Chennai: The ongoing three-day visit of Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Sri Lanka is replete with political symbolisms as much as the substantive discussions in the capital Colombo. With Sri Lanka facing the worst food and forex crises since Independence in 1948, Mr Shringla’s separate meetings with finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, foreign minister G.L. Peiris and his counterpart, Adm. Jayanth Colombage (Retd), all on Monday, assumes immediate importance for the hosts in particular.
It is Mr Shringla’s maiden visit to Sri Lanka after taking over as foreign secretary in January last year. But it is not unknown territory. As joint secretary in charge of Sri Lanka during a leg of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s two-term presidency (2005-15), he had known the issues and the decision-makers well. It is thus appropriate that he begins the business leg of his Colombo engagements with a courtesy call on Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is at present Prime Minister, and winds it up by calling on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday.
After landing in Colombo on Saturday evening, Mr Shringla began his nationwide tour on Sunday by offering worship at “Dalada Maligawa”, the “Temple of the Tooth” at Kandy, the traditional Sinhala royal capital. Here, Lord Buddha’s tooth-relic is the main object of obeisance for the nation’s Sinhala-Buddhist majority.
Mr Shringla then followed it up with a stopover at eastern Trincomallee, where he toured the two oil tank farms of Second World War vintage. Being operated by public sector Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), though not wholly yet, India is upset by periodic statements by some Sri Lankan hosts about imminent repossession. New Delhi does not want the tanks to fall into wrong hands -- China now as it was the US during the Cold War.
There is further political symbolism in Mr Shringla visiting Mr Jaffna, the capital of the Tamil majority Northern Province, on Sunday evening, when he is meeting with local government officials and Tamil leaders. Of greater significance is his separate meetings with Tamil political leaders, of both Sri Lankan ethnic stock and also those of recent Indian origin, in Colombo, on Monday. Given the complexities of intra-Tamil affairs in both regions, it will be an occasion for update, nothing more.
The real business is in Mr Shringla’s meeting with finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, given the current food and forex crises. That the visit is a follow-up on external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s discussions with his counterpart, Mr Peiris, on the sidelines of the recent UNGA session makes Mr Shringla’s official meetings that much more significant and urgent, for the hosts, to be precise.
No great decisions or declarations are expected at the end of the visit, as Mr Shringla’s job, it seems, is to give a patient and purposeful hearing to the hosts’ immediate requirements, and brief them about the possibilities and conditionalities, if any. But such conditionalities, one can surmise, will not hinge on China or other external factors. The taste of the pudding is in the eating, and the pudding, in this case, is expected to be cooked and served in the days and weeks after Mr Shringla’s return to New Delhi....