The “Sunday Observer” Political Editor
Each week on Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s Cabinet of Ministers meets, with President Maithripala Sirisena presiding. With a fragile coalition primarily of arch political rivals in the governing seat, Cabinet meetings have been controversial and heated affairs for the better part of nearly four years.
Yet last week’s fateful meeting was the first of its kind to cause major consternation away from these shores – and across the Palk Strait. As one senior presidential aide put it, a report about the explosive meeting appearing in the Indian press the day after the meeting, nearly caused an ‘inter-state conflict’.
The Hindu newspaper published the report that President Sirisena had claimed at the Cabinet meeting that an Indian spy agency was plotting his assassination in its front page on Wednesday (17). The Hindu’s report was sourced to ‘multiple sources in Government – across political parties.” A report about the outburst was previously published locally, in the news and economics website EconomyNext.
The next day, a flurry of denials followed. The first came from the Cabinet Secretary, claiming that the contents of the news items were ‘completely false.’ Before noon on Wednesday, Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne issued a stoic denial of the report, doubling down several times and refusing to be swayed by multi-pronged questions about the alleged statement by the President. Hours later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a denial, claiming the news reports were ‘baseless and false’.
The Presidential Media Division released its own denial, acknowledging that the alleged assassination plot had been discussed at Cabinet, but denying that the President had mentioned any involvement of Indian intelligence in the plot. The PMD statement said Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandu had called on President Sirisena, and “matters had been clarified and bilateral relations assured.” The Hindu newspaper, and its management continues to stand steadfastly by its report which it said had been ‘meticulously fact-checked’ before publication.
As Sri Lanka woke up to the explosive international media report on Wednesday morning, India’s famed South Block, the bureaucratic heart of its foreign relations and defence affairs, was already buzzing. The news report quoted sources as saying President Sirisena had mentioned that Prime Minister Modi may have had no knowledge of the alleged plot. However, administratively, India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) comes under the ‘parent wing’ of the Cabinet Secretariat, which in turn comes directly under the Office of the Indian Prime Minister. The claim that RAW may have been named in connection with the alleged assassination plot by the highest levels of the Sri Lankan Government was a subject of grave concern to the Indian establishment. The mission in Colombo was alerted and asked to seek clarification at the highest levels. South Block officials also got in touch with senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo to express concern. These officials were able to alert the President’s Office that the report on the Cabinet meeting had raised a major diplomatic hornet’s nest. Within hours, the Government was scrambling to do damage control.
By 11AM on Wednesday, the Indian High Commissioner was in President Sirisena’s office, seeking clarification from the country’s head of state about the alleged remarks. The Indian envoy was scheduled to leave for New Delhi that afternoon, to receive Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the Indian capital the next day, but he postponed his flight at the eleventh hour in order to call on President Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat. The High Commissioner was particularly keen to find out if the remarks at Cabinet the previous day had included references to the Indian Prime Minister.
President Sirisena took pains to explain to the Indian envoy that he held Prime Minister Modi in the highest regard and that the remarks were in no way intended to be a slight to India. The President said he strongly believed the reports were part of a plot to distance him from Premier Modi and the Indian Government, and portray him as an enemy of the neighbouring country. He told the Indian High Commissioner that his remarks had been part of a complaint in Cabinet that his own Government was slow to react about the alleged assassination plot and that their cavalier attitude towards what was quite possibly a threat to his life was causing him pain. The attitude of the UNP section of the Government in particular had disappointed him. He added that since an Indian national had been arrested in connection with the alleged plot, he had merely remarked that there were reports circulating that an Indian intelligence agency could be involved. President Sirisena insisted he had specifically mentioned that Premier Modi would have had no knowledge of any of this and added that he had not mentioned RAW, an assertion also made by one of his senior advisors at a press briefing held last Thursday (18). Doubling down on this assertion at the Cabinet press briefing on Wednesday, Minister Senaratne insisted that President Sirisena had claimed that the arrest of the Indian national and reports that an Indian spy agency was involved in the plot was an attempt to sully relations between the two countries.
During the meeting, High Commissioner Sandhu suggested to President Sirisena that he convey these sentiments and the steps taken by his Government to clarify and deny the remarks to Prime Minister Modi personally. President Sirisena readily agreed and by early afternoon, the call was set up.
After customary greetings and salutations, President Sirisena launched into a broad explanation of what had transpired at the fiery Cabinet meeting and the steps his Government had taken to address the reports. Prime Minister Modi spoke in Hindi, and President Sirisena in Sinhala, with both leaders using interpreters during the high-level phone call. The read-out of the call from the Presidential Media Division alluded only to discussions about development activities in Sri Lanka and India’s continued commitment to the country’s peace and prosperity. Shortly afterwards, the release from the Indian Prime Minister’s office was much more extensive. President Sirisena had categorically rejected the reports in sections of media about him alluding to the involvement of India in any manner whatsoever in an alleged plot to assassinate the President and former Defence Secretary of Sri Lanka, Modi’s Office said in a press statement. The statement added that President Sirisena also apprised the Indian Premier about urgent steps taken by him personally and the Government of Sri Lanka to publicly reject these reports. “He mentioned that the mischievous and malafide reports were utterly baseless and false and seemed intended to create misunderstanding between the two leaders as well as damage cordial relations between the two friendly neighbours,” Premier Modi’s Office said. Prime Minister Modi appreciated the prompt steps taken by President Sirisena and his Government to “firmly refute malicious reports and publicly clarifying the matters”, the release by Modi’s Office said. There was no mention of discussions about development cooperation in the Indian read out of the telephone call, an indication of just how seriously the Indian Prime Minister’s Office was taking the issue.
At the tail-end of the Rajapaksa administration, Indo-Lanka relations had almost reached a point of no return. Vexed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s constant flip-flopping on promises made to New Delhi, particularly with regard to the Tamil national question, and shabby treatment meted out to visiting Indian dignitaries by his brother, and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had severely strained relations with the ruling Congress Party. When the Congress Party was voted out of office in 2014, former President Rajapaksa rejoiced in the prospect of the ‘strongman’ Modi taking over the reins, attending his inauguration and blithely expressing hope of a ‘turning point’ in relations. The regime learned the hard way that institutional memory and interest is stronger in India than it is back home. Within months of Prime Minister Modi assuming office, relations were strained again. The Rajapaksas continuing dalliance with Beijing to the exclusion of all others, culminating in the docking of a Chinese submarine in the Colombo Port, resulted in a dressing down of Government officials by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, and the end of the road with the Rajapaksa regime as far as New Delhi was concerned.
All this was turned on its head when the former President visited New Delhi last month and received a warm welcome from Prime Minister Modi. But nearly four years ago, Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour breathed a sigh of relief when the common opposition secured victory in the presidential elections, ousting Rajapaksa. In fact, Mangala Samaraweera, the first foreign minister in the current administration, visited India just 10 days after the new Government was established in office. The visit included a meeting with Prime Minister Modi. Minister Samaraweera pledged a course correction of foreign policy during the meeting, and insisted that Sri Lanka would no longer view India as a threat. At the end of the highly cordial meeting, Samaraweera told the media later, Prime Minister Modi who had conducted the meeting in Hindi, had broken out spontaneously in English, to say: “India is yours, Mr. Minister.”
While the intervening three plus years may have resulted in a little discomfiture for New Delhi as Chinese investments and projects continue to pour into the island and the Government was forced to renegotiate and continue several Chinese projects it had denounced in opposition, the fact remains that India continues to wield significant influence with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government.
Unlike with the Rajapaksa Government, which seemed at one point really ready to undermine and jeopardize the country’s most crucial foreign relationship, the Unity Government remains flexible and sensitive to the concerns and appeals of its large neighbor. The decision of the Cabinet of Ministers to grant the contract for the construction of 28,000 houses in the North and East to an Indian led consortium, revoking a previous bid granted to a Chinese firm, is a recent case in point. India raised strong objections to the Government granting the 40,000 houses project to a Chinese contractor in the Tamil dominated North and East– and prevailed.
This relationship the Government had taken careful pains to restore, was not one it was willing to put on the line because of its internally simmering tensions. In a rare display of policy coherence and unity, the Government pulled together to deny the report, even though blame was cast domestically at different sections of the coalition for ‘leaking’ cabinet discussions. But what became abundantly clear in the aftermath of the major diplomatic kerfuffle was that the Government remains wholly unschooled in the art of the denial, with each agency scrambling over each other to clarify the statement, and slipping into the usual practice of blaming the messenger for the diplomatic storm that ensued, by indicating malice on the part of the reporter and the respected Indian newspaper in question.
The Cabinet meeting was a particularly explosive affair last week after the UNP and the SLFP sparred on the decision to allow an Indian Joint Venture on the upgrading of the Colombo East Container Terminal (ECT). Ports Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe strongly opposed handing over operations to an Indian company, and he was strongly backed by President Sirisena, who insisted the Terminal should be run by the local operator, the Sri Lanka Port Authority. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who was well aware of commitments made to New Delhi in this regard and the country’s sensitivity with regard to Chinese dominance in the Sri Lankan ports sector, insisted that this commitment should not be reneged upon.
It was particularly problematic for the discussion to arise on Tuesday, just 48 hours ahead of his departure to New Delhi for a three-day official visit that was expressly aimed at discussing Indian assisted development projects and investments in Sri Lanka. Premier Wickremesinghe had displayed significant irritation at the Cabinet meeting, sources told Sunday Observer, and was uncharacteristically terse with his responses to the concerns raised about the ECT. In a press conference held last week Minister Samarasinghe confirmed the tense exchange, saying the SLFP was adamant that the East Terminal would not be leased to India under any circumstances.
Last week’s Cabinet troubles came in the backdrop of growing tensions within the ruling alliance, after claims that President Sirisena was in talks with his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa to form a caretaker Government, by ousting the UNP. In the past two weeks, these discussions appear to have fizzled out, with a majority of the SLPP and large sections of the SLFP still loyal to President Sirisena not in favour of the move.
The confusion over the ‘dissolution’ of the director boards of the two state banks, and the Board of Investments by the President, – both subjects coming under senior UNP ministers put the tensions further on display. Coalition politics is never an easy road. Last week however, was a case study in just how messy and complicated they can be, and how far the implications of those tussles can go.