New Delhi’s arrogance putting our neighbours off?

Sri Lanka suddenly cancelled an agreement with India for developing the East Container Terminal of Colombo Port. Colombo’s decision exposes the ineffectiveness of Indian diplomacy in its backyard

New Delhi’s arrogance putting  our neighbours off?

S N M Abdi

Subramanian Swamy’s post Budget barb: "Petrol Rs 93 in Ram’s India, Rs 53 in Sita’s Nepal and Rs 51 in Ravan’s Lanka" contrasts the fiscal policies of the Narendra Modi government with neighbours. But no less worrying is New Delhi’s current geo-political, security and strategic equilibrium with Colombo and Kathmandu.

Our arrogance is at an all-time high despite the PLA occupying 1000 square km of our territories along the LAC, according to The Hindu, and the China-Pakistan conjunction posing an unprecedented military threat as our defence preparedness is hampered by a COVID-19-ravaged economy.

Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali was in New Delhi in mid-January – the first minister level visitor since bilateral relations nosedived in April-May – but Modi refused to meet him apparently to demonstrate that he hasn’t forgiven Nepal for showing Indian territories inside its redrawn map.

Simultaneously, we rejected Gyawali’s plea to discuss the territorial dispute citing another mechanism for resolving land issues. Modi’s refusal to grant Gyawali an appointment angered Kathmandu because Prime Minister Oli recently held long meetings with three Indian officials – RAW chief, Army chief and Foreign Secretary - and Gyawali’s status as a cabinet minister is higher, according to protocol.

It is now crystal clear that we want Nepal to rub its nose in the dirt, express profound regret with folded hands, and say loudly enough for the whole world to hear that it’s extremely sorry and would never again make the mistake of claiming India’s land.

But pride – invariably – comes before a fall. Last week, in a massive blow to New Delhi’s prestige and self-esteem, Sri Lanka suddenly cancelled an agreement with India for developing the East Container Terminal (ECT) of Colombo Port.

It’s also a debacle for the private-sector port operator firm – a favourite of the Modi government – which India nominated to execute the project. But Colombo is undeterred by the firm’s close ties with Modi-BJP, which adds an altogether different dimension to its defiance of ‘Big Brother’.

Evidently, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – brothers who captured power in 2019-20 encashing Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism much like the BJP’s milking of Hindutva – are not overawed by New Delhi. Colombo’s decision exposes the ineffectiveness of Indian diplomacy in its backyard. How hard Ajit Doval and S. Jaishankar lobbied for it during their November 2020 and January 2021 visits to Colombo respectively, is not a state secret.

In May 2019, during the so-called India-friendly regime of Ranil Wickremesinghe, an MoU was signed between the Sri Lankans, Indians and Japanese to develop the ECT. India, which nominated the Gujarat-based company, and Japan had 49% stake with the Sri Lankan government’s 51%.

After the regime change, the Rajapaksas who have openly accused “the embassies of India and US” and specifically Doval of masterminding their defeat in 2014, got port workers unions owing allegiance to them to go on a strike in July 2020 against “selling off” the ECT to India.

It elicited a governmental assurance that the MoU would be reviewed. But even as ultra-nationalist fervour swept the island nation and China’s grip tightened with the return of the Rajapaksas, New Delhi kept reminding Colombo to honour the MoU. The Indian officials left no stones unturned, largely because of the Gujarat-based group’s stakes.

The unkindest cut is that India was led up the garden path. The Rajapaksas probably adopted this strategy to subject the Modi government to the maximum humiliation and ridicule. Jaishankar did not utter ECT publicly even once during his January 5-7 visit, although it obviously topped his to-do list. Within a week, on January 13, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that India would develop the ECT and that he had convinced the port unions not to create any further trouble!

One can imagine Jaishankar’s sense of relief and achievement. The chairman of the India-nominated firm must have thanked Jaishankar and Modi would have patted his back for a job well done. But on February 1, Mahinda Rajapaksa suddenly pulled the plug.

Without any warning, he pushed India and its nominee out of the ECT project, and announced that Sri Lanka would develop it without any foreign collaboration. A stunned New Delhi called the decision “unilateral” and rejected the compensatory offer to develop Western Container Terminal instead.

Importantly, India’s loss is China’s gain. The Rajapaksas wear their allegiance to Beijing on their sleeve, despite their ‘India First’ policy on paper. The main reason for India’s desperation to bag the ECT project is its close proximity to the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT), in which China has 85% stake with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority’s 15%.

But China did not want India within sniffing or prying distance. It can be deduced that China influenced the Rajapaksas to shove India out of ECT. Their alignment with China was evident during Mike Pompeo’s Colombo visit in October 2020. Each time Pompeo attacked China from Sri Lankan soil, he was promptly snubbed by the Rajapaksas. There is no other instance of a visiting US Secretary of State getting a mouthful from his hosts.

And to rub salt in India’s wounds a week after pushing it out of ECT, Sri Lanka has awarded a $12 million contract to a Chinese company for solar energy projects on three islands barely 45 km from Rameswaram. New Delhi had specifically told Sri Lanka not to allow any Chinese firm so close to India. India also made a bid but Sri Lanka said it was not competitive and awarded the contract to Chinese wind turbine manufacturer, Goldwind. And this month itself, Colombo will host Imran Khan who will address the Sri Lankan Parliament!

In Colombo, Jaishankar made the same old noises about Tamil rights and urged Sri Lanka to honour the 13th Amendment. But does any nation attach any importance to India’s lectures on minority rights anymore given the Modi government’s record? Jaishankar’s advocacy seemed to have the opposite effect.

On January 10, the Mullivaikkal War Memorial at the Jaffna University campus was pulled down. A day later, murder charges against ruling party MP Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, who had killed Tamil leader Joseph Pararajasingham, were dropped.

On February 4, Jaishankar informed Parliament that he had taken up with Colombo in the “strongest terms” the killing of four Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy. But M. Thambidurai of the AIADMK angrily retorted that the Sri Lankan Navy has killed 245 fishermen from Tamil Nadu so far. The high Indian casualty figures revealed by an MP in the Rajya Sabha might come as a solace to Bangladeshis who accuse the BSF of killing them like rabbits.

An assertive Sri Lanka, and to an extent Nepal, mirror present-day India. President Rajapaksa recently told a public rally: “I am a Sinhalese-Buddhist leader and I will never hesitate to say so. I am the leader the nation was waiting for since independence.”

He clearly wants to position himself as Buddhist Hriday Samrat – or king of Buddhist hearts. And Nepal’s PM is practising how to harness Hindu religion, especially Lord Ram, for political consolidation. Hence Oli’s damning assertion that Lord Ram was born in Nepal and not India - to turn the tables on Modi.

(The author is an award-winning investigative journalist and commentator)

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