By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham
Colombo, February 8: The five-day visit of National People’s Power (NPP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and his three comrades to India has drawn a flurry of attention in the political arena in Sri Lanka. It is commonplace for Sri Lankan politicians to make visits to India, but the visit of the leaders of the NPP to India has a special significance.
Dissanayake and his comrades were officially invited by the Government of India for discussions. Indian government leaders engaging in talks with Sri Lankan political leaders is nothing new. However, this must be the first time in recent decades that New Delhi has officially invited the leaders of a Sri Lankan leftist political party.
It is reported that the Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr. Subramaniam Jaishankar, National Security Adviser Ajith Doval and Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra discussed the Island nation’s economy, political situation, future politics and regional security with the NPP leaders.
After the meeting on Monday, Dr Jaishankar took to ‘X’ and said ” Pleased to meet @anuradisanayake, Leader of NPP and JVP of Sri Lanka this morning. 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.”
During the five-day visit, the NPP delegation toured Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat and the Communist Party-ruled South Indian state of Kerala and held discussions with various parties including think tanks.
It is very significant that at time when Sri Lanka prepares for two national elections later this year, the Indian government invited Dissanayake who has announced his candidature for the Presidential election and who is widely believed to have increased his popular support.
The Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), the flagship party of the NPP, has a history of not translating its impressive rhetoric and media dominance into votes in elections. People turn out in large numbers for its rallies and processions but don’t vote for it. However, it cannot be said that history will be repeated after the 2022 mass uprising called “Aragalaya” with its left wing overtones.
According to the January survey conducted by the Institute of Health Policy, a Colombo-based research institution, Dissanayake is the most preferred candidate in a Presidential election this year. Fifty percent of respondents said they would vote for him , while 33 percent of the respondents chose the Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa and only 9 percent chose President Ranil Wickramasinghe. The survey reiterated the findings of multiple local opinion polls conducted over the past year.
However it is very difficult to believe that Dissanayaka, who got only a 3 percent of the vote in the 2019 Presidential election, will be able to tremendously increase his vote base to cross 50 percent in the coming election. If he does it will certainly be a miracle not only in Sri Lanka but in the region as well.
In any case, it is clear that the Indian government sees the NPP as an important political force in the current political situation in Sri Lanka. As for the JVP, it has a history of adopting a rabid anti-India policy from its inception. Anti-Indianism was an important element in the policies of the JVP, which was started by Rohana Wijeweera in the late 1960s after breaking out of the pro-China Communist Party led by the Late N.Shanmugathasan on communal grounds.
Wijeweera described the Upcountry plantation workers of Indian origin as India’s fifth column and agents of Indian expansionism. He was also said to have talked about clearing the tea plantations and planting potatoes.
In the late 1980s, the JVP led a second armed insurgency following the Indo -Lankan Peace Accord. Many a southern politician who supported the provincial council system in the hope of finding a political solution to the protracted ethnic conflict was assassinated. Former President Chandrika’s husband actor turned politician Vijaya Kumaratunga was one of them. The JVP also called for a boycott of Indian goods.
After several years, the JVP contested the provincial council elections and its members served as members of these councils. At the same time the JVP and its modern avatar NPP have not given up their strong opposition to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
When President Wickremesinghe announced his intention to fully implement the 13th Amendment last year, NPP vehemently opposed it as the hard line Sinhala nationalists did.
The fact that New Delhi officially invited NPP leaders for talks shows, that India, in the current geopolitical context, is not bothered about their past anti-Indian policies.
The NPP has also changed its stance towards India. In an interview given by Dissanayake last December to the Colombo Correspondent of ‘The Hindu’, Meera Srinivasan, he said, ” We do know that India, our closest neighbour, has become a major political and economic centre. So, when we take economic and political decisions, we will always care about how it will impact India.”
What is noteworthy is how the leaders of the NPP, who have been maintaining close ties with China for a long time will deal with China after their visit to India.
In an interview with a Colombo-based English daily last week, NPP Member of Parliament Dr Harini Amarasuriya was asked how NPP would handle relations with the superpowers, particularly China and India.
She said, ” The ideal position for us to take is one where we are not aligned with any country but one which allows us to be open to every country. We must engage with a country based on an agenda that suits us. Whether it’s India, China or America, no other country is going to come and work with us or engage with us without an agenda. If we don’t have an agenda of our own, we will have to act according to their agenda.”
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the anti-Indian political forces in South Sri Lanka will take this opportunity to carry out a campaign against the NPP accusing it of being pro-India. People like Wimal Weerawansa have already shown signs of it. It remains to be seen how NPP leaders will handle that.
Can we expect any softening in the stance of the NPP regarding the political solution of the ethnic problem after their visit to India? It can be presumed that Indian officials would not have shown any interest in taking up the issues related to the ethnic problem with Dissanayake’s team.
While the visit to India is a major political and diplomatic victory for the NPP, many observers wonder whether it is prudent and appropriate on the part of India to consider NPP as a major political force in shaping Sri Lanka’s future.