What brought the Three Wise Men from India?

Is big brother India at it again? That was the intriguing question on many lips as a high powered Indian delegation arrived in Colombo for a lightning visit that was devoid of the usual fanfare and shrouded in a cloak of extreme secrecy.

The visit by Indian National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and Defence Secretary Vijay Singh, raised eyebrows not for what was said about it, but for what was not said about it by both the government and New Delhi. There were no photographs of bear hugs and handshakes; nor was there an official statement.

The rather unimaginative official position from Colombo was that the three wise men from across the Palk Straits were here to assess preparations for the upcoming summit of South Asian nations. But not even the naďve will believe that such a high powered delegation flew to Colombo to inspect Indian Premier Manmohan Singh’s seating arrangements at the BMICH!

What then brought Narayanan, Singh and Menon here? Opposition parties in Sri Lanka have already called for an explanation and some have accused India of exerting pressure on Colombo to halt its military thrust against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

This stems from a once bitten twice shy attitude among Sri Lankans about Indian interference in the country’s affairs, especially with regard to the ethnic issue. That is hardly surprising though, given India’s recent track record in the Sri Lankan context.
It was decades ago, that Colombo and New Delhi enjoyed the best of relationships. If S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had a special rapport with Jawaharlal Nehru, that continued with Sirima Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi. J.R. Jayewardene chose to anatagonise Gandhi and although he had an excellent relationship with Moraji Desai who was in office when Jayewardene came into power, Gandhi was soon back at the helm in New Delhi.

That, was the beginning of the decline in Indo-Lanka relations and Colombo was particularly irked by New Delhi turning a blind eye to Tamil militancy on its soil. Even Rajiv Gandhi who succeeded his mother maintained that policy more or less.

New Delhi, to be fair, has been pegged by political constraints because of the electoral importance of Tamil Nadu. Therefore, it has to be seen as being at least sympathetic to the Tamil cause, which it has chosen at times to equate with the LTTE’s cause. But Rajiv Gandhi carried this doctrine a bit too far with his infamous ‘parippu’ drop in 1987, which forced Jayewardene into signing the Indo-Lanka Accord.

Gandhi paid dearly for his folly-with the lives of over a thousand Indian soldiers as well as that of his own, but the Sri Lankan psyche has since been scarred, worrying always that big brother India will pre-empt any kind of decisive military action against the LTTE.

Times have of course changed since 1987. The LTTE is now an international force of terror, blacklisted by most countries in the world, including India herself. Mahinda Rajapaksa is no J.R. Jayewardene and the southern Sri Lankan electorate-which went on a disgraceful rampage when 13 soldiers were killed in 1983 - has grown tolerant of more macabre excesses by the Tigers.

Indian politics has remained the same in essence: the Congress (I) is in power and still relies on support from Tamil Nadu. India, however, is now not only a regional superpower; it is also a booming economic powerhouse and therefore has to tread warily in its political decision making.

This is more so because India now has considerable economic interests in Sri Lanka too. The most significant of them is the presence of the Lanka-Indian Oil Company (LIOC) which not only holds the right to distribute fuel in the country but has also obtained a lease on the oil tanks in Trincomalee. There was indeed some sabre rattling between the LIOC and Minister A.H. M. Fowzie last week but that controversy appears to have subsided now.

Nevertheless, Indo-Lanka relations are not at its best either. Alok Prasad may not play the hectoring role of a Jyotindra Nath Dixit but time and again New Delhi has rebuffed Colombo, most recently when the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ignored an invitation to be the chief guest at Sri Lanka’s diamond jubilee celebrations.

There are many contributory factors to this nadir. The Rajapaksa administration, while eagerly pursuing a military option against the LTTE, has not been convincing in its efforts to offer a genuine political solution to the ethnic issue and this has been a recurring irritant to the Indians. From their perspective, a political solution must go hand in glove with any military successes - or else, the repercussions will be felt mostly in Tamil Nadu.

Colombo’s inconsistencies in articulating a well formulated Indian policy has not helped. The Foreign Ministry portfolio has been passed around since the demise of Lakshman Kadiragamar from Anura Bandaranaike and Mangala Samaraweera now to Rohitha Bogollagama, the latter being particularly inept at handling such matters with finesse.

Therefore, Colombo would do well not only to assuage New Delhi’s anxieties but also to take the country into its confidence. By keeping a generally well informed and politically conscious public in the dark, it will only add fuel to public perceptions of Indian hegemony and accusations that New Delhi is siding with the Tigers-yet again.

J.R. Jayewardene kept the contents of the Indo-Lanka Accord away from the Lankan public until it was foisted on them - and he had to pay for it with his political life. That is a lesson that President Rajapaksa could well learn from.