Suhasini Haidar & Meera Srinivasan
Worried about the fallout of reports emanating from a Cabinet meet, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena telephoned Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday evening to clear the air over the contention that he had blamed India’s intelligence agency R&AW for an alleged assassination plot targeting him.
“Mr. Sirisena said his words had been misquoted and distorted, and he denied having said that Indian agencies would be involved in the case in any manner,” MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar told The Hindu after the telephone conversation, which lasted about 20 minutes.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi appreciated his prompt action in clarifying the issue and initiating the call,” Mr. Kumar added, saying that the leaders assured each other of their friendship and the importance of India-Sri Lanka ties.
The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that the Sri Lankan President termed the “mischievous and malafide” reports as “utterly baseless and false”, and seemed intended to create misunderstanding between the two leaders, as well as damage the cordial relations between the neighbours.
Mr. Sirisena apprised PM Modi of “the urgent steps” taken by him personally and the Government of Sri Lanka, to publicly reject the reports, it said.
President Sirisena’s Media Division too released a statement following the call, saying the two leaders held “a very cordial discussion”, in which Mr. Modi assured him of all support for Sri Lanka’s development and prosperity. According to the media release, Mr. Modi “expressed appreciation” over President Sirisena’s efforts “to maintain close relations with neighbours as well as other countries.”
According to sources in Colombo and New Delhi, Mr. Sirisena also discussed the problem of the “media leaks” from the Cabinet meeting held on Tuesday. The Hindu had reported that Mr. Sirisena had open differences with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the meeting, where Mr. Sirisena called for a thorough investigation into the alleged plot — directed at him and former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa — linking it to the Indian intelligence agencies.
“President Sirisena said that intelligence services in the world have done certain things that their state leader don’t have knowledge of. Even in America, this is the case. We don’t know, but we should have a thorough investigation on this. However, in the same breath he has said that I am quite sure Prime Minister Modi has no knowledge of this. And I don’t think the Indian government will try to encourage this thing. There was no blame for the government,” a senior Presidential aide explained to The Hindu on Wednesday.
The conflicting versions, the telephone call between leaders, and the flurry of denials from the government of Sri Lanka pointed to the inconsistencies within government, days ahead of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s arrival in New Delhi on Thursday.
“Mr. Sirisena is upset that India has been dragged into the internal politics of Sri Lanka in this manner,” the aide said. Sources in New Delhi and Colombo said the challenges of domestic politics, especially in an election year that the two leaders face, figured in their telephone conversation as well.
Meanwhile, intelligence experts saw the move as deliberately targeting India. Former chief of the RAW Vikram Sood said it seemed more a case of internal politics, designed to upset India. “In democracies, intelligence agencies do not have an independent foreign policy, and neither do we. In fact, it is more to embarrass GoI ahead of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s visit,” he told The Hindu.
Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Sirisena are also divided over the issue of handing India the operations of Colombo port terminals.