Former President Maithripala is an environment-friendly president. He went to attend a conference in Goa, India in October 2016 with high hopes. He wanted to stop India’s proposed ‘Sampur’ power plant in Trincomalee without hurting India’s feelings. The proposal to build this power plant was brought by the Congress government which was in power in India. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of the Congress government, had pointed out the importance of building this power plant to the then head of state of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, several occasions.
Sri Lanka and India signed an agreement for this on December 29, 2006. The project was delayed due to the North-East War, and after the end of the war, Manmohan Singh’s government showed great interest in starting the project. But Mahinda’s government postponed it and disrupted the project. When Modi came to power in India, the Sampur plant was one of the main issues between Sri Lanka and India.
When the pro-India Maithri-Ranil government came to power in 2015, the Indian bureaucracy hoped that the Sampur power plant project would be started. Maithri wanted to stop sampur because they were damaging the environment. He went to India to attend the Goa conference and travelled to Goa by plane with Modi. He explained the environment issue to Modi while on the plane. Modi understood that and agreed to stop the project. Maithripala came back to Sri Lanka and showed it as his victory.
It is not Maithri’s victory but Modi’s way of dealing with neighbouring countries. Modi is not dealing with Sri Lanka the way Gandhi dealt with Sri Lanka. The lesson JR’s government learned from Gandhi when it tried to lease the Trincomalee oil tankers and port to a Singaporean company is an unforgettable lesson. If JR’s government did not agree to the Indo-Lankan pact, there was a danger of losing the north-eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Since Chandrika’s government, in Sri Lanka was pressurised by the Congress government to give 13 plus to the people of the north of Sri Lanka. Mahinda’s government was pressured to sign the Etka agreement and start the Sampur power plant project.
Unlike in Sri Lanka, when governments change in India, the policies followed in relation to neighboring countries do not change. After the Congress government was defeated and Modi came to power, the Indian bureaucracy put pressure on Sri Lanka regarding the ethnic issue and projects in the north.
However the pro-Indian Maithri-Ranil government came to power but did not give 13 plus. Etka was not even signed. Sampur didn’t even start. Modi brought a proposal to develop the Eastern Terminal of Colombo Port when the Indian bureaucracy was negotiating with Sri Lanka to implement these. It was also not approved by the Maithri-Ranil government. 2019 President Gotabaya initially agreed to give the eastern terminal to India’s Adani company but later changed it.
From all these, it can be seen that, while dealing with Sri Lanka, that Sri Lanka has cheated India on many of India’s demands, even though it gave India projects like oil tanks in Trincomalee. If a Congress government were in power in India today, there is no doubt that the economic crisis in Sri Lanka would have created an opportunity to teach Sri Lanka a lesson. But luckily for Sri Lanka, the Modi government is in power in India. Even though Sri Lanka cheated India, the Modi government continues to help Sri Lanka.
The Congress government is more willing to deal with Sri Lanka using hard power. Modi’s government is more willing to use soft power to deal not only with Sri Lanka but also with other neighboring countries. That is why when Ranil became president and allowed a Chinese spy ship to come to Hambantota, India continued to support the restructuring of Sri Lanka’s debt. But what Sri Lankan governments don’t know is what will happen if they play with Modi’s soft power. If Modi is going to use hard power while dealing with Sri Lanka, Modi’s hard power is more dangerous than Congress’ hard power.
By Upul Joseph Fernando