A recent newspaper article on Sri Lankan relations with India suggested a level of incompetence that even I had not thought possible in our Ministry of External Affairs. The article described the Ministry as ‘virtually defunct’ but that is misleading. It is actually viral in its determination to destroy relations with India, and continuing to talk of its incompetence is to support its destructiveness.
I had thought it possible that the Minister was not responsible for the determination to destroy, and that he was simply anxious to keep his job, and therefore followed blindly those he thought had greater influence than he did. But the description of what happened in 2012 suggests a more insidious nature. The article declares that the Minister had ‘confirmed that Rajapaksa had promised “13 plus”’ to the Indian Foreign Minister, and that it was only after that that the Indians had gone public with that promise. But the article did not mention that not only did Peiris fail to stand up for the truth,, when various spokesmen of the President denied that promise, but he also failed to send a response to the letter requiring clarification that was sent by the Indian Prime Minister.
Or, rather, he sent a response and then withdrew it. This technique is a specialty of the current Secretary to the Ministry, Kshenuka Seneviratne, even though it is thoroughly unprofessional, as noted by a former colleague who has now made her getaway from the mess. But it is not only unprofessional, it embarrasses both sides, which I suspect Kshenuka well knows. Peiris however may not have understood that, when he sends a letter and then withdraws it, his credibility is gone for ever (though in his case I suspect it had gone long before, as American ambassador Patricial Butenis of now blessed memory put it).
What happened then may have been forgotten by Sri Lanka. But as the article noted, India, which has better institutional memory, and also personnel professionally trained for continuity, made clear, in the first meeting between its President and our Prime Minister, its expectations that were based on Sri Lankan commitments. And when Sri Lanka issued an official statement that glossed over the realities, India made clear what had really happened.
That the President understands the problems he will face was clear from his prompt action in attempting to expedite the Sampur project, a project that has been inordinately delayed. When I have complained about this, I was told that the Indians had been responsible for the delay, but that was not factually correct. Certainly the Indians may have wanted clarifications and concessions that elements in government disliked. But given that elements in government were also trying to throw the blame on the Indians for the larger areas of land that were being acquired in the area (which they also tried to do with the forces which in that instance had been moderate in their requirements), I suspect that the responsibility for unreasonable delay was on our side.
In this regard the President has acted. But with regard to the major point, namely political arrangements, it looks like he is being dragged back. And unfortunately none of those around him will tell him the truth, that it is not acceptable in international relations to make commitments that are not kept.
In the old days there was greater understanding of the need for devolution. As Sajin Vas Gunawardena once put it, ‘Devolution is a must which is accepted by all. However credible devolution as per the “Mahinda Chintanaya” which is acceptable to the larger polity of this nation is the herculian task that MR has to face up to and take to the end and he is the only politician who can do this as well.’ But the longer that Herculean Task is put off, the more difficult will the task be.
Unfortunately there are those around the President who tell him that, if he puts off the task, he can avoid it altogether. Last December, when it was clear that the net was closing around us, I was told that decision makers had convinced themselves that all would soon be well. In the first place, they claimed, the United States was not going to be as tough as initially envisaged. This was of a piece with the claim the previous year that the United States was happy with the implementation of the LLRC, and would not have a Resolution in 2013.
That idea was nonsense, and the similar claim this year was also nonsensical. The second reason for optimism was the superb diplomacy the country had practiced, with the Minister having reached out to Africa and the Minister for Economic Development himself having won Latin American support. The President however had a shrewder idea of what was going on, and had indicated that the figures he was being given were nonsensical. In fact his assessment of the votes we would get was almost spot on. But sadly, he has put himself in a position where he is unable to make use of those capable of actually changing the equation.
Most absurd was the third reason for complacence, namely that Mr Modi would win the election and save us. This idea is still being propagated by the deadly Sinhala Wunderkinds with identical appropriate initials, one of whom launched a broadside at the President himself, in attacking his choice of the new High Commissioner to Delhi. This, the most sensible thing the government has done in years, was criticized on the grounds that such a cosmopolitan figure as Sudharshan Seneviratne would not suit the type of nationalist Mr Modi was assumed to be.
It is preposterous that those with a modicum of learning about the world at large should be given free rein in the government press, to try and convince the people of Sri Lanka that the world shares their narrow nationalism. In his first few days in power Mr Modi has shown that his nationalism incorporates both hard work and an inclusive vision. But we are still told that we can carry on as we did before, and Mr Modi’s deep animosity to everyone else in the world except Aryan Indian Hindus and Sri Lankan Buddhists will save us.
But the simple fact is that Mr Modi is Prime Minister of India, and that means he will stand up first for India. It also means that he will maintain continuity with past Indian policy, unless it seems to him the result of partisan politics or of incompetence. It is unlikely therefore that he will swerve from the guidelines laid down by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, which has a deservedly high reputation for professional competence.
In one respect indeed we can be happy, in that a government led by Mr Modi would probably have followed the advice of the Ministry and not supported the United States resolutions of 2012 and 2013 at the UN Human Rights Council. Then, as will be recalled, in part because of indiscretions by Sri Lankans who should have known better, the matter went up to the Prime Minister’s Office. Thereafter for a variety of reasons, which I still believe were not good enough, India voted against us. This led to the assumption that they would be a pushover this year too, but the finely nuanced Indian statement, explaining their abstention, made it clear that, while they wanted progress in many respects, they stood by their principles with regard to national sovereignty.
I have no doubt that Mr Modi will subscribe to this, as will his enormously sympathetic Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj. But I think too that they will be less diffident about what they expect from us. This was made crystal clear at the very first meeting with our President, and at the press conference called in essence to correct our own misleading gloss on the proceedings.
How do we react to that? It seemed that we had once again gone on the path of confrontation, when Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva declared that ‘no one can dictate terms to us’. But this is true, and must be true in the traditional definition of National Sovereignty, to which both India and Sri Lanka subscribe.
But it is also true that countries must take advice from each other, and in particular they must listen to those with similar interests and concerns. Minister de Silva understands this well, and has been in the forefront of activity following the request made by our President to the South African President to assist us. He has also made it clear that he does not think the interventions of Wimal Weerawansa, which directly attack both the President’s initiatives and his men, are appropriate.
I would like to think then that the use of Minister de Silva to respond to the Indian initiative represents the beginning of a change in Sri Lankan practice as well as policy. Having made such a statement, Minister de Silva would be the ideal candidate to replace the current Minister of External Affairs, a change that is essential if the sovereignty of this country is not to be sacrificed. Minister de Silva will be able to assert our own sovereignty whilst also discussing issues amicably with other countries, without all the time looking over his shoulder as the current Minister does, and fearing for his neck.
I say this advisedly, because it was Nimal Siripala de Silva who wanted swift action when we reached an agreement with the TNA on small but critical issues during negotiations. He insisted on me coming to see the President, which I thought unnecessary, given that there were two important Ministers in the delegation, but he obviously understood Prof Pieris’s pusillanimity even at that stage. After some discussion we were able to get the President’s agreement to go ahead in most of the agreed particulars, and Minister de Silva accordingly told Prof Pieris to go ahead as we were waiting outside for our cars.
But all we got was a woeful shake of the head and the claim, when we told him that we had the President’s agreement to act, that it would be his neck that suffered if things went wrong. Whether he thought the President would change his mind, or whether he thought there were more powerful forces that would ensure the decision were altered, I do not know. But we simply cannot run a country on the basis of fear of a small minority that all opinion polls suggest has little support in the country.
The President has a great opportunity now to work closely with India. We can I think rely on solid support provided we fulfil our obligations, obligations freely incurred by the President and in accordance with the vision expressed in his election manifestos, a vision of inclusiveness and empowerment of the people. This necessarily requires devolution, but devolution on the basis of subsidiarity rather than ethnicity. We have good models for this in the region, and the agreement of the TNA to the principles we put forward after I joined the negotiating team, of better representation for the periphery at the Centre through a Second Chamber, and of empowerment of local government authorities, with passing on most of the concurrent list to the Province or the local authority, points the way forward.
But for this we need a professional approach and the willingness to listen to others. The President is good at this, but he needs a team built in his own image, which means more power to the traditional SLFP rather than to those who have followed him only for their own aggrandizement. Without such a team, if left to the tender mercies of the Sinhala Wunderkinds, we will lose out on the possibilities the new Indian government has to offer.