India is more well-placed to weave it ties with Sri Lanka without worrying much about China factor
Prof Satish Kumar
Two-day visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka did reflect a swing in the neighbourhood policy. That was his second visit to Sri Lanka. First was in 2015. At that time Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was tilted towards China. He brought China closer to Indian Ocean. The new President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena has better chemistry with Indian Prime Minister. Both the leaders are trying to develop new route of bilateral relations. Most of Modi’s critics allege it is merely
symbolic and rhetorical, which does not augur any meaningful change. On the surface the fire might not be visible, but the moment we remove the ashes accumulated over the seven decades of the Congress foreign policy, heat is felt from the ashes. It is not merely an invitation as a chief guest of the
auspicious occasion of Vesaka Day celebration in Sri Lanka, but a new beginning which is based on the
understanding of geo-economics. The context will be clearer if the past policy is put in the context.
India-Sri Lanka relations were driven by threat perception and internal dynamics, the mutual threat of hurting each other. Sri Lanka always perceived India as a great bully which is there to challenge its sovereignty. The internal politics of Tamil Nadu was more dominant while dealing with Sri Lanka. The geographical locations, cultural fabrics and geo-economics were subsequently thrown into the dustbin for safeguarding the interests of Tamil Nadu agenda of ethnicity. This is how love and hate of Tamils dictated the bilateral ties between the two nations. Sending peace keeping force to Sri Lanka and in the aftermath of assassination of Rajiv Gandhi declaring Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation was dictated by the same thesis.
Secondly, the policy of isolation during the Congress regime provided by big powers to ferry into the Indian subcontinent. Initially America and later on China made rapid strides in the area. India remained a preacher of good practices of world peace without any substance. China used this opportunity to maximise its feet. First, it did in Himalayan state and later, in the terrain of Indian Ocean which has been popularised as a pearl of springs. Gradually the space for manoeuvring hard power was not an option for India. Space has been hijacked by China. India converted from leading to marginal player, British India to Nehru India.
If we see the move of PM Modi in the existing conditions, we find a blending of hard realism with idealism, which could be narrated in the post-modern world as a neo-realistic approach. He is moving with long-term agenda, reaching out to the people of the South Asian countries through the strongest emotional appeals. Strategic commentator C Raja Mohan said that past Indian Government committed, “Monumental Error’ in their Sri Lanka Policy. According to him, India can rebuild the special relationship with Sri Lanka by reclaiming the shared spiritual heritage with Lanka, recognising its special position in the sacred geography of Buddhism, and acknowledging Colombo’s leadership role in Asia and the Indian Ocean.
It is a well known fact that China has been trying its nuclear missiles to be docked in Sri Lanka. It has developing ports in the blue water near Sri Lanka. It is also well-known that the minimum
distance between India and Sri Lanka is merely 22kms. The Chinese nuclear
missiles with such proximity posed
serious danger to Indian security. Despite the largest trading partner within the SAARC countries, the volume of trade during the Congress period was very
limited between India and Sri Lanka. Chinese ‘One Belt One Road’ is moving with a fast speed. When PM Modi was in Sri Lanka, China had invited 30 countries to participate in Beijing for OBOR Summit. Sri Lanka is one of the leading cards under the Chinese schemes of 21st century Silk Route.
The United States and some other powers are weighing their own benefits and losses while dealing with China. Then what are the options left for India? In such a difficult scenario, Modi’s
foreign policy is not merely dynamic but creating a new wave in the subcontinent. PM Modi is revamping the trust deficit between the two countries. He has been trying to intensify the high-level political engagement with Sri Lanka. The economic ties were built up. During the visit of Sri Lanka’s PM to India last month, a number of agreements were signed. India has shown great enthusiasm in
undertaking the big projects in Sri Lanka and has decided to complete it on time.
Modi has purposefully visited Central Sri Lanka where Indian Tamils are
located. Their identity and political outlook are sharply different from the North-East Tamils’ who were eye sore for the Sri Lankan Government. They are extremely poor and deprived of state support. Modi has also sought to restore deeper cultural connect between the two nations as part of his effort to strengthen Buddhism. During the Congress regime Buddhism was not thrust upon as an effective tool of foreign policy. It is Modi who made it a successful venture. While delivering speech he connected Indian feelings to Sri Lankan people. He made them realise that Buddhism is a defining element of Sri Lankan national identity and it is right time to reconnect the neglected spiritual identity between the two nations. Modi announced the direct Air India flights from Colombo to Varanasi. It was Sri Lankan Buddhism which enriched India. Sri Lankan Monk, Anaganka Dhamapala, who set up the Mahabodhi Society in 1891, made a great move.
Buddhist diplomacy is not merely
cultural feat but a geo-strategic stratagem. China is also wooing the Buddhist
countries to follow its design. It is doing so to safeguard its interests in Tibet. If India wins the heart of Sri Lankans, the Chinese flow of power will be duly checkmated. Last week Sri Lanka did not allow Chinese Missile to dock at Colombo. India recently gifted South Asia satellite for Communication to Six countries, including Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is our largest trading partner in SAARC, whose port in Colombo receives more than 70 per cent transhipments from India. The cultural fabrics will start
geo-economics which may result into rapid economic development.
Now the major dispute between India and Sri Lanka is about fishing rights. Quite often Indian fishermen sidestepped in the Sri Lankan periphery. This issue has been discussed during the PM Modi’s visit. The ethnic issue of Tamil was also brought into notice. The civil nuclear use was talked about. Many other agendas were discussed. But the success of Modi’s visit lies in new insight which he
discovered and consistently has been working on it. There has been marked improvement in the bilateral ties between India and Sri Lanka. The Tamil factor is losing its over stated orchestration in bilateral ties. India is more comfortable in weaving its ties with Sri Lanka without munching too much on China factor. India is also not interested in inviting any other super power to defeat the Chinese over stepping. The retreat of 70 decades could not be corrected in three years. But three years of Modi’s foreign policy have provided opportunity to regain our lost trust and affections. Therefore, India-Sri Lanka after Independence are altogether on a different route which is more
indigenous and friendly. It is not the result of power tussle of world politics or under the guidance of super powers it is based on mutual benefit and respect. This is the mantra of Modi’s foreign policy, moving through soft power to vital power.
(The writer is Head of Department of Political Science, Central University of Haryana, Mahendargarh)