An India First Policy and a repeal of the 13th amendment are two policy statements that cannot belong in one document.
Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay last week fired the international community’s first salvo at the newly elected government of Sri Lanka. Meeting representatives of the Tamil National Alliance, Baglay reiterated India’s commitment to the 13th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution. He left the modalities on the way forward to be discussed between the highest levels of government and Tamil parties.
Why Sri Lanka’s Tamils should take Baglay’s assertion seriously when his predecessors and successive Indian governments have soft-peddled on devolving land and police powers to provinces for the past 33 years – yes, over 12,075 days, is a question lost on us all. That does not appear to be a concern of TNA MPs who amplified Baglay’s reiteration and his congratulations on TNA’s ‘election success.’ TNA’s standing was reduced from 16 to 10 seats – a near 40% drop in voter endorsement. What success was Baglay congratulating?
Within a week since Baglay’s comments on the 13th amendment, the government was back to its old habits, giving India mixed signals. Newly appointed Foreign Secretary, the seasoned Indo-Sri Lanka expert Dr Jayanath Colombage minced no words declaring an India First policy upon assuming duties. Earlier in the week, however, State Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government Rear Admiral Dr. Sarath Weerasekera accused India of forcing the Provincial Council system on Sri Lanka despite its unsuitability and pointed out his personal view that India’s interests cannot be implemented in Sri Lanka.
Although not with the same valour, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in an interview with the Hindustan Times in early 2020 was clear that the 13th amendment cannot be implemented as it is and that it needs certain changes. Cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella at a meeting in Kandy [Central Province] this week carefully echoed both Weerasekera and President Rajapaksa, observing that the 13th Amendment (‘created within a week’ as part of the Indo-Lanka Accord in 1987] could have flaws and that such a discussion would be held in future regarding the same.
This is a classic case of confused and confusing foreign policy communications. An India First Policy and a repeal of the 13th amendment are two policy statements that cannot belong in one document.
In 2012, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa told visiting Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Kirshna his government will go beyond 13th amendment to resolve the political issue and promised a 13+ amendment. He backtracked from the promise as Krishna boarded a flight back to India. There were rumblings over the diplomatic faux pas, but the charismatic Mahinda Rajapaksa worked his charm and sailed through unscathed. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a reputation for straight talk. His ministers must do him a favor; just spare him their two cents worth on foreign policy matters. The last thing he needs is a spat with India.
Opposition Parliamentarian of Nuwara Eliya District Velusami Radhakrishnan at a press conference on August 25 said calls by some government parliamentarians calling to repeal the 13th Amendment is unacceptable. He however pointed out that neither President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nor Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had not spoken of a repeal which perhaps is an indication of their lack of appetite for the diplo speak a repeal would attract.
India’s neighbours like Nepal, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan have stood up to meddling, especially this year. To hope that Sri Lanka and the Maldives pull off the same stunt with India is premature. It is no secret that China’s backing of India’s neighbours has helped them stand up to India and that is precisely why India is no mood for a snub from Sri Lanka or Maldives. There is a reason why the Reserve Bank of India signed approval extending $ 400 million currency swap facility to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka until 2022 to address economic woes caused by Covid-19. There is also a reason why India has announced a $500mn worth air, sea, intra-island and telecommunications connectivity measure for the Maldives.
Yes, India is infringing on Sri Lanka’s internal affairs by imposing how provincial governance should run, but mature administrations pick and choose which battles are worth the fight. For President Premadasa in the 80s, it was imperative to usher out the Indian Peace Keeping Forces, come hell or high water, given the obvious violation of sovereignty and the sheer atrocities the IPKF committed. He was however careful in how he worded the move.
Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the 70s allowed Pakistani jets to refuel in Sri Lanka to the dismay of the Indira Gandhi administration. India called it ‘an irritant in an otherwise excellent relationship,’ and the relatively soft tone probably owed to the friendship between the two women. That kind of friendship is thing of the past and the Rajapaksa administration can ill afford a war of words over an amendment India uses both as a token and a tool. It’s an irritant Sri Lanka can certainly do without.