Delhiberations - India & Lanka: Is bonhomie fading?

Mr Sirisena and Mr Modi are no ordinary politicians meeting to break ordinary Britannia bread.

At his weekly media briefing on May 12, the external affairs ministry’s erudite spokesman read out details of foreign secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to Bangladesh and immediately threw the floor open to questions. There were many. But not a single reporter asked him why President Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka, another neighbour of equally huge strategic importance and ancient ties to India, would be dropping in for dinner with Prime Minister Narendra Modi within barely 24 hours of that briefing.

Shortly afterwards, the MEA posted information on its website. Carefully, it highlighted the “play” part of Mr Sirisena’s “working visit” first. The President would drop in at the Ujjain Kumbh and Sanchi. A terse, last sentence finally mentioned the dinner, but gave no details. And the note ended with the customary line on how bilateral ties will be “further strengthened”. Given that Mr Sirisena’s India transit had already been well-publicised in the Sri Lankan media and later by the news wires for days, the MEA’s reticence couldn’t have been South Block’s usual practice of awaiting an “official confirmation” from a guest before announcing his visit.

After all, Mr Sirisena and Mr Modi are no ordinary politicians meeting to break ordinary Britannia bread. Both had changed the political landscape of their respective country by winning elections and defeating longstanding previous regimes over the past two years. Further, and if the fanfare of publicity over the sheer number of bilateral visits at the highest levels over the previous year is anything to go by, relations with Sri Lanka seemed at least as high on the list of Mr Modi’s priorities as those with India’s eastern neighbours.

The enthusiasm was mirrored in Colombo too. After India-Sri Lanka relations had sunk to their lowest level under his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa (and in India’s case, under UPA) Mr Sirisena made India his first official overseas destination and so did foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera. This was followed by a flurry of mutual visits, by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mr Modi, Sushma Swaraj and others.

Mr Sirisena’s early moves reassured India: Colombo froze the controversial $1.5 billion Port City project to be built by China near Colombo harbour, a crucial transit point for 80 per cent of mercantile shipping to and from India. And though the BJP government is not dependent on coalition partners in Tamil Nadu, most of whom hold rabidly anti-Sri Lankan and pro-Tamil Eelam views, Mr Sirisena also promised India a speedy solution to guarantee maximum autonomy for his country’s minority Tamils.

To India, all this seemed satisfactory enough. Even the barrage of criticism from Sri Lankans of India’s “interference” through its insistence on “full implementation” of the 30-year-old, and admittedly outdated, 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution to guarantee devolution to Tamil provinces, did not faze South Block. Pragmatic MEA diplomats privately admit that they would not be inflexible should Colombo and the provincial government in Jaffna achieve mutual consensus on any other formula.

But what was the urgency for Mr Sirisena’s flying visit to India? Other than the much-publicised “fishermen’s issue” (of trespassing in each others’ territorial waters), were these key matters discussed at all? It is obvious to observers that the initial bonhomie between Mr Sirisena and Mr Modi is now showing familiar signs of stagnation. Delhi and Colombo didn’t tell the media anything about the visit because there isn’t much to tell. At least nothing that will boost public perception and ensure future votes for either Mr Modi’s BJP, eagerly awaiting a debut in Tamil Nadu, or Mr Sirisena’s rainbow coalition, struggling to contain what a high-ranking Colombo source calls “his biggest headache”, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, from steadily eroding his government’s popularity.

Tamil autonomy, that over at least the previous 37 years has been the burning issue in Sri Lanka and for Tamil Nadu coalition partners in New Delhi, has “simply fallen off the map in both capitals for now”, said the source.
On the other two fronts, there has indeed been movement, but not to India’s liking. Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe have revived their debt-ridden country’s ties with China. The Port City project is to recommence. China will also create a Special Economic Zone in the southern port of Hambantota, which it had built and allegedly has free run of for its warships.

Sri Lanka will be part of China’s Maritime Silk Route. Beijing will continue to supply military equipment to the island nation. And despite Colombo’s assurances to India that Chinese nuclear submarines will not dock there again as they twice did in late 2014, there are few believers in New Delhi, given Sri Lanka’s nearly $8 billion debt to China and China’s continued policy of offering soft loans to countries of strategic interest to its “String of Pearls” strategy.

In Sri Lanka, there is unprecedented hatred for Indians due to reasons both genuine and fantasised: ranging from India’s training of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the 1980s to Nitin Gadkari’s intention of building an environmentally-damaging road bridge to Sri Lanka. Visions of billion-man Indian “vanar senas” overrunning the small country due to a proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and taking all jobs, are rampant in the Sri Lankan media. As is the worry over “poor quality” Indian goods flooding their markets. (Unsurprisingly, quality doesn’t seem to matter to Sri Lankans in the case of cheap but flimsy “Made in China” wares. An FTA is also being negotiated with that country.)

Whether Mr Rajapaksa’s faction, as alleged, or close allies Pakistan and China too are behind spreading these rumours, is a question yet to be explored.
Finally, the Colombo source noted, there is a third, under-publicised talking point of some urgency to India: the United States’ own growing interest in “strategic ties” with Sri Lanka since 2009, despite its enhanced relationship with New Delhi.

Given all this, India is left with one thing which both competing superpowers don’t have in Sri Lanka: cultural cousinhood, a commonality of the two great faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism. Turning the tides of an ocean of burning strategic importance in its favour while balancing its own relations with both the US and China will not be easy for India. But one thing is for sure: it will take much more than riverside religious jamborees and secretive dinner dates.

( Source : Columnist )
Next Story