This is my Nation  


Political tightrope-walk for the President

Indian 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 be different.
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 Accord.
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 Ranawaka.
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.