Lanka’s India policy: Mind the balance

By Ameen Izzadeen
Foreign policy making is like tightrope walking. Performing a balancing act in foreign policy making is not only a science that the mandarins at a foreign ministry need to excel in, but also crucial for a country’s survival.
This week, the Indian media reported that Sri Lanka had supported New Delhi in its conflict with Pakistan. This is only an interpretation of the Indian media and can be far from the truth, because the mainstream media act like an addendum of the government in times of national crises. This is evident not only in India, but in many countries, including the United States and Britain, said to be the freest where media freedom is concerned.
Visiting India at a time when war clouds were hovering over the India-Pakistan border following the September 18 attack on a military base in Kashmir by militants, who according to India had come from Pakistan, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Wednesday said border terrorism was a core issue on the table for SAARC. He said the eight nation grouping had to discuss it and its impact before moving forward. His mentioning of border terrorism apparently implies an endorsement of India’s allegation that the attackers came from across the border, though Pakistan has rejected the allegation.
“SAARC has to decide on two issues—cross-border terrorism and areas in which we can work together. If we don’t do it, there is no future for SAARC,” he said, lamenting that little or nothing had moved in the SAARC due to friction between India and Pakistan.
But SAARC started discussing terrorism – at the behest of Sri Lanka in 1987 — even before the global war on terror began in 2001. The last summit in Kathmandu in November 2014 also took up terrorism and the summit’s final communiqué had this to say about it: “The leaders unequivocally condemned terrorism and violent extremism in all its forms and manifestations and underlined the need for effective cooperation among the member states to combat them. They directed respective authorities to ensure full and effective implementation of the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism and its Additional Protocol, including through enacting necessary legislations at the national level to root out terrorism. They reiterated their call for an early conclusion of a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism….”
The prime minister’s remarks in New Delhi were only a reiteration of SAARC’s stated position. However, the Indian media gave a mischievous twist to the remarks and interpreted them as Sri Lanka’s expression of support for India’s “surgical strikes” on Pakistan in response to the September 18 militant attacks on the Indian army base.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe should have exercised more caution when he made those remarks. This was because Sri Lanka’s announcement last Saturday that the prevailing environment was not conducive to hold the summit was also misinterpreted by the Indian media. Grouping Sri Lanka together with India’s allies Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan, the Indian media saw the Sri Lankan statement as an expression of support for India, though the announcement took no sides.
That government leaders or advisors have not made an attempt to correct this warped interpretations may indicate that the Indian media were right. Such silence may hurt Pakistan which has been an all-weather friend of Sri Lanka, especially during the thirty-year war. It may appear that Sri Lanka has thrown the time-tested balancing act in its India-Pakistan policy into the winds of opportunism.
Post-independence Sri Lanka’s foreign policy till the introduction of the executive presidential system in 1978 highlighted the craftsmanship with which the country performed a balancing act. The Prime Minister held the foreign policy portfolio and he or she was accountable to parliament for decisions taken in the foreign policy realm.
Foreign policy is essentially an extension of a country’s domestic policy. Unless a country’s leaders are irrational or high-handed, no foreign policy of a country is made without regard to its domestic consequences. Even when taking domestic policy decisions, rational leaders take into consideration the likely international repercussions arising out of such decisions.
Since the introduction of the executive presidential system in Sri Lanka, crucial foreign policy decisions are made by the executive president, with the foreign minister and the foreign ministry playing an auxiliary or advisory role. This was more or less the practice in the United States, but Congress plays a vital oversight role there.
But in Sri Lanka, foreign policy decision making process is not broad-based or democratised. There is little foreign policy discussion at Cabinet level. In Parliament, foreign policy decisions are debated only when adverse consequences of such decisions are evident. Foreign policy is largely divorced from parliamentary oversight and often left to the whims and fancies of the President.
Perhaps with the only exception being the presidency of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who let her foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, to devise foreign policy of her government, the presidents of Sri Lanka have been the architects of foreign policy decisions. Often they have made atrocious mistakes with devastating consequences. President J.R. Jayewardene learned a bitter lesson as a consequence of his overtly pro-West foreign policy that failed to address India’s concerns. As a result, India legitimised terrorism in this country. It funded, trained and sheltered the separatist elements that were trying to divide this country. But in 1987, Jayewardene, a chameleon in statecraft, mended fences with Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour and turned it into a partner in Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism. To his advantage, Indira Gandhi, who sympathised with the separatists’ cause in Sri Lanka, had been assassinated and her son Rajiv Gandhi, who was inclined towards the free-market West, was in power in New Delhi.
The Ranasinghe Premadasa presidency’s foreign policy, reflecting the character traits of the president, put Sri Lanka on a collision course with India. However, the then Indian government strategically handled Sri Lanka to avoid open hostility. During the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, Sri Lanka’s India policy was in the hands of a troika consisting of President Rajapaksa, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and presidential secretary Lalith Weeratunge. The regime played its foreign policy cards haphazardly while openly courting stronger relations with China, much to the chagrin of India and the United States-led West.
In the present government which is a diarchy, foreign policy decisions emerge from three centres – the president, the prime minister and the foreign minister. But it is not clear who makes what decision. At times their positions appear to be contradicting one another. This is not a good sign. The process needs to be streamlined and clear so that decision makers can be held accountable at least in the court of the public.
The ideal position would be if decisions are made by a group of carefully selected people especially trained to think in terms of national interest and to balance the country’s national interest with the national interests of other countries.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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