Sri Lanka calls out for a lion-hearted leader

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A lion heart committed to democracy and against expansionist powers may yet emerge in Colombo, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat

The shark is a predator that presents a danger to the unwary. As are loan sharks. Millions of citizens in India have had to give away the family home and jewellery in order to satiate loan sharks from whom they sought financial accommodation. Many years ago, while still very young, this writer was walking on the lakeside in Kolkata and came across an elderly individual, one of the lenses in whose pair glasses was broken, politely asking for alms. His dress, although dirtied through continuous use and lack of cleaning, was the attire of a middle class individual.

When asked about why he was in a situation very different from that which he was seemed to have been born into, the reply was that he had fallen into the hands of a loan shark, who in the beginning seemed a caring friend. Money was freely given, stamp paper after stamp paper was signed without the victim ever glancing at the fine print, for after all, a friend would never cheat. Soon afterwards, the attitude of the loan shark towards his victim changed.

Police officers queue up for fuel at a fuel station in Colombo, Sri Lanka on June 30, 2022, as the country has been facing crippling fuel shortages. (Photo by Gayan Sameera_Xinhua_IANS)

Threats and abuse became commonplace, followed by physical violence that the local police seemed indifferent to, when asked by the wife and daughters to intervene. Ultimately, goons took over the home of the victim, and afterwards, local records showed that the place had been transferred to a nominee of the loan shark, at a price much in excess of what had been given as loan. Once thrown out of their home, his wife took their daughters to the home of her parents in a different town, while the victim himself was too ashamed to join them, preferring to eke out an existence seeking alms in a hesitant manner by the lakeside.

After a few weeks of living on the streets, he acknowledged that staying with his family at the home of his in-laws was a better option than the emotional decision he had initially taken to be on his own sans any money at all, and he would relocate there soon, once he had scrounged enough money for a rail ticket.

The problem facing Sri Lanka and the other countries that have fallen into the habit of drinking at the fountain of predatory loans given by the PRC is that there are few countries willing to play the role of its in-laws, now that bankruptcy and its attendant chaos has occurred. Most major democracies would balk at giving assistance to Sri Lanka, a country that has mortgaged its ports and other assets to a power hostile to many of them, and which shows no sign of reclaiming its sovereign rights.

It is unclear what form of government will be formed in Sri Lanka, but given its present parliamentary configuration, the new PM is unlikely to take the lion-hearted decisions needed to escape the ditch into which the country has fallen. The only way out of this crisis is to take back control of Hambantota and Colombo ports. Rather than be unhappy at the crisis in Sri Lanka, folks in Beijing may be looking towards scooping up huge amounts of physical assets across Sri Lanka in a distress sale, now that the country is in free fall.

Only a leadership that is not in any way beholden to Beijing would be able to assert its sovereign authority to (a) repudiate clearly unsustainable loans, and (b) seize assets taken over through 99-year leases by the PRC. This is feasible, provided the Quad stands by the island country and protects it from the PLA and GHQ Rawalpindi. While India, Japan and Australia are resolute in ensuring that Sri Lanka become another pillar in the evolving architecture of security of the Indo-Pacific, the US is witnessing an effort by a Europeanist State Department and NSC to wrest control of strategy in the Indo-Pacific from the Pentagon. Should that effort of the State Department succeed, the White House may be advised by a Russia-obsessed State Department to look askance at those in Sri Lanka striving to shed the coils of a loan shark but to China.

President Biden seems not to able to shed the mindset that he had while in the US Senate, despite the hugely changed circumstances facing the world and his country. His withdrawal from Afghanistan has emboldened those within the Central Military Commission who seek to follow the example of Russia in Taiwan, now that Washington and its NATO allies are enmeshed in a quagmire largely caused by their own faulty tactics.

The PRC is seeking to hold on to its illicit conquests at the expense of countries that favour a free and open Indo-Pacific. The betting in Beijing is that Biden (and therefore Kishida) will step back from militarily confronting the PLA on the field of battle, were China to follow the example of Russia and invade Taiwan.

The hesitant, cautious Biden won because his persona is the opposite of Trump’s, but having won, voters in the US wanted to witness a transformation in office of Joe Biden that has yet to occur. Politics in a democracy can work in welcome ways. Roosevelt and Churchill were thrown up as the leaders of their respective countries, US and UK, during wartime. Narasimha Rao became PM at the time when the Indian economy was stumbling towards what Sri Lanka has now become.

In 2014, Narendra Modi got the popular support needed to become PM in a country that had tired of the discriminatory policies of the UPA. A lion heart committed to democracy and against expansionist powers may yet emerge in Colombo, and if she or he does, deserves the assistance of India, the US, the EU and Japan as the new leader wrests back control of Sri Lanka’s destiny from a predatory power that conceals a gun behind its chequebook.

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