By Rahul Sharma
The taxi driver ferrying me to the airport in Sri Lanka was pretty clear about why the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had chosen to stay away from the Commonwealth Summit in the capital Colombo this week.
“Your prime minister doesn’t like our president’s closeness to the Chinese,” he declared, as he sped over a spanking new expressway to the airport at Katunayake, a journey that once took nearly two hours but now has been reduced to about 25 minutes.
The taxi driver’s view was remarkably at odds with that of the Sri Lankan government, which is piqued by New Delhi’s decision to stay away after pressure from political parties in Tamil Nadu months ahead of a general election, which is likely to throw up another coalition government.
Sri Lanka is a vastly different place than what it was when a three-decade ethnic war ended in 2009 with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels who were fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils.
Prabhakaran was a feared man – god to some and terrorist to others – who led a bloody quest that ended tens of thousands of lives on the island, shattered the economy and wiped out most of the political leaders through use of suicide bombers.
There is now a government headed by a confident President Mahinda Rajapakse who, in his second term, is still riding a high after being declared a saviour of the majority Sinhalese community.
Military checkpoints have given way to sparkling pavements, restored buildings and shiny roads. There is a positive buzz around Colombo, where hybrid taxis and fancy cars jostle for space with Bajaj three-wheelers.
One of things that Rajapakse has done in the past few years apart from rebuilding the country is that he has seemingly sold his country to the Chinese, or so many Indians and Sri Lankans would like to believe.
Indeed, the Chinese are everywhere. They are doing what they are very good at – building new highways, bridges, airports, convention centres and ports that are making Rajapakse look extremely good at home. His beaming face looks down from large cutouts that adorn the sides of the new expressways that now connect Sri Lankan cities.
For a nation that witnessed various bloodbaths since the riots against minority Tamils back in 1983 triggered the long war, these are years of change and the Chinese are more than happy to participate in the development process by helping a president who is keen to build political equity for the long term. Indians, on the other hand, have held back to ensure that New Delhi’s domestic political constituency remains stable.
If Singh would have gone to Sri Lanka, he would have been driven on a brand new Chinese built airport expressway to a Chinese built and renovated convention hall for the summit. On the way he could have had a peek at a brand new Chinese-built shipping port in Colombo and many a Chinese restaurants and massage parlours that have sprouted across the capital.
If he went deeper south to Rajapakse’s home town of Hambatota, he would have seen another large port and another convention centre that the Chinese have built. The new highway to Galle on Sri Lanka’s southern tip and another to the eastern port city of Trincomalee also have a Chinese stamp. More importantly, there are more Chinese visiting the country than Indians.
The once disjointed country, broken by war, is now connected the way it was 30 years ago thanks to the Chinese. Are Sri Lankans unhappy about it? No, they aren’t. They appreciate what Rajapakse has done after winning a war his predecessors could not. And the lack of a strong opposition makes him a powerful leader to contend with.
And what is India, which once held sway over Sri Lankan politics and economy, doing about negating the increasing Chinese influence on the island? Precious little, to say the least. The Indian contingent is standing by the tracks watching the Chinese win a race that was once New Delhi’s to take, thanks to state-level politics that binds its hands.
Rajapakse is a grassroots politician who understands the pulse of his voters better than most in Sri Lanka; he also understands that while hobnobbing with the Chinese is beneficial, India can’ be wished away completely. He wants to stay engaged, but at his terms.
It’s a smart move. If things go wrong again in the Tamil-dominated north and east, he can happily put the blame on India’s door. If not, he can take the credit for working with India to help the minority. The south is not a worry for him – at least not yet – as that’s his majority Sinhalese political base.
The good news for India is that it is still appreciated among large chunks of a country which, like many others, could soon reach a point when it begins distrusting the Chinese.
The immigration officer at the airport says that Chinese were different from Indians and that the Indian prime minister’s participation in the Commonwealth Summit would have helped New Delhi earn critical brownie points against Beijing. “Your prime minister should have come,” he said, as he stamped my passport and waved me off with a wry smile.
Yes, the prime minister should have gone, if only to keep the tiny neighbour happy. Singh’s absence may not necessarily push the Sri Lankans deeper into the Chinese arms, but it would definitely make it slightly more difficult for New Delhi to do business with Colombo. Given its chaotic neighbourhood, India needs to keep its friends; not turn them into indifferent acquaintances.
(The columnist, a former newspaper editor, is President, Public Affairs, Genesis Burson-Marsteller and co-founder of Public Affairs Forum of India. He has a keen interest in China and Southeast Asia. Views are personal)