tightrope-walk for the President
fever appears to have swept the country, with the
Indian International Film Awards (IIFA) festival
being staged in Colombo, and hordes of Bollywood
film stars, most of them household names in this
country, descending on the capital.
There have been critics, of the IIFA being staged
here, who have argued that the mileage the country
gains from staging the glamorous event in Colombo is
not commensurate with the spectacular cost involved.
These critics received a further boost when the
top most celebrities slated to attend the event-
Amiththab Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya
Rai- gave the awards a miss, obviously for security
reasons, negating the very purpose of conducting the
IIFA in Colombo- that of trying to portray Sri Lanka
as a safe and free nation, after the defeat of
terrorism a year ago.
But this Indian ‘invasion’ is not without more
serious political and economic implications. Whether
we like it or not, India is our closest neighbouring
country, and is a massive entity, both in
geographical size and in terms of its population.
Then, even more significantly, Sri Lanka’s Tamil
community identify closely and trace their origins
to the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to
some 62 million Tamils, more than thrice the
population of Sri Lanka. The term ‘geo-political
realities’ aptly conveys the nexus that thus exists
between the two nations.
The practical aspect of this was amply demonstrated
in the 30-year history of Sri Lanka’s war with the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While
India, at first nurtured the Tigers and thereafter,
tolerated them, the war here could never be won.
Even when Sri Lanka had gained a decisive upper
hand, militarily, India chose to intervene as it did
in 1987, with the Indo-Lanka Accord, and it was back
to the barracks for the Sri Lankan armed forces.
However, chastised by the assassination of Rajiv
Gandhi by the LTTE, and by its own experiences with
terrorism, the Manmohan Singh government decided on
a hands-off policy during the final Eelam war, and
even went to the extent of co-operating with the Sri
Lankan Navy in preventing an exodus of terrorists in
the final stages of the conflict. These were all
decisive factors in the eventual defeat of the LTTE.
India and the issues it raises, therefore, cannot be
ignored. The current focus of attention, vis-à-vis
our giant neighbour, is two-fold: Its concerns about
devolution of power to ethnic communities in this
country and the proposed bilateral trade pact
between the two countries, the Comprehensive
Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). It is the
latter that has hit the headlines more recently.
A few weeks ago, there was a protest in the city
against the proposed CEPA. Concerns were expressed
about the influx of Indian goods and services-
including professional services- if the CEPA was to
be implemented. Given the sheer enormity of numbers,
the fear was that Indian goods and services would
swamp the local market, shutting out Sri Lankans.
When the protesters succeeded in meeting
President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself and the
President smilingly accepted their petition, there
was speculation that CEPA would not see the light of
day. Subsequent events, however, have turned out to
There have been consultations between Colombo and
New Delhi thereafter, and the current thinking is
that CEPA will indeed be implemented, although with
amendments introduced at the behest of Sri Lanka.
India has now agreed to open up 80 sectors to Sri
Lanka, while Colombo has reciprocated with the
liberalisation of 20 sectors. Professional services
such as the medical and legal professions will not
be subjected to the agreement.
Perhaps more worrying than CEPA for New Delhi are
the political events here. When New Delhi adopted a
non-interventionist attitude towards the final Eelam
War last year, it expected Colombo to repay its debt
of gratitude by implementing what it thought was the
best model for devolution of power in Sri Lanka- the
comprehensive activation of the 13th Amendment to
the Constitution, as agreed under the Indo-Lanka
One year after the war, New Delhi still adheres to
this line of thinking. And because President Mahinda
Rajapaksa has won resounding victories in both the
general and presidential elections, and retains a
more than comfortable majority in Parliament, India
believes he has the political muscle to see these
changes through. Hence, the pressure is now on the
President to act and act decisively.
Being the astute politician that he is, President
Rajapaksa has never dismissed this line of thinking,
but he must be aware that his government also
includes individuals and parties who will
strenuously oppose any measures to further devolve
power through the 13th Amendment- and chief among
these opponents will be the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna
(JNP) led by the JNP and Wimal Weerawansa and the
even more nationalistic Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU),
represented in the Cabinet by Minister Champika
Even so, confronted as he is with an absolutely
divided opposition, that appears to be intent on
committing political suicide, the President does
appear to have the political strength to push any
reforms that he considers necessary. However, he has
not taken the plunge yet.
The President does have bargaining power, even
with New Delhi. It is no secret that New Delhi is
not amused by China’s close cooperation with Sri
Lanka in mega development projects, most notably
involving the Hambantota Port. Hence, New Delhi’s
request to open a diplomatic office not only in
Jaffna, but also in Hambantota, which hardly has
citizens eager to journey to India.
India’s anxieties about Beijing’s presence on Sri
Lankan soil could well prove to be the pivotal point
in upcoming negotiations between Colombo and New
Delhi. These talks will be at the highest level when
President Rajapaksa undertakes an official visit to
India shortly. The President’s trusted diplomatic
trouble-shooter, Economic Affairs Minister Basil
Rajapaksa is likely to accompany him.
On this visit, a clearer picture of what the
President has in mind, in terms of devolution of
power- and India’s response, is likely to emerge.
However, no matter what that would entail, it will
most certainly be a political tightrope-walk for
President Rajapaksa in the coming weeks.