N Sathiya Moorthy
Independent of expectations and anxieties to the contrary, the recent Sri Lanka visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a measured, new step in bilateral relations over the past several decades. By responding in the right and adequate manner, without overdoing either the welcome or the anticipated protests to Modi visit, Sri Lankan stake-holders have put bilateral relations in perspective, despite the continuing daggers-drawn approach in domestic politics, something that political parties heading coalition governments in India have mastered over a couple of decades now.
In a way, this was by far the first-ever exclusive bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka, after 30 long years. The last time an Indian Prime Minister travelled to Sri Lanka, and exclusively so to the island-nation, Rajiv Gandhi came to sign the historic 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord on ethnic issue with then President J R Jayewardene.
Modi was still the first Indian Prime Minister after Rajiv Gandhi to visit Sri Lanka. However, his March 2015 visit was designed to be a part of India’s four-nation power-projection in the immediate Indian Ocean Region. Again a first of its kind, Modi did not stop over at Maldives, another immediate and important component of the visit. The Maldives leg of PM Modi’s visit is yet to be revived and taken up.
In comparison, Modi’s 2015 visit for historic and more colourful than the present one. Apart from the historicity part of it after Rajiv Gandhi’s visit, Modi also created another history by becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the troubled North-East, where the ethnic issue has had its full blow and blew on and blew out as a full-blown war. He also addressed the Sri Lankan Parliament on the occasion, with Tamil-centric TNA’s R Sampanthan as the recognised ‘Leader of the Opposition’.
This time, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the Upcountry Tamil areas, where Indian indentured labour has been working as estate labour for centuries now. They are the most endangered of all peoples in Sri Lanka, barring of course, the aboriginal Veddhas.
In the Upcountry area, Modi inaugurated the India-funded hospital, promised and executed by predecessor Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He also promised 10,000 more houses for the Upcountry Tamils, or Indian-origin Tamils (IOTs), over and above the 4,000 to which the Singh Government had committed to.
Efforts were on to give the Modi visit more than an international event, given that he was in Sri Lanka mainly to inaugurate the UN Vesak Day celebrations, commemorating Lord Buddha and Buddhism, the religion and ‘way of life’ for the nation’s majority. But in visits and equations involving two close neighbours as India and Sri Lanka, nothing would be more realistic than acknowledging that it was a ‘bilateral’ still and could not be more.
Nothing explains this better than the Sri Lankan media coverage of the Vesak Day celebrations, which side-stepped, if not ignored, the presence of leaders from various other countries, most of them Buddhist. Anything outside of it would have looked artificial and imposed from outside.
Events and developments in Sri Lanka and relating to India, and pertaining to India, ensured that it would remain bilateral, even when the results were ‘positive’. These were both internal and external in nature. The ‘security’ and ‘sovereignty’ of Sri Lanka and the livelihood interests of its professionals were also said to have been involved.
Ahead of the Modi visit, there was opposition to Sri Lanka seeking to fast-track the long drawn-out negotiations on ETCA (Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement) so as to sign it on an early date. There were also the more recent references to the two nations working jointly to develop the World War vintage ‘oil tank farm’ in eastern Trincomalee, beyond what is already under the works.
The Opposition to ETCA had come from a section of the Sri Lankan business interests, who feared the swarming of the local markets if the aborted CEPA was signed in another form. Opposition came also from medical doctors, who felt threatened even more but it is still unclear, why they should feel so if their Government thought that ordinary Sri Lankans would benefit.
At the end of the day, it was western ‘protectionist’ tendencies in ‘nationalist’ garb. The issues are for Sri Lankan stake-holders to resolve, and for India to wait and watch until the host-Government is ready, independent of political affiliations. This was PM Singh’s message to Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2008. It was also Modi’s message to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe when they met in the Indian capital of New Delhi in April.
The hosts are relieved that the avoidable embarrassment to the Modi visit in the form of large-scale protests against CEPA and the Trincomalee Harbour were avoided, after all. PM Ranil had taken the initiative before his Delhi visit by officially declaring that no agreement on these two sensitive issues would be signed in the immediate future.
This did take the steam of the criticism from sections of the Joint Opposition (JO) identified with ex-President Mahinda R, and also the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), which on most issues takes a line sympathetic to the former. Mahinda himself walked the extra mile by seeking a meeting with the visitor, which as customarily granted as it was sought.
The Mahinda-Modi meeting meant that sections of the Mahinda-centric JO that are habituated to embarrass India ties at every turn, apart from their political opponent of the time nearer home, did not have much to go by. Weeks ahead of the Modi visit, Rajapaksa had also told a TV interviewer that his earlier charge that India (too) worked with the West for a regime-change when he was in power, as it was all in the past.
Though the Modi-Mahinda meeting has been reportedly to be a courtesy call, which anyway it was, there could be consequences for Sri Lanka’s domestic politics, now or later. Whether true or otherwise, the Rajapaksa camp seems eager to project the meeting, and more especially the TV interview, as an indication of their confidence that they could replace the Government of PM Ranil at will by manipulating a parliamentary majority.
It is unclear if they would be able to carry President Maithripala Sirisena with them, if at all it came to that. However, the message now is to their collective cadres and other supporters, whose numbers are huge and who feel increasingly frustrated about the current politico-constitutional deadlock.
The message is also to the incorrigibly anti-India elements in the JO that they may have to either go slow or make a choice sooner than later. It is not because India is a larger neighbour with historic and contemporary ties with Sri Lanka. It has been, and has to be so with any two neighbours, especially in the South Asian context. The India-Pakistan ties are an example to how they should not be.
Isolating ‘China issue’
By choosing the Indian Prime Minister over others from ‘Buddhist nations’ to inaugurate the UN Vesak Day, the host Government has also amply acknowledged India’s historic contribution to the birth and spread of the religion, more so to the Sri Lanka. By their participation, Governments of other nations also seem to be acknowledging it, going beyond their bilateral ties with the hosts in particular, and also to India otherwise.
Going beyond the Vesak Day festivities and Modi’s Upcountry visit has been the triangular India-Sri Lanka-China equations. In his Vesak Day address, Modi rightly stopped with making a broad reference when he said that “whether it is on land or in the waters of the Indian Ocean the security of our societies is indivisible”. In the contemporary context, the reference, at least from the Indian perception, could be to China.
Despite continuing negotiations on CEPA and Trincomallee Harbour and development issues the latter also involving Japanese funding there is no compulsion on either that they could not do without either or both of them.
Ahead of Modi’s visit, India also took another silent initiative by localising the solution to the vexatious ‘fishers row’. After long drawn-out discussions between the Government of India and the southern State of Tamil Nadu, they have started funding deep-sea fishing boats, for local fishers to move away from the destructive practice of bottom-trawling and also from Sri Lankan waters. The initiative will take some time to show results, but it should convince the Sri Lankan stake-holders to India’s seriousness and sincerity in the matter.
Yet another concern for India would have been the ‘ethnic issue’, but the Sri Lankan Tamils are through yet another inward-looking phase. Maybe owing to this, maybe owing to attendant concerns that are undefined as yet, PM Modi’s meeting with the TNA leadership in Colombo was a low-key affair, and was held at the lounge of the Kattanayake air terminal, before he returned home.
On the one hand, they are negotiating, or purported to be negotiating with the nation’s Government and Parliament, on power-devolution and political reconciliation through a new Constitution. On the other, they are fighting themselves, with the TNA-majority Northern Provincial Council (NPC) Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran daggers drawn at party leadership, on this and related issues.
All of it means that India’s concern over China alone remained, and could be isolated in bilateral terms with Sri Lanka, and addressed substantially, if not wholly. On the eve of Modi’s visit, Sri Lankan media reported that the Government had denied permission for a Chinese submarine to dock at Colombo, as had happened in 2014, when the Japanese Prime Minister was visiting the country.
Rajapaksa was in power at the time, and the decision contributed to the straining of bilateral relations than already. China has since sought to reiterate military ties with Sri Lanka, and sought to play down the current submarine issue. That is not saying a lot, either way.
However, just a day after Modi’s visit, PM Ranil left for Beijing to participate in the first OBOR/BRI Summit. Organised and funded by China. Read with the Sri Lankan denial of permission for the Chinese sub to dock at Colombo Port for re-stocking, the Ranil visit was saying a lot.
It meant that Sri Lanka as a sovereign nation would take decisions that it deemed necessary for its growth and development – whoever was in power. However, when it came to India’s security concerns pertaining to the shared Indian Ocean waters, Sri Lanka would pay heed.
The article appeared in The Sunday Leader, Colombo, 21 May 2017