The SL outcome of US returning to South Asia
9 months ago
BY Saeed Naqvi Whatever the aspirations of the protestors in Sri Lanka, the chaos they created has caused the appearance of a messiah in the form of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For the IMF to be effective, it needed a government it could vibe with. That there could not have been a better choice in this regard for the job of Prime Minister than United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe became as clear as daylight the moment he was sworn in. “Wickremesinghe’s appointment and the quick formation of an inclusive government are the first steps in addressing the crisis and promoting stability. We encourage meaningful progress at the IMF and long-term solutions that meet the needs of all of Sri Lanka.” This instant approval of Wickremesinghe was by US Ambassador Julie Chung. She knows Wickremesinghe as someone who has always been supportive of the American presence in Sri Lanka in every shape and form. He clashed with then-President Maithripala Sirisena, who was not inclined to sign the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact and the status of forces agreement (SOFA) exactly as the Americans wanted. There can be no better candidate for such abject surrender than someone as politically weak as Wickremesinghe. His UNP was decimated in the last elections and he did not win a single seat. “This is farcical democracy, with the military on the roads and people under curfew as the new Prime Minister is sworn in,” wrote activist and social scientist, Dr. Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake. Wickremesinghe’s appointment has been greeted with dismay across the board. For political oxygen, he was seen prostrating before the hawkish Sinhala clergy, who would bless the US presence to eliminate the Chinese presence from the island. China is on their (the Sinhala clergy’s) wrong side because of Tibet. This wing of the clergy is also happy with India for having created the Union Territory of Ladakh by bifurcating Kashmir. There were celebrations in their viharas (temples) when the union territory was created. This is all part of the comeback that the US is staging in South Asia after the excruciatingly painful debacle in Afghanistan in August 2021. Even that may not have been such a humiliating retreat in retrospect. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisor Valery Fadeyev told me as much in the course of an hour-long Zoom interview recently. “Who knows,” he said. “The US may have simply transferred power to the Taliban.” Sometimes, political shifts alter geography as well. After 1947, Indian diplomacy, to a large extent, consisted of neutralising Pakistan everywhere. With the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the geography of South Asia changed. India became a large country surrounded by small ones. These countries, in concert, began to balance power by flourishing a Chinese card in their pocket. It was to neutralise this card that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as the Indian External Affairs Minister, made what he thought would be an epoch-defining visit to China in 1979. Then-Chinese Leader Deng Xiaoping had other priorities; he had just launched his four modernisations in 1978. A somewhat charged up Xiaoping decided to “teach Vietnam a lesson” in 1979, the same year as Vajpayee’s visit. The visit was something of a disaster. Later, several Prime Ministers, including Vajpayee, visited Beijing, China. Bilateral relations were up and down, but the border issue, viewed from two different perspectives, remained insoluble. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-1991 provided the US with its sole superpower moment. Then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s economic reform from 1991 onwards brought India in line with the US on many issues. It is forgotten that incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival in Gujarat, India, on 7 October 2001, to take over from Keshubhai Patel, coincided with the US fireworks in Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. It electrified the Hindutva. Islamophobia was the flavour of the season when the Godhara disaster leading to an anti-Muslim pogrom of February 2002, happened. There was perfect harmony between the US President George W. Bush-British Prime Minister Tony Blair Islamophobia and India’s communalism. Intelligence agencies kissed each other and became chums, sharing or creating data on terrorists. The US began to look in weak health after the collapse of the Lehman Brothers in 2008. What magnified American decline was the corresponding rise of China. With diligence and with Chinese help, Putin built Russia up to the power which it is today. The China-Russia declaration of “friendship without limits”, set the cat among the pigeons in the Western camp. Just about this time came the humiliating images from Afghanistan. The American century was a pipedream. The US was in retreat. Even steady camp followers like India began to cultivate other options. Yes, India was in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, but then what is this exclusive Anglo-Saxon club called Australia, the UK, and the US? How reliable is the US? India’s balanced votes in the United Nations (UN) regarding Ukraine are clear indications of diminishing faith in a policy of relying too much on one power. The image of a tennis racket comes to mind to understand how New Delhi may have felt when the US left Afghanistan. Imagine the wiring of the racket as Afghanistan, where once the American presence gave New Delhi comfort. The Taliban-Pakistan nexus was the Indian nightmare. Post the American departure, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Russia are all peering into Afghanistan. India is somewhere at the throat, joining the shaft to the rim or the frame. The US has gone beyond two oceans. This altered geography was disconcerting, a pressure on New Delhi to live in peace with its neighbours, even the ones with border issues. Pakistan is part of India’s internal politics, just as India is part of Pakistan’s. India needs communal temperatures on tepid heat for the national mood to be boosted to a feverish pitch when required by, say, a Balakot. Remember that “Love Jihad”, beef, hijabs, and stone-pelting from mosques keep the mood in a saffron hue. The national mood is galvanised only when communalism is tied to nationalism. In other words, for big game hunting, Kashmir and Pakistan are required as issues. The settlement of Kashmir or peace with Pakistan is not in India’s interest, at least not until 2024. So India is relieved that the Americans are making a comeback in South Asia – first Pakistan, now Sri Lanka, and more likely to follow suit. The people in these countries can stand in long queues until eternity, because there is neither food in the shops nor petrol in the pumps. (The writer is an Indian academic and journalist. This article first appeared on The Milli Gazette on 13 May 2022) ………………………………………….. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.