Indian politicians sometimes have a way of conducting themselves that washes out everything good their own government may have done.
The latest to achieve join the ranks of such spoilers is Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt.
Speaking out of turn?
Speaking at a session in Gandhinagar on “Aatma Nirbharta in Defence,” Bhatt moaned that Sri Lanka was in such a bad economic crisis that its security forces were unable to pay even the nominal fees for training exercises in India.
Bhatt, who evidently lacks diplomatic etiquette, went on to share with the audience a gist of his understanding of what has gone wrong with Sri Lanka.
“When the management (of a country) is not right, it becomes like Sri Lanka… owing to the poor economic situation, they had to ask for aid (from other countries). The saddest part was their (Sri Lankan) army officers who came for training (to India) did not even have the means to pay the nominal fee. They requested that the fee be adjusted this year and (said they) would pay next year when they have the money.”
Since Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis came to the fore earlier this year, no Indian minister thus far had spoken anything so out of turn at a time India has gone out of its way to help a beleaguered Colombo.
Mean words dwarf India’s contribution
It will not be wrong to say that in the few sentences he uttered, Bhatt has poured water on much of the goodwill that India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have earned in Sri Lanka.
In just six short months, India provided a whopping $3.8 billion worth of aid to Sri Lanka – something never done in the case of any other country.
The critical help came at a time when Sri Lanka was tottering – without even basic essentials like food, fuel and medicines. Tens of thousands had taken to the streets against a regime that had let them down.
The Indian move won near universal admiration from Sri Lankans across the ethnic, social and political spectrum, like nothing before.
It did not escape even ordinary Sri Lankans that while China was eager to provide huge loans and build elephantine projects, the only country that came to their rescue with a huge heart during their distress was India.
So much so that one of the most perennially anti-India political outfits in Sri Lanka, the left-wing Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP or People’s Liberation Front) has begun making pro-India noises, raising many eyebrows.
The other day, JVP leader Aruna Kumara Dissanayake compared the quantum of help India extended in just six months to the little over $4 billion the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is tipped to provide over four years.
If not for India’s assistance, Sri Lanka would have badly suffered, the JVP leader acknowledged.
It is not that the JVP has shed its traditional suspicion of India. It is just that it has been forced to acknowledge the critical role India played when Sri Lanka was in doldrums.
A small slip can spoil the show
While opinion is divided in Indian strategic circles whether India should have done so much in such a short time for Sri Lanka, it goes to the credit of India’s political leadership that they did not brag about anything.
This is where Bhatt has spoiled the show.
Indians need to understand that our smaller neighbours are extremely sensitive to what India does (and doesn’t) and what its leaders say. Even a tiny slip can lead to India paying a heavy price diplomatically.
The Sri Lankan military, which has been under attack since 2009 for major violations of human rights in Tamil areas, is a key institution in that country. It is another matter that it has been accused of killing both innocent Sinhalese and Tamils at different points of time.
It is the military which, by non-interference, made all the difference when thousands in Sri Lanka overran the President’s House in July, forcing Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country.
But when street protests continued even after that and with a tinge of violence, the military made it clear that they will not tolerate more anarchy.
Such a military would have hardly felt comfortable telling the Indian establishment that they were unable to pay for their training. But when they made the admission, little would they have realized that an Indian minister would not only make their predicament public but use it to flag it as an important sign of the mess that Sri Lanka is in today.
Sri Lanka remains in economic and political turmoil. President Ranil Wickremesinghe is under enormous pressure – from various quarters.
This is a time when India must act with tremendous sensitivity. One hopes the Prime Minister will pull up the errant minister and reiterate to all his colleagues not to speak on issues concerning other, particularly neighbouring, countries just because they have access to certain information due to their official status.