A Dangerous Alignment

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“….drifting into vanities, congregating in absurdities, planning short-sightedly, plotting dementedly.”
George Meredith (The Egoist),

( February 27, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Blackmail or revenge, the Rajapaksas are out to irk India. 

First to take up the ‘If-we-are-investigated-we-will-expose-the-IPKF’ refrain was Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. On January 27th, he proclaimed from Washington, “If there is an international investigation, the whole period has to be investigated….which includes the two year tenure of the Indian peacekeeping force…” 

Prathiba Mahanamahewa, head of the debased Human Rights Commission , followed suit on February 3rd: “If the US and UN want a war crimes probe then it needs to cover the tenure of the…IPKF in Sri Lanka as well” .

Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka’s permanent envoy in Washington opined that a probe should cover the entirety of the war . 

A complaint against the IPKF was made to the Presidential Commission on Disappearances, during its Jaffna-sittings. Maxwell Paranagama, the Commission’s chairman, stated that “the government may widen the scope of the preview through a new gazette so that it will be able to cover the IPKF period” .

An economic twist was added, to drive the message home. An unnamed ‘top CEB engineer’ was quoted saying that there should be a ‘radical rethink’ on the Sampur project, because India’s real objective is to obtain a ‘presence in the East’ .

Are the Rajapaksas, in an excess of hubris, hoping to frighten the beleaguered Congress government into voting against the next Geneva resolution? Or are they, in a customary fit of pique, punishing Delhi, in advance, for a yes vote? 

The Siblings’ crude attempts to administer some long-distance-pinches to the embattled Congress administration indicate the paucity of their comprehension of Indian politics. 

The plight of Lankan Tamils resonates with Indian politicians only in election times, due to Tamilnadu factor. In between elections, the issue receives only, and occasional, lip-service. Had the Congress Party enjoyed undiminished national popularity, its vulnerability to Tamilnadu would have been limited even in an election year. But given the Congress Party’s waning politico-electoral fortunes, it cannot ignore Tamilnadu sentiments. That is why PM Singh boycotted Colombo Commonwealth. That is why Delhi voted for 2013 Geneva Resolution and will, in all probability, do the same this year. 

That the Congress Party cannot afford to allow the Congress government to flout Tamilnadu opinion a couple of months ahead a national election should be obvious. If the Rajapaksas had any sense, they would have accepted this immutable reality, and given the only ally they have in India a break. After all, the Congress government is doing what it can to accommodate the Rajapaksas even now, as was evidenced by the banning of ‘No Fire Zone’.

Megalomania blinds, deafens and stupefies. The Rajapaksas do not seem to realise that any non-Congress administration is likely to make life far harder for them. 

Dr. Subramaniam Swamy represents his own view-points and not that of the BJP. Narendra Modi has already ranked Sri Lanka amongst countries not-so-friendly to India: “Small nations are pressuring India and no one is listening to us. It is the weak government which is responsible for this state of affairs. We belong to a noble country but unfortunately India is being troubled by Sri Lanka, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan” . (The primacy accorded to Sri Lanka is probably a concession to the venue - Chennai). 

The formation of an ‘alternative coalition’, consisting of eleven national and regional parties, is a positive development because it can become a secular alternative to the unpopular Congress. But this will not be a happy outcome for the Rajapaksas. If the BJP does not do as well as expected (the veracity of some of the opinion polls are being questioned), and the Third Front performs better than expected, Jayalalitha Jeyaram will become a serious contender for premiership . That Ms. Jayalalitha is contemplating an Indian future is evident in the national focus of her Manifesto. It promises to be tough on China and Pakistan and implement Tamilnadu’s popular populist programmes nationwide – plus a UN referendum on Eelam (impossible given the Kashmir-factor ).

Outside Tamilnadu, Lanka and Lankan Tamils are non-issues. In a March 2013 poll conducted by the Lowy Institute, Indians identified Pakistan and China as major foreign threats. 83% said China was a major threat; the reasons given included ‘competition for resources in third countries’ and ‘China’s efforts to strengthen its relations with other countries in the Indian Ocean region’ . 

That is where Sri Lanka is likely to figure, in India beyond Tamilnadu.

The next government of India may or may not be more committed to the cause of Lankan Tamils; but it is likely to be far less moderate in its dealings with both China and Pakistan. And Colombo might find itself in Delhi’s sights, not because of Tamils/Tamilnadu but because of Rajapaksa’s dangerous dependence on China.

Nonalignment in Asia

Asia is the main theatre of the emerging Cold War, between the two regional powers (China and India) as well as the existing and nascent global powers (US and China).

India and China share a highly militarised land-border; Mr. Modi’s recent remark about China’s expansionist mindset was made in reference to Arunachal Pradesh, which China calls South Tibet , and claims.

In this context, strict nonalignment is the best policy for smaller Asian countries. Cultivating relations with contending powers, while maintaining a careful-neutrality, is the most effective way to avoid the unenviable fate of a vulnerable and dispensable pawn.

Sri Lanka is being pushed in the opposite direction by Rajapaksa dynastic interests and whims (from anti-devolutionism to manic and unproductive construction) Increasing alignment with one of the contending powers is short-sighted enough; the Rajapaksa-decision to ally themselves against the regional power which looms on the other side of a streak-of-a-strait is unimaginably inane. 

The Siblings are making a public spectacle of their Chinese-connection, possibly hoping to browbeat/punish India. “Sri Lanka has become the first country to support China’s plan to build a Maritime Silk Road” . Rajapaksa-acolyte Dhammika Perera’s business empire is opting for Chinese ‘Kingsoft’ software over Microsoft . 

A non-Congress government, especially a BJP one, is likely to be more hardline in its dealings with China – and thus, by extension, with any country seen as a Chinese pawn. And it is the pawn, rather than the principal, who is likely to bear the brunt of such muscle-flexing. 

China is India’s biggest trading partner . Though Indian public is hostile to and suspicious of China, a majority (63%) also want relations with China strengthened. Consequently, Delhi is more likely to twist the arm of smaller Chinese allies to teach Beijing a lesson. Thus Sri Lanka may have a tougher time with a non-Congress government not because of Tamils/Tamilnadu but because of Colombo’s Chinese alignment (attacking Lankan Muslims will not suffice to win favour, even with the egregious Mr. Modi). The popularity of any consequent ‘tough action’ in Tamilnadu will be an added bonus.

Wielding a big stick may, or may not, be effective foreign policy. Either way, it is an option only for those who have a big stick. Sri Lanka does not, and the Rajapaksa attempt to wave a Chinese-cudgel in Delhi’s direction is likely to boomerang on us.

He is also the Dean of the Law Faculty, Kotelawala Defence University, an institution coming under the Defence Ministry
Rajapaksa kinsmen-turned-ambassadors usually end up hogging the choice-locations they are appointed to.
Ms. Jayalaitha will not push this demand seriously, post-election, because no Indian politician outside Tamilnadu will back her, since that will give Pakistan an excellent weapon to be used against India in Kashmir. Even if Ms. Jayalalitha becomes the PM she will be so at the head of a coalition and will have to go out of her way to prove that her regional identity is not a bar to an Indian leadership and an Indian focus. Incidentally no mainstream Tamilnadu leader would really want an Eelam in Sri Lanka because that would inevitably deprive them of their current preeminence and bestow it on the president of the only sovereign Tamil state in the world. Jaffna and not Chennai will become the focus of Tamils and that would not be in the interests/to the liking of either Ms. Jayalalitha or Mr. Karunanidhi.
The MSR is expected to link Indian and Pacific Oceans and is seen as an attempt by Beijing to ally jitters about the supposed ‘string of pearls’ plan. Last October the Chinese PM announced the setting up of a $495 billion maritime cooperation fund, partly to promote the project.http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2014/02/24/developing-the-maritime-silk-road-with-pathfinder-foundation-sri-lanka-has-become-the-first-country/
He was appointed as a Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, despite the clear conflict of interest.