“During the extensive interview with him, he laid out a very good roadmap for progress and prosperity of your beautiful country. He was sincere and genuine in his intentions,” Nitin Anant Gokhale, one of South Asia’s leading strategic analysts, said in an interview with Sri Lanka Guardian. However, he concluded that “a combination of factors—some politically naive decisions by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (cut in VAT, fertiliser ban), circumstances (Covid-19 pandemic, skyrocketing fuel prices after February) and sins of commission and omission by his predecessor governments and family members—meant that a political novice like him could not cope with popular angst.”
While talking about India’s multiplied responses to the port call of the Chinese research vessel Yuan Wang 5 in Sri Lanka, he says that Sri Lankan “officials could have handled it better by informing India in advance about the ship’s programme and avoided a public discussion which would have prevented maximalist positions on all sides.”
Gokhale started his career in journalism in 1983. In the past 38 years, he has led teams of journalists across print, broadcast and web platforms. A specialist in conflict coverage, he has lived and reported from India’s North-east for 23 years, writing and analysing various insurgencies in the region, been on the ground at Kargil in the summer of 1999 during the India-Pakistan war, and also brought live reports from Sri Lanka’s Eelam War IV between 2006-2009. Gokhale is also a popular visiting faculty at India’s Defence Services Staff College, the three war colleges, India’s National Defence College, College of Defence Management and the intelligence schools of both the R&AW and Intelligence Bureau. He now owns and runs two important digital platforms, bharatshakti.in and StratNewsGlobal.com. His most recent books are Manohar Parrikar: Brilliant Mind, Simple Life and R.N. Kao: Gentleman Spymaster.
Excerpts of the interview;
Question: Certain Indian media channels are accusing Sri Lanka of being “ungrateful” to India by allowing Chinese research vassal Yuan Wang 5 to dock in one of the ports in the country. Being one of the most senior journalists on defence affairs, what’s your take?
Answer: I don’t Sri Lanka is ungrateful but its officials could have handled it better by informing India in advance about the ship’s programme and avoided a public discussion which would have prevented maximalist positions on all sides.
Q: Do you think that Sri Lanka has violated or dishonoured any agreement signed with India by allowing this Chinese vassal to dock in one of its ports?
A: If one assumes that the ship is a military vessel (India certainly regards it as one), then it violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord, which has mentioned not undertaking/allowing any activity on their soil which may be inimical to one another.
Q: On the other hand, many Chinese analysts think that “India regards Sri Lanka as part of its sphere of influence which is hegemonic ambitions toward Sri Lanka”. What is your take?
A: It’s ironic that analysts from a country that has expansionism as a policy and hegemonic tendency in its culture, should object to so-called sphere of influence. India is certainly a leading power in the region and would have legitimate interests in its immediate neighbourhood as all big powers including China have. So, the Chinese criticism is invalid
Q: One day before the arrival of this Chinese vessel, India was gifted a Dornier 228, maritime patrol aircraft manufactured in 1981, aiming to enhance the surveillance capability of Sri Lankan water. It is a milestone in the long-standing defence cooperation between the two countries. What are the major security threats that the two countries are facing at the moment?
A: Irrespective of the occasional bumps in the relationship, New Delhi will continue to help Sri Lanka wherever possible. The gifting of the Dornier is part of the long-standing defence cooperation between the two countries. The threats in the region are manifold as enunciated by the statements after every meeting of the Colombo Security Conclave, which again is a sign of robust defence and intelligence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka
Q: Last question Nitin; Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave you the first interview moment after assuming the presidency. In a little more than two years, he has to resign from his position due to popular protests. What do you think about his political journey? Is he a failed president? What factors do you think led India to reject his demands?
A: Over the years (since 2006) I have had several occasions to meet Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The interview he gave me in November 2019, was extensive and laid out a very good roadmap for progress and prosperity of your beautiful country. He was sincere and genuine in his intentions. Unfortunately, a combination of factors—some politically naive decisions by him (cut in VAT, fertiliser ban), circumstances (Covid-19 pandemic, skyrocketing fuel prices after February) and sins of commission and omission by his predecessor governments and family members—meant that a political novice like him could not cope with popular angst. His ouster was tragic. He, in my view, only has good of the country in his mind. But it was not to be!