It has taken almost a year, almost to the date when President Ranil Wickremesinghe became Sri Lanka’s Executive President, for neighbouring India to give him a date for an official visit. It seems to have been eventually granted; he arrives in Delhi before he goes to Beijing in October.
In years gone by, it was customary for Sri Lankan leaders, even Foreign Ministers, to first go to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy on assuming office and then pay pooja to the leadership of the incumbent Government in the Indian capital. It was essential that India was kept in the good books.
A bitter lesson was learned when relations between the two neighbours soured. Sri Lanka’s post-1977 open economy and closeness to the West earned the ire of Indian leaders at that time. Not the Janata Government of Morarji Desai but subsequently the Congress Government of Indira Gandhi. The Indian spy agency RAW was actively involved during her tenure in meddling in the internal affairs of all its neighbours including Sri Lanka. They instigated a separatist movement in the island-nation, armed it and provided all the succour, but it was not meant to bifurcate this island nation; it was limited to destabilising and allowing it to bleed. The separatists later realised that and bit the hand that fed them.
The Great Dharma Ashoka’s column at Sarnath once stood sentinel over India – its four lion figures facing the north, south, east and west guarding the ornamental rendering of the Dharma Chakra proclaiming to the world that the people of that land have resolved to live in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha, in peace and harmony with the rest of the world. Only a part of that column remains, the virtues of the lion capital in question.
Today even Sarnath is under threat from a surging tide of ‘development’. The local authorities have erected tin sheets in the surroundings of the holy Temple dedicated to where Gautama the Buddha first enunciated his doctrine of the ‘Middle Path’, and are planning to construct shopping malls for tourists at the expense of pilgrims who come to pay solemn homage on this sacred ground sanctified by the touch of the feet of the Buddha.
These local authorities are even willing to ignore the Central Government’s application for UNESCO to declare the historic city of Varanasi, the Indian PM’s own constituency, a World Heritage site. Varanasi’s tangible heritage is the living cultural, spiritual and religious traditions of the three great religions of India: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. That heritage is being sacrificed at the altar of the almighty dollar.
Modern India has recognised that it is time, now that it has the financial resources, to extend its influence beyond its borders. It has recognised the power of military might from Mughal rule to the British occupation and now nuclear powers in its northern borders. Its Foreign Minister only recently aggressively articulated India’s new foreign policy agenda of an ‘extended neighbourhood’ that went well beyond its sovereign borders.
India has struck ‘comprehensive strategic partnerships’ with the big powers, USA, Australia, Japan, and even with Viet Nam – all against China, and at a lower level, ‘strategic partnerships’ with Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Its ‘Look East’ policy of 1991 is now an ‘Act East’ policy since 2014 under its present administration.
Is Sri Lanka next in the queue for a comprehensive or simply strategic partnership? India’s Foreign Secretary turned up in Colombo this week to wrap up the agenda for next week’s visit by the Sri Lankan President. Nothing was being left to chance.
While the Sri Lankan side opted to say nothing more than about the formalities of the meeting, the Indian side referred to the discussions focusing on the upcoming visit to Delhi by the Sri Lankan President leading to “a point of positive transformation in the relationship”. In the absence of any further explanation, it was left open for interpretation as to what that meant, particularly in the backdrop of India’s ‘Act East’ policy and the Indian PM’s recent visit to the USA and the fallout from that relationship.
The world is being carved up into a bipolar world. The US is leading this charge as is happening in Europe right now with hitherto long-neutral countries like Sweden and Finland joining the anti-Russian Western military alliance NATO; while in Asia, it is an anti-China alliance. India’s nuanced partnership with and cuddling under the US-led umbrella, India is seeking eventual global power status garnering support on behalf of that alliance from amongst nations in its neighbourhood.
The Indian Administration has used recent visits from neighbouring country leaders – Bhutan and Nepal – to convey its active interests in the region. These were all working visits, not state visits. Like President Wickremesinghe’s visit who will be in Delhi for just over 27 hours. With a delegation of ministers accompanying him (as in the case of the Nepali PM, but not so many) it gives him little time to establish a close personal rapport or forge any ‘chemistry’ with the Indian PM unless he thinks he already has it. It’s business, period.
The Indian side is predictably going to demand an acceleration of the projects already on the table especially in the power sector (as with Nepal) and an oil and gas pipeline from Trincomalee to Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu allowing Indian companies to get entrenched further in the Sri Lankan economy. There will also likely be demands for devolution and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment in Sri Lanka (never mind stripping Kashmir of devolution) while dodging issues like the continuing poaching by Indian fishermen in Lankan waters – which is a ‘humanitarian issue’ for the Indian fishermen at the expense of the humanitarian issue of the Sri Lankan fishermen in the North.
The Sri Lankan side will necessarily have to recognise and thank India for the life-saving support (spoilt by the demand by the Indian Foreign Minister for contra deals) given from end-2021 to bail out a bankrupt Sri Lanka before the IMF came in and acknowledge the backing by India’s Finance Minister in the debt restructuring process that enabled the IMF intervention.
The problem for Sri Lanka is that it has no muscle, no clout to bargain as equal partners for win-win solutions when in Delhi, their home turf. It is a lopsided balance sheet.
As the Buddha told his chief disciple Ananda, “be wide awake”, President Wickremesinghe will need to follow the advice of India’s greatest son when it comes to discussing and interpreting India’s idea of leading to ‘a point of positive transformation’ of the Indo-Lanka relationship within the context of its ‘extended neighborhood’ policy.