Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • January 2021
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Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar’s visit to Sri Lanka

Posted by harimpeiris on January 14, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 09th January 2021)

Indian Foreign Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar, just wrapped up a three-day visit to Sri Lanka – the first by a visiting dignitary in the new year, underscoring the priority that both nations place on the value and importance of our bilateral relations. Prior to the Indian Foreign Minister’s visit, laying the groundwork as it were, was the visit, in end November, last year, of one of the highest officials in India’s foreign policy establishment, National Security Advisor Ajith Doval. The preceding few months had also witnessed several other high-level international visitors to Sri Lanka, with the visit in early November of US Foreign Minister, Mike Pompeo, and the month before, in October, of the Chinese former Foreign Minister and current Politburo member Yang Jiechi. The series of high-level visits to Sri Lanka, by powerful nations, such as the US, China and India, would indicate, even to a layman, the existence of real and competing interests of these nations in Sri Lanka. Balancing these different and often competing interests, in a neutral and non-aligned manner, which advances Sri Lanka’s own national interests, is really the strategic challenge of post-war Sri Lankan foreign policy. However, geography, history and, most importantly, modern-day economic reality, would mean that India, our closest and giant neighbour is the ‘primus inter pares’ or first among equals of international relationships, which Sri Lanka needs to nurture and protect. It was one of Sri Lanka’s most successful Foreign Ministers, the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, who used to repeatedly say that Sri Lanka’s relations with India formed the strategic base of our external affairs policies.

Entrusted with nurturing and further developing this relationship on the Indian side is Foreign Minister, Dr. Subramanyam Jaishanker, currently a Rajya Saba, or upper house, member of the ruling BJP, from Gujarat. Dr. Jaishankar is a very senior foreign affairs professional, a career diplomat, who is an expert in nuclear issues, and a former Indian Ambassador to both China and the USA. Interestingly, he also served as First Secretary in the Indian High Commission, in Colombo, in the late 1980s, just after the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed. Having served in the Indian Foreign Service for decades, he finally retired as Foreign Secretary, in 2018, and made history as the first Indian Foreign Secretary to become Foreign Minister.

As the world, and Sri Lanka, copes with the Covid-19 pandemic, and sufficient access to low-cost vaccines has become the new and most pressing Covid-19 management issue, it was indeed welcome that Dr. Jaishankar, in articulating PM Modi’s neighbour first foreign policy, pledged preferential and early provision of the Indian vaccine to Sri Lanka, no sooner India, which has a serious Covid-19 situation, in its densely populated urban centers, begins to export the vaccine to other countries.

The visit by the Foreign Minister, brought to the fore the key priority issues which currently undergirds India’s interests and engagements in Sri Lanka. Firstly, good economics is good politics and the robust Indian economy has been creating one of the world’s fastest growing middle classes. Sri Lanka, much more than India, stands to benefit from closer economic ties between the two neighbours, ideally establishing ourselves as a services, logistics and knowledge hub for the giant economy next door, as well as a low-cost entry point to the subcontinent’s economy.

It is clearly an irritant to India, that with fast track and increasing Government approval for China to pile on debt laden costly infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka of questionable utility value, such as the Port City and the Lotus Tower, that Indian investments on more mutually beneficial commercial terms, such as the Colombo Port’s East Terminal development, are stalled by government allied trade unions and political forces. India has quietly but carefully been a major grant donor to Sri Lanka, especially in the task of postwar reconstruction. The Sri Lankan Government railways beyond Omanthai, as well as rolling stock, the Palaly Airport development and indeed the 50,000 houses programme in the Central, Northern and Eastern Provinces, together with ADB funded road reconstruction, have actually formed the core of postwar rebuilding in the former war affected provinces of Sri Lanka.

It is in this context, that the most political articulation of policy made by Dr. Jaishankar was with regard to Sri Lanka’s postwar reconciliation, the devolution of power and the values of a pluralist society. It is, indeed, noteworthy that India, despite being a melting pot of ethnicities, languages, social groups and subcultures, have developed an overarching Indian national identity with a strong Indian civic identity. An example Sri Lanka can well learn from.

In a joint press conference, with his counterpart, Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Dr. Jaishankar, did not leave any room for doubt, with his forthright statements. He articulated clearly if rather obviously that it was in Sri Lanka’s own interests to pursue reconciliation and that power sharing, through the Provincial Councils, introduced through the 13th Amendment, consequent to the Indo-Lanka Accord, provided the time, tested, best basis for further development of a governance structure which accommodates the diversity of Sri Lankan society. On the Sri Lankan side, the Indian Foreign Minister, met and invited to Delhi, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and had a bilateral meeting with a delegation from the TNA. Foreign Minister Gunawardena, who found himself agreeing with the sentiments expressed by his Indian counterpart, now faces the challenge of ensuring that the Administration, of which he is a part of, matches its deeds with its words.

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