As Colombo turns to China, RSS helps Jaishankar tamp down furore on Amit Shah’s ‘remarks’
This story first appeared in ThePrint
From human rights vote in Geneva to Maldives defence pact, India seeks options to chastise Sri Lanka.
As if External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has not had enough trouble on his hands these past few weeks, with Sri Lanka peremptorily cancelling a 2019 agreement, likely under Chinese pressure, that enjoined India and Japan to build a terminal in the Colombo port. He has also had to deal with Nepal and Sri Lanka complaining about Home Minister Amit Shah’s alleged comments on establishing “BJP governments” in these two nations.
There is some concern in Sri Lanka as to what India will do next to demonstrate its displeasure — whether it will abstain or vote in favour of a resolution at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in the coming days, that seeks to censure Sri Lanka on its human rights record.
Perhaps Colombo, at this moment, should remember how Delhi held its nose but stood like a rock in support, in Geneva in 2010 — despite the huge human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan army the previous year when it ended the war against the LTTE, by killing its chief V. Prabhakaran as well as his young son.
So the question today is, how upset is Jaishankar with a country he has known since 1988 when he was posted there as a young diplomat, for reneging on a port pact meant to underline the special relationship between India and Sri Lanka; a country he has visited twice as foreign minister since the Rajapaksas came to power in late 2019, in an effort to hold Colombo’s nerve and prevent it from succumbing to the Chinese?
In fact, what does this do to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s red-carpet outreach to the Brothers Rajapaksa – both President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda – who were awarded a $450 million line of credit and reiteration of an exceptional Japanese loan to build the port terminal at 0.1 per cent for 40 years, when they came to Delhi soon after they returned to power in 2019?
On the Geneva human rights vote, Sri Lanka has already asked India for support, even cancelling a parliamentary speech by visiting Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. But it’s not clear if this is enough to mollify Delhi.
RSS to Jaishankar’s rescue
Certainly, Jaishankar has his work cut out. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is providing some help to tamp down a potential furore in India’s neighbourhood over Tripura chief minister Biplab Deb’s comments last week, which referred to Amit Shah’s “Atmanirbhar South Asia” initiative when the latter was BJP president two years ago. According to Deb, when BJP northeast zonal secretary Ajay Jaiswal praised Shah for expanding the party across the country, Shah responded by saying, “We have to expand the party in Nepal, Sri Lanka and win there to form a government.”
The RSS’ northeast chief Ulhas Kulkarni as well as its Tripura head Nikhil Niwaskar are believed to have since reprimanded Biplab Deb. Certainly, neither the BJP nor the government wants to see a replay of the outcry triggered by Shah’s “termite” remarks in Bangladesh and the consequent damage to the India-Bangladesh relationship — until PM Modi took matters in his own hands and sent foreign secretary Harsh Shringla to Dhaka to issue the diplomatic version of an apology.
In response to Deb’s remarks supposedly quoting Amit Shah, the Nepali-language Naya Patrika pointed to a recent RSS conference in Birganj inaugurated by Kalyan Timilsina, the national convenor of the RSS in Nepal and asked, “Has this secret plan of the BJP come out?” According to The Kathmandu Post, Nepal’s ambassador in India Nilamber Acharya called the Ministry of External Affairs and complained about Indian interference in Nepal’s internal affairs. While the chairman of Sri Lanka’s election commission, Nimal Punchihewa was quoted in Ceylon Today as saying that a foreign political party cannot set up office in Sri Lanka, no matter how strong it is.
Certainly, India’s neighbourhood is astir again. Apart from the damage caused by domestic politics transcending borders, New Delhi has been forced to become nimbler in response to China flexing its muscle in the Indian Ocean in an attempt to unseat India from its traditional sphere of influence.
For example, Jaishankar has tried to compensate the loss in Sri Lanka by signing a defence pact with the Maldives over the weekend and shore up the relationship with Mauritius – both key pit stops in the Indian Ocean.
Lanka’s China love, India’s options
What remains unclear though is why Mahinda Rajapaksa, who described PM Modi as “my good friend” not so long ago, has so openly shifted allegiance to Beijing. Colombo has also allowed a Chinese energy project to come up on three islands off Jaffna, barely 50 km away from the Tamil Nadu coast, knowing full well that this will directly impact India’s security. Moreover, energy minister Udaya Gammanpila has said that Sri Lanka will soon take back the fuel tanks it had leased to India on the eastern shore-board in Trincomalee.
So what should India do to make its displeasure known to the Rajapaksa brothers, besides the human rights vote in Geneva? Should it redirect its huge tourist potential instead to the Maldives and Mauritius — remember, that India topped the incoming tourist market in Sri Lanka with 19 per cent of arrivals in 2019. Or should it reduce its dependence on Colombo Port, which commands the bulk of Indian transshipment cargo, thereby dealing the port a body blow?
Certainly, the Ministry of External Affairs is carefully studying its options, but the data since the 2018 cabotage reform is clear: Allowing foreign carriers to dock at Indian ports (like Cochin) has significantly brought down the dependence of Indian transshipment cargo on Colombo port. As for tourism on which Sri Lanka is so hugely reliant, it might just find that learning Mandarin is far more difficult than Hindi.
Views are personal.