India’s ‘strategic calculations’ as Lankans suffer

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With its “friend and neighbour”, as India’s ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last week referred to Sri Lanka, gasping for economic oxygen, a one billion dollar emergency aid lifeline sought from his country has been kept dangling as a carrot at the end of a list of conditions by the lender to the borrower.

The conditions are two-fold. One is economic, the other is geo-politics. The nomenclature for the first is a “road map”, while for the second it is “strategic calculations”, not originally coined but nevertheless articulated by the Indian Foreign Minister in a different context (on its position on the war in Ukraine), and which seems the underlying foreign policy of a modern, upwardly mobile India.

Requiring Sri Lanka to go before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to restructure its chronic debt repayment issues is understandable. Even that has “strategic calculations” because India would want Sri Lanka to be weaned away from China’s tight grip on the Sri Lankan economy.

The other strategic calculation by the Indian Government is what is deeper, and therefore arguably more worrisome.

It is understood that India has a list of demands that range from security and defence arrangements to those that are euphemistically referred to as economic development projects. It is ‘understood’ because they are all not made public so far, and even those that are in the public domain don’t give out the details; the small print and the annexures, so to say. And almost all of them revolve around the North and East of Sri Lanka.

Into this list are the demands reiterated last week at the UNHRC by India’s ambassador — for Provincial Council elections. The ‘doosra’ bowled by the Indian ambassador, clearly drafted by the South Block in New Delhi that houses its Foreign Ministry can be read so patently. It wants a ready-made puppet regime ensconced in office in the North and preferably East through Provincial Councils to have a further stranglehold in those parts of this country, its long-term ‘strategic calculation’ since funding, training and providing succour to a terrorist group unleashed in Sri Lanka to wage war.

That three decade-long separatist insurgency retarded economic growth that was taking off in Sri Lanka after 1977. Now, the iron is hot to strike again. The 13th Amendment of 1987 that was forced on this country is being resurrected as the tool to press home the advantage from Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. The current demands seem to be the balance of the 1987 exercise in putting its foot in the door of Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, for which Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa is expected to go to New Delhi in the coming days. Is he going to sign on the dotted line of a number of agreements without the knowledge of the rest of the country?

Neither the Sri Lankan Government nor the Indian Government is coming out with the details of these ghost agreements. Neither are they denying media reports on both sides of the Palk Strait referring to the existence of such agreements.

Yesterday, the Sri Lanka Government signed an agreement with the Indian National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) for a joint venture in Sampur. The two countries have also signed an agreement for a wind power project in Mannar, though not much is known about its content.

It was only the Indian high commission in Colombo that announced the Sampur deal. Not a hum from the Sri Lankan Government. With the oil tanks around the Trincomalee harbour already in the bag, the Indians were clamouring for a piece of Sampur, also close to Trincomalee for an energy project. First mooted as a coal power plant under President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006, the NTPC was the likely candidate for the project when it was scuttled by President Maithripala Sirisena. When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced a new ‘No coal’ energy policy, India calmly changed its demand to build a renewable energy project in Sampur. The deal is done, no one knows the fine print.

The several maritime security arrangements under discussion between Ministers B. Rajapaksa and S. Jaishankar ostensibly revolve around anti-terrorism, anti-narcotics smuggling etc., but have clear “strategic calculation” thrown in to check, if not check-mate, China’s naval expansion in the region. These include the participation of Sri Lanka in a Fusion Centre, an initiative of the US Navy for intelligence gathering and exchange.

Whether these are in the best interest of Sri Lanka, their merits and de-merits, remain a nagging question because both New Delhi and Colombo are playing it close to their chests. Who in Colombo are vetting these agreements? Whatever is going on between the Sri Lankan Finance Minister who is in desperate search for a billion dollars and the Indian Foreign Minister (together with its National Security Advisor) is anybody’s guess. The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry says it knows nothing of the Basil Rajapaksa initiative and the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa maintains a stoic, ominous silence as well. Are they really out of the equation or just pretending? Either way, it is a very dangerous situation for Sri Lanka’s future.

Sri Lanka has got into a lot of unnecessary tangles by individuals in high political office acting on their own, in secrecy on various bilateral agreements that only become public post-facto. Then the fun begins when ‘manure happens’ with demonstrations, going to courts and the like, but often it is too late for rectification.

This kind of negotiations is a fairly new phenomena. Back then, the Sirima-Shastri Pact on repatriation of stateless citizens was discussed by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and Opposition Leader Dudley Senanayake on the telephone and agreed upon before Mrs Bandaranaike signed the Pact in New Delhi. Even the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 was discussed in Cabinet; a Minister resigned in disagreement, there were street demonstrations – the point being, the country was not kept totally in the dark. In recent times, it has been a totally different approach, from the US military’s SOFA to the Chinese Hambantota port sell-out to the gas project. The various foreign loans taken are not known to the public standing in various queues around the country.

The Reserve Bank of India has USD 631 billion in reserves.
Sri Lanka is asking for one billion. It was pressganged to sign the Sampur and other projects before Mr. Rajapaksa came to New Delhi. This is diplomatic blackmail. India has 74 days of oil reserves in stock, but is finding it so difficult to help a “friend and neighbour” in difficulty without making it cringe, crawl, and concede its national security interests and neutrality in the name of India’s own “strategic calculations”.

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