Friday, May 17, 2024

Subramanyam Jaishankar and pounds of flesh

The Indian Foreign Minister arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday. His schedule includes discussions with the President, Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.  Any visit by any Indian minister or senior official is important, this is undebatable. Not because ‘we are old friends’ or ‘have a long, shared history’ (the ‘friendship’ is debatable and the ‘history’ has been by and large sordid).

That said, things can change (very slowly, yes). Prime Minister Modi is not exactly a clone of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who thought the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 would be the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka. Nothing wrong in hoping that he has abandoned the age-old Kautilyan foreign-relations ‘non-negotiables’ of fighting with closest neighbors and being friends with those beyond. India is not friends with China (despite the massive volume of trade between the two countries). India is more than cosy with the United States of America and Jaishankar has had a lot to do with improved relations.

The USA is not Sri Lanka’s friend. Let’s get that straight and out of the way. So when the USA gets pally with India after showing disappointment that Sri Lanka wasn’t interested in the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact, Sri Lanka should be wary of any Indian moves. The USA’s ideological and political allies in Sri Lanka (including ex-Deputy Governors of the Central Bank, SJB parliamentarian Harsha De Silva, and the [un]thinking tank Advocata) appear to be more upset than the US Ambassador over this non-event. Some have screamed, ‘repercussions!’

Well, India has buddied with the USA to set up the ‘Quad’ or the Quadrilateral Security Dialog which includes Japan and Australia, which is clearly a move to contain China’s rise in the region and of course the world. Some call it the Asian NATO. The Indian Defense Secretary recently insulted Sri Lanka during a visit to Nepal, warning (yes!) that country from getting assistance from China. China, by the way, is not Sri Lanka’s best friend in terms of aid. That ‘distinction’ goes to Japan.

This is not all the context there is. There’s the impending UNHRC sessions in Geneva. The by now par-for-the-course surrounding noise has been made by the Washington-led media and of course the Washington-dependent rights outfits. Sri Lanka is set to be hauled over the coals. Yes, the USA has pulled out from that ‘Cesspit of bias’ but that hasn’t stopped Uncle Sam from leveraging its allies to get the dirty work done. It’s an ideal time for India to play ‘friend!’ If there is a resolution against Sri Lanka, India won’t object. India might not even support it. However, India is most likely to do the friend-thing: dilute the resolution. And Sri Lanka would be required to applaud.

The big-deals will take place in this context. The Eastern Terminal for example. India is actively sabotaging the Colombo Port already through an Indian company and taking control of the terminal would put Sri Lanka at India’s mercy. India, once its port operations in the Andaman Islands are done, will ‘gracefully leave.’ And Sri Lanka would be required to applaud. Again. And again.

Subramanyam Jaishankar is no baby. He’s a seasoned operator. A career diplomat, Jaishankar was once the Secretary, Foreign Ministry. He knows India, Indian interests and how the world operates. No wonder that Tata made him ‘President – Corporate Affairs’ when he retired. Before that, though, he had already established excellent relations with the USA, playing a key role in hammering out the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. And just a few months ago on behalf of India he inked the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) with the USA.

So, friends, this is no routing courtesy call. It’s business. As usual. For India. Or anyone else for that matter. Jaishankar is taking care of Indian interests. As always there’s give and take, more of the former as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. We are not in the right market here, so we can haggle only so much about the price.  

Jaishankar will no doubt come with some sugar because deals often have to be sweetened. Going from the sound bytes we’ve heard or rather been made to listen to, it’s like to be something to do with a vaccine to combat Covid-19. India can easily spare a few pricks and offer the rest on a concessionary loan. Sri Lanka would be required to applaud.

So, friends, once the joint statement is released or when India or Sri Lanka or both issue statements, let’s resolve to read them carefully. Let’s read between the lines. Let’s keep context in mind. Let’s remember histories that have left bloodstains behind and whose shadows will invariably fall on Sri Lanka come the UNHRC sessions.
Does India want to start on a fresh page? Well, India would like us to believe they do. Will they? Will they? Unlikely. If that were the case, the Indian Defense Secretary wouldn’t have tossed around disparaging comments. If it’s about give and take, no-free-lunches and such, then India should not have any problem with the paid-for lunch or the lunch-on-credit (as per their preferred narrative) that China offers.
Subramanyam Jaishankar is a professional turned politician. That’s good for India. How good is it for Sri Lanka? Let’s not bet on such things, shall we?

Malinda Seneviratne

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