A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard outside the Presidential Secretariat building in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Photographer: Tharaka Basnayaka/Bloomberg)

Sri Lanka’s Pain Fuels Ugly Debate in India

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It is increasingly clear that the Easter Sunday blasts in Sri Lanka could and should have been prevented. Warnings about the group responsible, their intentions and even specific attackers were delivered well in advance. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have acknowledged that the information did not reach them and wasn’t acted upon.

The two men — and their respective parties — are still at loggerheads after a months-long constitutional crisis last year in which the former tried and failed to fire the latter. The president has attempted to exclude the prime minister from decisions over most national-security issues; a divided and confused Colombo establishment clearly contributed to the security breakdown.

No doubt this will become a factor in elections later this year: Former Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa — whose family, led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, dominated Sri Lankan politics till a few years ago — recently insisted in an interview with Bloomberg that the government was “never serious” about security and was “more concerned” about reconciliation after Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war.

Fair enough. In the elections already underway in next-door India, though, the attacks are adding more fuel to an already ugly politics of patriotism and national-security. And accountability is the last thing being discussed.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was swift to bring up the Sri Lanka attacks as a reason to vote for his Bharatiya Janata Party: A vote for the BJP, he said, was a vote to destroy terrorism of the sort Sri Lanka had suffered.

This feeds into the Modi campaign’s ongoing efforts to exploit high-octane nationalism. The BJP seized upon a confrontation with Pakistan in February to turn the national conversation away from its spotty economic record.

Since the BJP is actually in power, though, it can’t snipe from the outside as the Rajapaksas are doing. So BJP figures have essentially resorted to calling the opposition terrorist sympathizers.

The Congress Party’s fairly detailed election manifesto could have served to open an argument on the most effective way to balance welfare and economic growth. Instead, the BJP has zeroed in on the Congress’ proposal that some particularly draconian and illiberal laws be diluted. Modi’s finance minister, who you’d think would have had plenty to say regarding the opposition’s lack of fiscal mathematics, instead focused on calling their manifesto a “charter to weaken India” and an “agenda for balkanizing India.”

Other rhetoric has been much harsher than that to which Indians are accustomed. Modi’s right-hand man, BJP President Amit Shah, said this week that after an Indian air strike on Pakistan there was “mourning” in just two places: Pakistan and the Congress. This is a familiar charge: Before elections in Modi’s home state of Gujarat a couple years ago, Modi accused his predecessor as prime minister Manmohan Singh of a “secret meeting” with Pakistani diplomats, implying that the latter were seeking to influence the election results.

It has been absurdly easy for Modi and the BJP to make security into a major, if not the primary issue in the election. Unfortunately, this heated rhetoric seems to be considered an adequate replacement for any more rational response.

India’s February air strikes into Pakistan — in retaliation for an attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in troubled Kashmir — were seen in many quarters as influenced by electoral considerations. Crucially, there has been no accountability for the security failures that led to the convoy bombing. Kashmir is so heavily militarized that a sophisticated attack of that sort should have been prevented.

Unlike in Sri Lanka, nobody in New Delhi has taken responsibility for the original failure. It’s fine to talk about national security during a campaign. But the most important questions aren’t being asked: Why did the attack happen? Which group organized it and how did they build up their strength? How can other such attacks be prevented?

The coarseness of the current debate in India is not just a betrayal of the large part of the electorate that wants a clear discussion of bread-and-butter issues. It is frankly dangerous for national security itself. One hopes Sri Lanka will, over the next few months, have a more productive political dialogue than India has had.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”

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