External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s three-day visit to Sri Lanka was significant not for any specific outcomes but for what was achieved in political and diplomatic messaging by both sides. Jaishankar’s reminder in Colombo that the 13th Amendment is essential to ethnic reconciliation came at a time when powerful Sri Lankan politicians close to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, are calling for its scrapping. The cancellation of elections to the provincial councils, apparently due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, is being viewed as a first step towards this end. Jaishankar’s message, that India still sees the 1987 amendment — the constitutional basis for the provincial councils — as central to addressing Tamil political aspirations came within days of a statement by the DMK’s T R Balu, just as Tamil Nadu hits its election season, asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ensure that the provincial council system remains intact. Sri Lankan Tamils themselves no longer set that much store by India’s or Tamil Nadu’s pronouncements on their problems. Delhi’s waning influence in Sri Lanka is an open secret. Yet, it would be a diplomatic and political embarrassment for the Narendra Modi government if the 13th Amendment was indeed abolished.
Delhi’s other challenge in Sri Lanka at this point is to operationalise a 2019 agreement to develop along with Japan a container terminal at Colombo Port, where China has a controlling stake in the adjoining Colombo International Container Terminal. The India-Japan-Sri Lanka agreement had triggered a strike at the port ahead of last year’s parliamentary election, resolved only after assurances from the Rajapaksa brothers that it would not be handed over to foreign developers. During the EAM’s visit, the prime minister and president sent out mixed signals amid calls not to let the port fall victim to geopolitical rivalries in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka, for its part, has two main demands from India at this time. One, it wants supplies of the anti-COVID vaccine. Its other request for a $1 bn currency swap has been pending since last year. India has already said it will prioritise vaccine supplies to its neighbours and should have no problem in accepting Rajapaksa’s request quickly on humanitarian grounds — it can only help Delhi’s image in that country. As for the currency swap, its use as a bargaining chip can last only as long as Colombo does not look elsewhere for help.
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