(Nirupama Rao, a former Foreign Secretary, was India’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. She is the author of The Fractured Himalaya: India Tibet China 1949 to 19aaa62, Penguin Viking, 2021)
India is Sri Lanka’s only neighbour. It follows that what happens in Sri Lanka, especially if it involves the suffering of Sri Lankans, concerns India. The numerous ties that bind the two countries are too myriad to enumerate in this column. Suffice it to say that Sri Lankans, whether Sinhalese or Tamil, are our first cousins removed only by the Palk Strait.
In geopolitical terms, Sri Lanka’s location is the pivot-literally that cockpit guarding prime navigaton routes, that key neighbourhood watch-over the vast expanse of the southern Indian Ocean.
Conversely, from Sri Lanka, the southern Indian pen-
insula is within touching distance, which is why any talk of Chinese infrastructure projects in the northern part of the island is strategic anathema to India. India has reached out to Sri Lanka in response to Colombo’s distress signals and our help has been timely and provided some relief to a beleaguered people. The political situation in the island is however not amenable to such first-aid solutions.
Sri Lankan democracy has been weakened in recent vears by political corruption operating at the highest levels of government, a miasma of autocracy coupled with misquided and error-prone governance and gross financial mismanagement.
The people are hurting and the pain is widespread in a
manner unseen since independence in 1948. Even the dreadful civil war years never saw such a collapse of the body
functions of the state.
As first responder through Sri Lanka’s recent history, India cannot obviously abandon family. Sri Lanka is family. The Chinese, who have no ability to crisis manage or provide solutions to ease the pain of Sri Lankans, are twiddling thumbs, waiting for the next opening for their unique brand of extractive diplomacy.
Whether the ruling Rajapaksas, known for their panda-hugging ways in the past, have learnt lessons from their policy and governance failures coupled with China-wooing to bait India, is the question. Their unpopularity is manifest.
India must guard against being identified in the eyes of ordinary Sri Lankans as propping up an unpopular regime whose legitimacy is increasingly being questioned on the streets.
India will have to continue helping Sri Lankans now.
Ours must be a drive to win people’s hearts
Opposition unity is the needof the hour but remains illusory. Ultimately, solutions to Sri Lanka’s current existential crisis have to be found within that island nation. The aftermath of a deadly civil war did not provide the requisite healing to unite a divided polity and nation.
Majoritarian politics has played the proverbial serpent in Sri Lanka’s Eden for several years now. That, coupled with flawed
governance and leadership, has inflicted grave damage to what was once a country of great potential.
Too much of our neighbourhood situations todav are defined by the scarcely camouflaged rivalry between India and China. It is exploited mostly by our neighbours, who have done little homework about the fallout on their own countries of such wanton abetting of power politics.
The Rajapaksas were masters of the game, but their hubris and incompetence have combined to melt their wings. Their fall is an object lesson that ultimately what people want is freedom from want,economic stability and a government that assures security in their daily lives.
The Sri Lankans are paying a heavy price for the grave shortcomings of their elected leaders. Their troubles will not be mitigated in the short term. Any IMF bailout will come with strict conditionalities and stringent spending restrictions. India will have to continue to lend a helping hand. Ours must be a concerted drive to win people’s hearts.
India alienated itself from the people of Sri Lanka on
both sides of the ethnie divide during the bitter years of the civil war. There is now an opportunity to redress those grievanc-
es through a carefully calibrated and sensitively deployed people’s diplomacy.
Any impression, however misplaced, in Sri Lankan minds that India is propping up a deeply unpopular leadership has to be scrupulously avoided.India’s Sri Lanka policy faces an acid test. There is no margin for error because Sri Lanka, though a small country, is too big in terms of our strategic interest to fail.
Ultimately, family is family. The Sri Lankans are family.