India Continues to be Our Closest Friend; Confident of Economic Recovery Soon, Says Sri Lankan PM Dinesh Gunawardena

A stalwart of Sri Lankan politics, 72-year-old Dinesh Gunawardena is known for his plain-speaking. He is a close confidante of former prime minister and president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and as the joint opposition leader, kept the opposition flag flying high during the regime of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe between 2015 and 2019.

By a quirk of fate, he is now the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka under President Wickremesinghe whom he fought for decades. Interestingly, both Gunawardena and Wickremesinghe studied together at Colombo’s prestigious Royal College more than 50 years ago. While Wickremesinghe is known as a free economy supporter, Gunawardena is a nationalist with socialist bent of mind.

Educated in the United States and the Netherlands, Dinesh Gunawardena is a trade union leader and a fierce fighter like his legendary father Philip Gunawardena, who is known as the father of socialism in Sri Lanka. Philip Gunawardena’s love for India and efforts towards freedom against imperialist occupation started in the early 1920s in the US.

He was a classmate of Jayaprakash Narayan and VK Krishna Menon at the University of Wisconsin where he advocated for freedom from imperialism in American political circles, and later led the Anti-Imperialist League of India in London.

But not many know that his family has close links to India and the entire family has strong pro-India leanings. The Prime Minister’s father Philip and mother Kusuma had snuck into India after escaping from Sri Lanka (then a British colony called Ceylon) during the Second World War.

They had joined the underground activists who were fighting for freedom and evaded arrest for some time. In 1943, both of them were captured by British intelligence who kept them at the Arthur Road jail in Bombay. After a year, they were deported to Sri Lanka and released only after the end of the war.

Speaking exclusively to Network18 at his office in Colombo, Dinesh Gunawardena advocated for strong India-Lanka ties and hoped the Sri Lankan economy will revive at the earliest.

Edited excerpts:

Mr Prime Minister, you have an old association with India. Your father and mother participated in India’s freedom struggle. How do you view India-Sri Lanka relationship as the Prime Minister?

The India-Sri Lanka relationship goes back centuries. We see our cultural and religious relations as the strongest foundation. We have had these connections and exchange of cultural events… religious events have contributed to strengthening it.

In both countries, citizen participation is huge. As you mentioned, the leaders of our freedom struggles over the last two centuries have had good relations and given strength to Sri Lankan movements. Sri Lankans have also gone to India to help. They became friends when they were studying or met as friends when they were abroad. Our education system prior to the Second World War was influenced by India. Most of the people went there for higher education, either to Bombay or Calcutta (now Mumbai and Kolkata) or other centres of learning.

…or Shantiniketan?

Oh yes, Shantiniketan! Our cultural heritage was linked to that great personality who was able to visit Sri Lanka – Rabindranath Tagore. He made an impression on the Sri Lanka population and gave them a lot of enlightenment, guided them on how to move forward in many fields. So Sri Lanka and India relations have that strong background.

Do you want India to do much more for Sri Lanka now?

We always look forward to India to do much more. I remember, my father, mother, and other Left leaders participated in the freedom movement of India and they were imprisoned in Mumbai (then Bombay). Their friends used to come to Sri Lanka. Comrades used to come and go, and Sri Lanka has requested India for help since its independence.

Sri Lanka has made special requests to develop industry or plantations or may be new investment areas, and India has been extending Sri Lanka the fullest cooperation, most of the time extending big amount of grants, loans and trade exchanges that kept Sri Lankan societies very much able to sustain whatever problems emerged be it drought, floods or economic crisis.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena speaks to Network18’s DP Satish at his office in Colombo. (Sri Lanka PMO/News18)

India has always been helpful in every people’s crisis in Sri Lanka. More recently, during Covid-19 and floods, India stood by us. Before that, the tsunami struck and India helped us rebuild. India extended maximum possible line of credit and loan, and assistance in oil and fuel sectors. That is very important. There has been tremendous support.

Our relations, as I said, have grown to economic system as well as investments. Whichever government has been in power in India, it has extended investment and development assistance, even training in India for our industry to grow in many areas. Sometimes they were the first opening to our industrial base, especially small industry and cottage industry. You know Sri Lanka and India had the same textiles. They used to wear the same clothes.

China is a very sensitive subject since India has a lot of issues with Beijing…

Sri Lanka has always been friendly with all Asian countries and established diplomatic relations with China long ago. Later, Sri Lanka followed India. But we have had friendly trade agreements with China and also religious ties. Buddhism is another common factor. Fa-Hien, the famous Chinese traveller, came to Sri Lanka and India, that too many centuries ago. It shows there was an early relation and China also has been extending support on the economic front during all governments.

Do you expect Indian corporates to invest more in Sri Lanka? Gautam Adani visited Sri Lanka last year and he is investing in renewable energy. Many other Indian companies are also investing. If I am correct, Indian CEOs in Sri Lanka met you last week.

Yes, I was very happy. It was another important exchange of discussions because Sri Lanka looks towards Indian investment. As I mentioned before, to increase the investment, Sri Lanka can open up now. We have had a lot of opportunities. Surveys are being done and we have been planning for years.

We have not developed our industrial sector much. We have to develop our industrial sector and we are also trying to reach the goal of self-sufficiency in food. Sri Lanka can achieve that on a planned basis because our farmers have also this great ability to shoulder and rebuild, just like India.

India is ahead of Sri Lanka in some areas and I ask the private sector in India to help because it has advanced in these areas. The meeting with the Indian industrial representatives was very positive in terms of how we could apply certain new information, technology, achievements in different sectors.

Sorry to say it but we are still slow to catch up. But now we are catching up and hope we could have joint or clear investments. Mr Gautam Adani has been wanting to invest in some fields in the port and renewable energy. He is most welcome. There are other Indian companies, who are involved in water management, water purification etc. We also look forward to tourism.

The Ramayana circuit is catching up and lots of international tourists are coming. How are you going to develop this sector?

It’s a very important sector. Sri Lanka must open up for more tourists from India. Airlines should increase the number of flights. In addition, we had this train service. But train and boat service are no longer in operation.

There was a boat mail from Madras to Colombo in those days.

Yes, Madras… now Chennai, from Talaimannar to Dhanushkodi. We used to go and see our friends when we were young students. These must be facilitated from both sides. This should make travel to Sri Lanka more comfortable for all those who are interested.

Are you going to develop Jaffna airport in a big way?

The Jaffna airport is being readied for the flights to come in. It will be developed for major airlines. The other possibility is having even larger passenger ships. There was a proposal. It started, slowed down and then stopped. Not just Sri Lanka, India will also attract tourists and investments.

India is a world leader in the IT sector and we are earning billions of dollars from IT exports to all over the world, especially to the Unites States. Sri Lanka has a young population, very well-educated. It’s almost a 100% literate country. So why don’t you develop IT sector in Sri Lanka?

This is a good suggestion. We have started with possible plans and training programs. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the highest priority to IT sector. There are areas where we can cooperate with India. And India has experience. We have key companies now working on this and we are also planning to expand. We can work together.

IT capital Bengaluru is just one hour from Colombo.

Yes, that’s correct. They can easily come here and work here. They can open their offices in Colombo. I remember going to Bengaluru 15 years ago to see the IT revolution. Unfortunately, we are very slow on our side. But now we are catching up. Our youth will catch up even with the West as western countries are working with them. These are big challenges we should take up. We have Bengaluru to back us. And we have fast-track investment procedures that some states in India also have. These are very important for Sri Lanka.

The President is committed and the government is committed to fast-track the areas of investment. I must mention that PM Narendra Modi has given special attention to revival programs for Sri Lanka’s all-round development.

When can we expect the economic recovery of Sri Lanka?

We are negotiating with the IMF and India is one of our biggest lenders. Sri Lanka has to work with India and other countries and also with the IMF. Discussions are on with the IMF at the moment. We hope we will be able to stabilise first. Thereafter, slow growth will take place.

Some of the sectors are now opening. On the plantation front, we look forward to Maha Maha season (northeast monsoon). Sri Lanka should be able to recover this winter. I won’t say too much of surplus, but we will be able to meet the demands as we have been discussing with the IMF, World Bank and other countries that have been investing.

Also, Sri Lanka has to repay. India has always been supportive of Sri Lanka. More investments we get into the country, the more it will help Sri Lanka in programmes that have been declared by the President.

Moving on to the current political scenario in Sri Lanka, is your government stable? There are rumours that early parliament elections may be called.

Parliamentary elections are being discussed by those who have been waiting for it. Those who don’t win would like to have parliamentary elections earlier than scheduled. But our government will be stable. The President was elected with an overwhelming majority of over 134 votes. Thereafter, he approved our mini-budget and stability is settling in the economy. The private sector has also joined many areas.

We are confident, but have cut down all wasteful expenditures and are getting into the new area of renewable energy. These are important areas. We have overall majority and we know what we are doing is positive not only for our party but for the whole country. That is understood even by the opposition, though they have their own demand. They understand it is a national crisis. We all must join hands and work together for which the President and the government are equally committed.

There is a feeling or argument that the protestors have actually ruined the image of Sri Lanka abroad. Tourists are not coming because of this. What do you say about this?

I appreciate that India and Sri Lanka are the two oldest democracies in Asia. Since the 1930s, we have engaged in universal franchise and elected governments. We have stuck to the democratically elected parliamentary path.

But the public protests took an extreme turn, getting into unlawful activities, breaking the law and other activities which are not democratically acceptable. I think this is a black mark. So many people, MPs, elected representatives were attacked.

Governments must be careful. Gotabaya Rajapaksa let go of his presidency and allowed a smooth transition. We are committed to restore normalcy in the island. The travel restrictions imposed by most of the countries have also been lifted. I thank them all. That is one positive signal to the world. The IMF talks helped cushion some of the doubts in the financial sector. It gave us more confidence. The government needs the confidence of the people. We have won that confidence.

We have been able to restore gas and fuel. We have been able to restore electricity. I have tremendous confidence in our private sector and the farmers. They will deliver what is needed for the country.

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