023 04:30 am – 0      – 107

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s two-day visit to India on Thursday (20), exactly one year after he was elected President by the Parliament might have kindled many hopes in many groups.

While the government and its supporters of it might have expected the visit to enhance India’s support for Sri Lanka’s recovery from the current economic crisis, the Tamils, as happened during mutual visits by the leaders of both countries for the past several decades, might have expected Indian leaders to pressurize the President to implement a solution to the ethnic problem that would satisfy them.

The fishermen of northern Sri Lanka do not seem to have taken the visit seriously, despite the Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda having been included in the President’s entourage. 

However, at least a section of them might have prayed for the visit to stop their South Indian counterparts from stealing their marine resources. Although all these issues might have been in the itinerary of the President’s tour, any major development in any of the issues is unlikely to unfold, in the near future.

The visit took place within a short period of three-and-a-half-year since another President paid a similar call to the neighbouring country. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa eleven days after he assumed duties on November 18, 2019, undertook a tour to the Indian Capital, but President Wickremesinghe waited for a year for such a personal engagement.

Tamil National Alliance Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran told during this week’s Pethikada Programme of Sirasa TV that India deferred an invitation for Wickremesinghe due to broken promises in respect of ethnic issues, on the part of the latter.

Another Tamil political analyst also had a similar view regarding the relationship between the Indian leaders and President Wickremesinghe. He had said in an article in the Tamil daily Thinakkural that Indian leaders were not happy with Wickremesinghe taking control of the country last year. If one is to justify that stance, there are reasons.

Wickremesinghe had a trustworthy relationship with India during his second (2001-2004) and third (2015-1019) premierships. The Indian government was informed of every small movement of the ceasefire agreement and the peace process with the LTTE between 2002 and 2004 by the government under Wickremesinghe.

The Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim shuttled between Colombo and New Delhi before and after each round of peace talks between the government and the LTTE. Similarly, the Yahapalana Government’s moves to resolve the ethnic problem through a new Constitution were also seen as a consolation to Indian leaders, as the issue always created rumpuses in the southernmost Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Wickremesinghe was elected President last year mainly by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a pro-China party. It was during the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is also the leader of the SLPP that many large-scale projects such as the construction of Hambantota Harbour were offered to China, strengthening the grip of the latter over Sri Lanka’s economy.

As long as China’s influence on Sri Lanka exists India’s assistance or concerns will also prevail, irrespective of any Sri Lankan leader’s visits to that country

Also, the governments led by SLPP leaders broke several times the promises they gave to Indian leaders in respect of the island’s ethnic issue, embarrassing the latter. Thus the Indian leaders might have expected a hostage of the SLPP in Wickremesinghe. It is appropriate to look at Wickremesinghe’s statement that he was not Ranil Rajapaksa, but Ranil Wickremesinghe during a discussion with the Tamil leaders on the eve of his visit to India, against that backdrop. The statement could have attracted the interest of the Indian leaders as well.

However, the economic crisis offered an opportunity for the President to allay Indian leaders’ fears, if any, about his possible slant towards China due to his reliance on the SLPP. India driven by its political and economic interests in the region, especially by its rivalry with China has been more generous in helping Sri Lanka in the latter’s hour of crisis.

While other countries and financial institutions were reluctant to help the country to recover, India offered over $3 billion last year, despite an international default having been declared. Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman was at the forefront of persuading other countries to reschedule Sri Lanka’s debts to them while China was dragging its feet.

While other countries and financial institutions were reluctant to help the country to recover, India offered over $3 billion last year, despite an international default having been declared

President Wickremesinghe was full of praise for the neighbour wherever and whenever he spoke about international support in his country’s economic recovery. He made a special mention of the Indian Finance Minister during this year’s International Women’s Day while praising three women including US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Kristalina Georgieva who he said to have played a significant role in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery.

Wickremesinghe’s outlook on the world’s economic supremacy also might have pleased the Indian leaders. He always underscores a drift of this supremacy from the West to Asia, citing China and India. Nevertheless, as long as China’s influence on Sri Lanka exists India’s assistance or concerns will also prevail, irrespective of any Sri Lankan leader’s visits to that country. 

As Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishanker visited Sri Lanka prior to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit to his country in November 2019, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra met President Wickremesinghe in Colombo on July 11. However, it is not clear if there was any significance in the venue of that meeting, the Defence Ministry and the Indian Minister having met Sagala Ratnayake, President’s National Security Advisor later.

Indian leaders were expected to emphasize comprehensive power devolution in Sri Lanka, especially the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution during the President’s visit to New Delhi, as they have done during past engagements between the leaders of the two countries. However, the negative remark made by the President at a meeting with the Tamil leaders prior to his tour did not seem to have drawn any negative response from the Indian side. The President told the Tamil leaders that he was prepared to implement the 13th Amendment in full sans granting Police powers to the Provincial Councils.

India now is not the same country that existed in the 1980s to place Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue above all other issues between the two countries. Despite the hesitancy on the part of the Sri Lankan leaders in implementing the 13th Amendment in full for the past thirty-five years, India never thought of taking drastic action against its southern neighbour.

When EPRLF leader Suresh Premachandran in February 2017 requested the then Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishanker to prevail upon Sri Lankan government to re-merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces, as the merger of those provinces was a part of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, the latter responded saying “much water has flowed under the bridge since 1987 and it will be better for all concerned to make use of the various windows of opportunity” which he said had opened up then.

Hence, things will flow as they did thus far, irrespective of President’s visit, except for a balancing act by him by way of undertaking a tour to China in October.

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