Is India attempting to restore its political equations in Sri Lanka?

The country’s recent overtures to the left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Ceylon Workers Congress suggests so.

Published : Feb 22, 2024 00:11 IST - 6 MINS READ

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar with JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in New Delhi on February 5.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar with JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in New Delhi on February 5. | Photo Credit: ANI

When it comes to relationships with political parties in Sri Lanka, India is playing bhogi: that is, throwing out the old and ringing in the new. The recent overtures to the left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) are an indication of what is in store. Gone are the days when the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) were the preferred partners in the Sinhala heartland and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was the preferred Tamil political party.

In an unprecedented move, India has extended a hand of friendship to the JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the most popular Sri Lankan leader since the people’s uprising in 2022, through an invitation to visit the country. Despite his known anti-India stance, Dissanayake accepted the invitation and led a team from the coalition he heads, the National People’s Power (NPP), to New Delhi from February 5 to 10. By all accounts, the red carpet was rolled out in the Indian capital, much to the surprise of some politicians in Sri Lanka.

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After his meeting with Dissanayake on February 5, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar posted on X: “A good discussion on our bilateral relationship and the mutual benefits from its further deepening. Also spoke about Sri Lanka’s economic challenges and the path ahead.”

Dissanayake too recorded most of his meetings in India on X. After meeting National Security Adviser Ajit Doval on February 5, he posted: “At this meeting, we discussed regional security and bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and India.” He also posted a two-and-a-half-minute video of his first visit.

On his return from New Delhi, Dissanayake, in a bid to cater to his constituency, claimed that the party had not moved away from its core principles. “No powerful nation or corporate in the world can buy us, though they can buy Mahinda Rajapaksa. The fact that we visited a country and met its leaders doesn’t alter our political or economic views,” he told a press conference on February 12.

Highlights
  • India extended an invitation to Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to visit the country.
  • There appears to be a definitive affection for the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) too over the TNA and other political parties of the Northern and Eastern provinces.
  • The Indian outreach to the JVP comes on the assumption that a national election will be held in the later part of this year, and the presidential election will follow.

The JVP, which is curiously ethnocentric for a party that adheres to the communist ideology, was responsible for two of the bloodiest uprisings in the history of the Sri Lankan state: in 1971 and 1988-89. It has also proclaimed its anti-India stance often enough so that no one in Sri Lanka is in any doubt about what the priorities of the party are. The JVP was responsible for torpedoing the main component of the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement, which had sought a merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where Tamils made up the majority.

On the basis of a fundamental rights petition filed by three JVP MPs in the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, a full bench, on October 16, 2006, ruled that the proclamation made by the then President, J.R. Jayawardene, merging the Northern and the Eastern provinces into one administrative unit “infringes the limits which Parliament itself had ordered”. In effect, the JVP single-handedly shot down the Indian plan to achieve limited autonomy for Tamils living in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

New Delhi’s sudden move

New Delhi’s sudden embrace of the JVP is in sharp contrast to what it did during the difficult second presidential term of Mahinda Rajapaksa (post-2010). After the China-leaning Rajapaksa called for early elections, India reached out to elements in the SLFP and the UNP in a bid to help the opposition. Although India did not publicly claim credit for this, in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, the demand of the then Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for the recall of the Indian Research and Analysis Wing station chief was interpreted as proof of electoral interference on the part of India. This was when the Narendra Modi government was in power. A prominent Sri Lankan politician, who did not want to be named, wondered if India was taking a step “in haste” before understanding the true picture in the island nation.

In the case of the Tamil political parties, there appears to be a definitive affection for the CWC over the TNA and other political parties of the Northern and Eastern provinces. In fact, CWC leaders Senthil Thondaman, who is now a provincial Governor, and Jeevan Thondaman, who is a minister in the government, are often seen with Indian leaders as well as leaders in Tamil Nadu. For instance, on December 29, 2023, BJP president J.P. Nadda released a commemorative stamp on “200 years of Indian Origin Tamils” in Sri Lanka. Senthil was present at this function along with Tamil Nadu State BJP president, K. Annamalai. The previous month, Annamalai was in Sri Lanka for a function to mark the same event, organised by the CWC.

Commemoration of 200 years  of plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka by Senthil Thondaman, Governor of the Eastern Province; J.P. Nadda, BJP president; and K. Annamalai, Tamil Nadu party chief, at the BJP office in Delhi on December 30.

Commemoration of 200 years of plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka by Senthil Thondaman, Governor of the Eastern Province; J.P. Nadda, BJP president; and K. Annamalai, Tamil Nadu party chief, at the BJP office in Delhi on December 30. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

The TNA, a combination of Tamil political parties fighting for equal rights for the Tamil minorities, has been a dependable ally of New Delhi. So far, the Indian state’s distrust of the CWC leaders has been because they were always seen as “collaborators” or as part of the government; the TNA was never part of a government. CWC members have often complained to this correspondent that while India took great pains to help the northern Tamils, it was not doing enough for the CWC members, the hill Tamils, who are of Indian origin. This perceived discrepancy is perhaps being set right by the government’s current course correction.

Also Read | Sri Lanka election: Bumpy road ahead for India

In geopolitics, as in human relationships, it is important to remember history. More than a decade and a half ago, as it looked certain that the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was heading to wipe out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was literally in the wilderness, was in conversation with a few of us at The Hindu. On being asked if he would roll back the laws that conferred unfettered powers on the President, to the extent that elected Presidents were considered equivalent to god during their time in office, he thought for a moment and replied: “Let him amass all powers. One day, I will be President.”

Tourists at the historic Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in the central town of Kandy on February 7. The economy of Sri Lanka is recovering from a financial crisis.

Tourists at the historic Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in the central town of Kandy on February 7. The economy of Sri Lanka is recovering from a financial crisis. | Photo Credit: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP

Wickremesinghe is now President, with most of those powers of the executive presidency intact. The Indian outreach to the JVP comes on the assumption that a national election will be held in the later part of this year, and the presidential election will follow. The Presidential Media Division has also announced that the elections will be held as scheduled.

Wickremesinghe has not forgotten that he suflfered a humiliating defeat in the last election and that his party barely got the votes needed with which he nominated himself to parliament via the national list. Even though the Supreme Court is not a rubber stamp, the wily Wickremesinghe, a staunch ally of Mahinda’s SLPP and who legitimately claims credit for the feel-good factor in the improvement in the economy, will hold an election only on his terms.

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