Colombo, January 24 (The New Indian Express): Taranjit Singh Sandhu, the new High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka, presented his credentials to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena here on Tuesday.
Among those present on the occasion were Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and the Deputy High Commissioner of India, Arindam Bagchi.
High Commissioner Sandhu is a career diplomat with nearly thirty years of experience. Prior to his current assignment, he was Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of India in Washington D.C. He had earlier served in Indian Missions in Moscow, Kiev, Washington D.C., Colombo, New York and Frankfurt, besides discharging various responsibilities at the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.
An alumnus of St.Stephen’s College in Delhi, Sandhu headed the Political Wing in the High Commission in Colombo from December 2000 to September 2004.
2000-2004 was an exciting period in the recent political history of Sri Lanka marked by political instability, a looming threat from militant Tamil separatism, and a divisive, foreign-brokered peace process.
On return to Sri Lanka now, High Commissioner Sandhu will see a very different alignment of political forces. He will also see the machinations of a new external force- China- which is threatening to supplant India and the West as a force in the island.
Divisive Peace Process
After the December 2001 parliamentary elections, there was a “cohabitation government” in Sri Lanka in which the principle partners were the directly elected Executive President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, belonging to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led Peoples’ Alliance (PA), and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who belonged to the rival United National Party (UNP). While President Kumaratunga had over-riding constitutional powers, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe enjoyed majority support in parliament.
But as feared, they could not pull together. The President and the Prime Minister were sharply divided on economic management, the way in which the Tamil problem should be approached, and the way the war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) should be fought.
In this midst of this stand off, in 2002, Wickremesinghe went in for a Norway-brokered Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE without taking the President on board first.
Expectedly, the CFA only widened the rift between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe. Kumaratunha opposed the CFA tooth and nail on the grounds that it was grossly weighted in favor of the Tamil rebels and that the Wickremesinghe regime was giving in to the Tigers’ outrageous demands meekly, thus seriously jeopardizing national security.
The conflict between the two government leaders came to a head in 2003 when the President Kumaratunga took over three critical ministries – Defense, Internal Affairs and Mass Communication. The farcical “cohabitation government” formally came to an end in April 2004 when a snap parliamentary election resulted in the defeat of the UNP.
The Sri Lanka Sandhu is coming to as High Commissioner of India is, however, a very different one. Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe had closed ranks to oust a common rival, Mahinda Rajapaksa, from the Presidency in January 2015. The SLFP and UNP are now part of a broad based “National Unity Government” with President Sirisena representing the SLFP and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe representing the UNP. Kumaratunga herself is outside the political structure but heads a government organization promoting post-war ethnic reconciliation.
The LTTE, which was source of discord between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe in 2002-2004, is no longer so after its decimation in 2009. The two leaders are expected to continue to be together to keep Mahinda Rajapaksa out of power.
But the alliance between the trio – Kumaratunga, Wickremesinghe and Sirisena- will have to be sustained and strengthened as keeping Rajapaksa out of the reckoning is not going to be easy. Rajapaksa’s popularity is increasing given the National Unity Government’s inability to deliver on promises. And although the top leaders of the government are putting up a show of unity in their formal and public utterances, internal discord is evident in numerous actions.
Entry of China
China entered Sri Lanka strongly after Eelam War IV ended in 2009 during the Presidency of Rajapaksa. It is now the biggest contributor to Sri Lanka’s post-conflict infrastructure development, sinking US$ 8 billion in big ticket projects. India’s investments and development assistance amount to about US$ 2.6 billion. Although a couple of big ticket Chinese investments have run into embarrassing controversies, China is still seen as an “all-weather friend” in Sri Lanka, while India is still not, despite its valuable help to defeat the LTTE and its post-war development assistance. India’s periodic lecturing about the need to devolve power to the Tamils to solve the ethnic problem does not go down well with the majority Sinhalese who think that devolution of power to an ethnic enclave will lead to secession.
(The featured picture at the top shows India’s new High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Taranjit Singh Sandhu, presenting his credentials to President Maithripala Sirisena)