Strategic ties vs domestic pressure: Khurshid's tricky Mission Lanka

When Salman Khurshid undertakes his first official visit to Sri Lanka (7-8 October) since becoming External Affairs Minister, he will be doing a tightrope walk in balancing India’s domestic political compulsions with strategic and foreign policy imperatives.

This will be a challenging diplomatic assignment for Khurshid as well as for the Congress-led UPA coalition at a time when the general elections are drawing nigh and the UPA government would not like to do anything that alienates or infuriates the Tamil parties. After all, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry send 40 MPs to the 543-member Lok Sabha.



On top of Khurshid’s agenda for his Mission Lanka must be the Thirteenth Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution aimed at devolution of power equitably at the provincial level in Sri Lanka. India has been pressing Colombo to implement, and even improve, the amendment as soon as possible but the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has been dragging its feet. The Thirteenth Amendment is important for India as it flows from the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.

This is what Minister of State for External Affairs Preneet Kaur had to say in parliament on 14 August 2013 about the Thirteenth Amendment:

There have been recent reports of plans by the Government of Sri Lanka to amend certain provisions of the Sri Lankan Constitution relating to the functioning of Provincial Councils. India has long advocated the creation of an environment in Sri Lanka in which all communities, particularly the Sri Lankan Tamils, are masters of their own destiny within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. Our objective continues to remain the achievement of a future for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka that is marked by equality, dignity, justice and self-respect. In this context, India has been engaged with the Government of Sri Lanka at the highest levels on its stated commitment to implement the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution and to go beyond, so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers.”

Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which recently registered a landslide win in the Northern Provincial elections, has also been demanding further improvement in the Thirteenth Amendment and a re-merger of Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces which were de-merged seven years ago following a Supreme Court order. For their part, Indian Tamil parties have been vying with one another in their efforts to exert pressure on the UPA government to nudge the Rajapakse government into giving the Sri Lankan Tamils their due as soon as possible.

It was because of such immense domestic pressure that the UPA government voted against Sri Lanka and supported a United States-sponsored resolution on human rights violations in the island nation before the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva in March this year.

The Indian move proved to be neither politically correct nor diplomatically wise as neither of the two sides India was trying to play a balancing act with – Indian Tamil parties and the Sri Lanka government – was happy with the Indian decision.

The DMK promptly announced it would pull out from the UPA government for doing a grave injustice to the Tamils by watering down the resolution and helping the Sri Lankan government by pushing new elements in the resolution.

The Sri Lankan government, which indeed was helped by India at the UNHRC, did not take India's covert help in the spirit India had hoped. Instead, Colombo squirmed and fumed at New Delhi.

To make matters worse for India from a larger strategic point of view, Pakistan voted in support of Sri Lanka and against the US-sponsored India-supported resolution. Though the resolution was eventually carried with 25 countries in the 47-nation UNHRC, Pakistan managed to walk away with crucial brownie points.

It is against this backdrop that Khurshid would be in Colombo on Monday for talks with his counterpart GL Peiris on the entire gamut of bilateral relations.

Sources in the Ministry of External Affairs, said issues relating to fishermen would likely be a major focus of discussions as the number of Indian fishermen arrested so far in 2013 exceeds the total number of fishermen arrested the whole of last year. India has been attaching high priority to the welfare, safety and security of fishermen and has been emphasizing on the need to address the issue in a humanitarian manner.

The discussions between the two ministers are also likely to encompass trade, investment and development cooperation. They will also address issues relating to the Sampur Thermal Power Project and aspects of Indian technical assistance to Sri Lanka.

Khurshid will also meet President Rajapaksa as well as leaders from across the spectrum of the Sri Lankan polity. He will visit Jaffna and review the ongoing development projects being undertaken there with Indian assistance, including a flagship project to provide 50,000 housing units to people displaced in the war. The housing project is being undertaken with full grant assistance of the Indian government with a total outlay of Rs 1372 crore (about $ 225 million at current exchange rates).

Khurshid’s visit also comes close on the heels of the successful culmination of elections to the Northern Provincial Council last month. India has noted the positive statements made by the TNA and the Sri Lankan government and expressed satisfaction that they had expressed willingness to work with each other for the progress of the people of the Northern Province.

During his visit to the Northern Province, Khurshid wil meet with the Governor and the Chief Minister. He will stress on meaningful political reconciliation with all the political stakeholders he will be interacting with.

India has much at stake, diplomatically and strategically, in its bilateral relations with Sri Lanka. Close ties between the countries go back to 2500 years.

In the recent past, India has deepened its strategic engagement with the island nation. India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon was in Colombo in July this year to attend the second NSA-level Meeting on Trilateral Cooperation on Maritime Security between India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Menon held intensive talks with his Maldivian counterpart Mohamed Nazim, Minister of Defence and National Security, and Sri Lankan counterpart Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Secretary, Ministry of Defence and Urban Development at the 8 July meeting. The first NSA-level Trilateral Meeting was held in Male on 1 October, 2011.

During the Second NSA-level Trilateral Meeting, the three sides discussed a wide range of topics including enhancing cooperation in Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through provision of Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) services, MDA training and Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS) software by India, sharing of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data; strengthening coordination of maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) including SAR training; promoting marine oil pollution response cooperation; expanding bilateral ‘DOSTI’ (friendship) exercises through holding of table top exercises; further enhancing sharing of the information on illegal maritime activities through existing points of contact; and forming a trilateral sub-group focused on policy and legal issues related to piracy.

This meeting confirmed a roadmap for future cooperation in all these areas. Here are some broad agreements that were agreed at this meeting:

1. Obtain the facility of the Indian LRIT Data Centre by Sri Lanka and Maldives in order to monitor and track Maldives and Sri Lanka flagged merchant vessels owned by them. Sri Lanka and Maldives are to provide required details as per International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations through diplomatic channels.
2. Utilisation of the Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS) for exchange of unclassified information on white shipping.
3. Strengthening maritime linkages in the field of Search and Rescue (SAR) including through SAR operations, providing expertise and technical assistance by India in setting up Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCCs) in Sri Lanka and Maldives, coordination in relaying and receiving distress alerts and safety messages, and, conduct of SAR training in India.
4. Strengthening mechanisms for Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surveillance and providing additional support and assets on a case by case basis.
5. Maintaining lines of communication on illegal maritime activities between identified Points of Contact and exchanging messages on a regular basis.
6. Passing Tsunami warnings simultaneously to agreed Points of Contact in addition to the designated National Tsunami Warning Centres;

Clearly, good relations with Sri Lanka are a must for India for managing the current maritime security environment in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). But given the recent tensions in the bilateral Indo-Sri Lankan engagement, as explained above, Khurshid has a Herculean task ahead of him.

It will be no less than an attempt to square the circles.

Updated Date: Oct 07, 2013 07:05 AM

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