By C. A. Chandraprema
The Indian press carried anxious commentaries about the recent visit of Chinese Defence Minister General Chang Wanquan to Sri Lanka. India Today observed that this visit took place amidst warnings issued by the Chinese media to the effect that Beijing will fight back if New Delhi tries to interfere in China’s relations with other South Asian countries. The New Indian Express speculated that the purpose of the Chinese Defence Minister’s visit could be to re-establish military ties with Colombo. What we are now seeing is the unravelling of all the plans that India had for Sri Lanka after the change of government in January 2015. In the Modi government, it is not the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who has the most influence in shaping Indian foreign policy, especially towards India’s immediate neighbours but the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
The outspoken Doval openly describes himself as a security man, not a diplomat. He has quite a following in India where he is seen as a ‘real life James Bond’. During his career as an intelligence officer, he is said to have been involved in spying on Pakistan, in countering insurgencies in Kashmir, Mizoram, and the Punjab, in handling over a dozen hijackings of Indian airplanes and even in negotiating safe passage for Indian nurses from ISIS custody. His most recent exploit according to the international as well as the Indian media was the dislodging of the Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka. In the wake of the 8 January 2015 change of government, Reuters reported that Doval had been instrumental in getting Ranil Wickremesinghe to stand down in favour of a common candidate, persuading Maithripala Sirisena to defect, and uniting the Opposition and the minorities against Mahinda Rajapaksa.
‘The Citizen Bureau’, which styles itself as India’s first online newspaper spoke of a ‘coup’ and ‘a classic Doval covert operation’ in Sri Lanka and stated that in late November 2014, Doval was in Colombo to confirm support for Sirisena through meetings with him and his backers. Despite the crucial role that Doval played in Sri Lanka, his name is not known to most Sri Lankans outside the circle of decision makers in this country. One of the reasons for this is probably that Doval is used to being under the radar especially when he is at work. His training is that of a spy, not a public servant or diplomat. Another reason is that from very early on after the change of government in Sri Lanka, things started to go wrong for the Indians – which would have acted as an added incentive for Doval to maintain a low profile.
In 2014, Doval tried to prevail upon the then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to stop the Port City project saying it was a threat to India’s security. At that time, the Hambantota Port was not an issue because the Rajapaksa government did not have any plans to sell or lease it to the Chinese. The immediate cause for Doval’s decision to help overthrow the Rajapaksa government was the docking of a Chinese submarine at the Colombo Port without Colombo informing the Indians first. Doval swung into action, the Rajapaksas were got rid of and the Port City project was stopped even though it had been inaugurated by the Chinese President himself. Prime Minister Modi made a triumphant visit to Sri Lanka and for a time it appeared as if Doval’s plan had worked and Sri Lanka was now firmly in India’s orbit. However, things began unravelling soon afterwards.
Though Maithripala Sirisena had won convincingly in the North and East, his popularity in the rest of the country was in doubt. Sirisena had won the Puttalam, Polonnaruwa, Kandy, Badulla, Colombo and Gampaha districts, but outside the North and East, Mahinda Rajapaksa had well over 200,000 more votes than Sirisena. If the new powers that be were to win the parliamentary election which was due in a few months, they would need to do something to win over the Southern electorate. The strategy that the Sirisena government adopted in this regard was to dole out unprecedented salary hikes for state sector workers and reduce fuel, gas, electricity and commodity taxes to win over the public. Increasing government expenditure while reducing government revenue, forced the government to resort to heavy borrowing.
Unable to attract investment from either the West or India to maintain foreign exchange inflows to service their debt, the new government was forced to agree to allow the Chinese to resume building the 1.4 billion USD Port City. As the politically induced economic crisis spiralled out of control, leaders of the yahapalana government was forced to go even further and offer the Hambantota Port under a long lease to China. The Hambantota Port comes with a precinct of 5,000 acres. In addition to this, the government that Doval helped bring into power, agreed to lease out a further 15,000 acres of land to a Chinese company.
Waterloo on the horizon
This is a total area of 20,000 acres which works out to 80 square km. This is an area larger than the Vatican State, Monaco, Gibralta, Cocos Islands, Nauru, Spratly Islands and Macao all put together. Once the Chinese have a harbour and a land mass bigger than seven small states put together, what is going to stop the Chinese from bringing their nuclear submarines into Hambantota? Even if clauses are written into the lease agreement that no military use can be made of the Hambantota Port, who’s going to enforce such an agreement? The Sri Lankan government most certainly will have neither the capacity nor the interest to enforce such a provision and the Indian government most certainly will not be able to prevent the Chinese from doing just as they please in Hambantota.
These processes that have been taking place in Sri Lanka after Doval’s RAW operation to change the government have not yet come to the attention of the opposition and the general public in India. The Port City is still being built and the Hambantota Port has not yet been leased out to the Chinese. But once the Port City is completed and the Hambantota Port leased out along with a territory bigger than the seven independent states mentioned earlier, the people of India will suddenly become aware that Doval’s schemes has exploded in his face and that the security of India has been threatened to a much greater extent than under a government of the Rajapaksas. No one has heard Doval saying anything about Sri Lanka in recent days. Thanks to Doval’s ill conceived interference in Sri Lanka, the Chinese are now more powerful than they ever were, having both the government and the opposition in Sri Lanka with them.
The Joint Opposition protested at the inauguration of the 15,000 acre industrial park project in Hambantota but they were protesting against the government, not the Chinese. The difference is that the Rajapaksas followed a sustainable policy towards China, trying to win a good deal for Sri Lanka while the yahapalana government is unable to take such a considered view of things. Theirs is a desperate quest for money giving anything to anybody to overcome the immediate crisis. The Chinese are not unreasonable negotiators. Two Chinese owned companies made rival bids to take the Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease. The China Harbour Corporation put in a bid that was favourable to Sri Lanka and China Merchant Co put in a bid that was not so favourable. The Chinese government obviously expected the Sri Lankan government to accept the China Harbour Co bid and they may have been quite surprised when the less favourable bid was accepted.
Earlier, under the Rajapaksas, both these rival bidders China Harbour Co and China Merchant Co jointly signed up to run the container terminal at the Hambantota Port for 40 years on terms very favourable to Sri Lanka. So, the Rajapaksas are very much with the Chinese, but they do better deals than the present government and, therefore, their deals are more sustainable. Be that as it may, the point is that the Chinese now have both the Rajapaksas and the Yahapalana coalition on their side while India has ended up with nothing! An article by Rohan Venkataramakrishnan on the Indian website Scroll, just days after the change of government in Sri Lanka on 19 January 2015 had the telling title “Why even the murmur that India’s RAW interfered in Sri Lanka’s elections is dangerous: India can’t afford to be seen as the meddling big brother”.
Venkataramakrishnan argues that if any influence RAW had had on the Sri Lankan election becomes publicly known, it would have had the opposite effect to that intended; he takes the example of Nepal where RAW interfered in local politics and this resulted in a situation where the local population have turned against any leader seen to be close to New Delhi. Everybody in Sri Lanka believes India manipulated the election in Sri Lanka and this combined with the bitter memory of Indian intervention the 1980s makes it plain that there will be a popular backlash against India that Venkataramakrishnan was talking about. So, while turning the Sri Lankan public against India, Doval has at the same time lost control over the government that he helped bring into power. Doval is said to have brainwashed a Kashmiri terrorist leader by the name of Mohammad Yusuf Parray to become a counter terrorist fighting on behalf of the Indian government, but he could not prevail upon either Sirisena or Ranil Wickremesinghe to halt either the Port City project or the Hambantota port lease.
When RAW leads foreign policy
The Pakistani website ‘thenews.com’ carried an essay which said that opinion was growing within the BJP that Doval’s approach to foreign policy was becoming in itself a threat to India’s national security. An article by Ali Ahmed a former Indian army officer in the Indian website The Wire, speaks of a grand strategy having being ‘hijacked’ by the intelligence arm of the Indian government. Another article also in The Wire by Harish Khare on 17 July 2015 titled “The Doval Doctrine, from High Definition to Low Yield” argued that the ‘Doval doctrine’ tends to neglect the traditional tools of diplomacy and instruments of statecraft. Doval’s regime change misadventure in Sri Lanka is the second great Indian debacle in this country after Rajiv Gandhi’s fiasco of the 1980s.
In the 1980s, it was not due to Tamil Nadu’s influence that the Indian central government supported Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka but as a means of bringing the pro-Western government of J. R. Jayewardene to heel. The process ended with India suffering its worst ever military defeat at the hands of the LTTE, making a tail-between-the-legs exit from Sri Lanka, followed by Rajiv Gandhi himself being assassinated by a vengeful LTTE. In India’s 1980s misadventure in Sri Lanka, the Indian army lost 1,155 lives with 36 rendered permanently disabled. India has not suffered that many casualties in any of the wars that it fought with China or Pakistan. The crowning ignominy of that whole disreputable episode is that for two decades, the Indian central government dared not commemorate the Indian soldiers who lost their lives in Sri Lanka for fear of inflaming public opinion in Tamil Nadu.
In 2014, too, it was not due to the influence of Tamil Nadu that the Indian central government got involved in the regime change project in Sri Lanka but due to India’s dissatisfaction with the good relations that the Rajapaksa government maintained with China. In the late 1980s as well as today, it is India’s own proxies in Sri Lanka who finally turned against India. In the 1980s, the Indian trained and equipped LTTE turned against them. Today, the very government that India is said to have helped bring into power is engaged in conceding to the Chinese much more than the Rajapaksa government ever gave them. Desperate attempts by India to salvage their self respect by bringing Sri Lanka into their orbit through ETCA, has only worsened matters by helping to crystallise popular opposition to India among all sections of the Sri Lankan general public.
So, we see that Doval, by doing what he did in 2014, has damaged India’s interests much more than if he had simply done nothing and not got involved in regime change projects in Sri Lanka. Doval’s reputation built over a lifetime as a spy is now on the line. The only way he can salvage his self respect would be by getting the Chinese Port City project and the lease of the Hambantota harbour to the Chinese stopped – which is next to impossible. What all this makes plain is that the Indian establishment will have to formulate a different policy towards Sri Lanka. The approach taken by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s and by Doval in 2014 has produced results exactly opposite to those expected. RAW operations cannot be a substitute for diplomacy and statecraft.
Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country that looks to India as ‘Jambudeepa’ the birthplace of the Buddha. The cultural proximity of the two nations is plain. Yet, why is India unable to maintain friendly relations with Sri Lanka? The need of the central government to placate Tamil Nadu was not the reason for India’s two great debacles in Sri Lanka as we pointed out earlier. In both instances, it is the Indian central government that is squarely to blame for their foreign policy debacles in this country. The lesson that the Indians should learn from this is that unleashing RAW on her neighbours is not the best way to safeguard Indian interests in this region.