Originally Published 2015-03-27 00:00:00 Published on Mar 27, 2015
For a bilateral visit at the highest-level after an undesirable and inexplicable gap of 28 long years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's three-day tour of Sri Lanka was noted as much for what it achieved as for the optics.
Modi's Sri Lanka visit

For a bilateral visit at the highest-level after an undesirable and inexplicable gap of 28 long years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's three-day tour of Sri Lanka was noted as much for what it achieved as for the optics. It came after an earlier visit by Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena to India only weeks earlier, and between them, the two visits and the two leaders have now put bilateral relations in a new trajectory, from where their policy makers can and should take it forward to mutual benefit with greater confidence, to shared peace and prosperity.

It's not unlikely that analysts from either side of the Palk Strait view the visit from the other side as inadequate in terms of 'substance' and 'value'. It is doubtful if the policy makers and the political leadership from either side had planned for or expected anything more from this visit than what was achieved, not achieved, or deliberately left out. That which was not planned cannot be quantified, and hence cannot be said to have not been achieved.

President Sirisena's India visit stirred a lot of hopes and expectations about the traditional warmth and bonhomie in bilateral relations restored after a strained period towards the closing months of predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa's regime. It went beyond the unresolved part of the 'ethnic issue' in Sri Lanka against which promises had been made. It also went beyond large-scale developmental aid from China.

The inexplicable and discomforting berthing of two Chinese submarines in Colombo port had queered the pitch for bilateral relations - not that it was the sole determinant. President Sirisena's electoral victory first, and his choice of India for his maiden overseas visit after assuming office, produced right and ready reverberations in Delhi. Even the reticent-to-hostile sections of the Tamil Nadu political class did not have cause for complaint this time, only suggestions for Prime Minister Modi on issues - not even specific suggestions/solutions -- to be taken up with the visitor.

Prime Minister Modi's subsequent visit to Sri Lanka was even a greater success, if it could be said so. If President Sirisena's electoral victory had led to disbelief from which stake-holders in India are yet to wholly recover from, Prime Minister Modi's poll prospects were being closely followed by all sections in Sri Lanka for months - and welcomed in an equal measure. They could not exactly put their finger on what to expect from a new government and leader in Delhi, but they did expect better days for bilateral ties, whoever was the stakeholder and whatever was the specific area that he was looking at.

Beyond 13-A

For a prime ministerial visit from India, Modi's first major engagement in Sri Lanka was an address to the nation's Parliament. Apart from underlining various aspects of bilateral relations, he referred to power devolution under the Thirteenth Amendment, which India had helped fashion during the previous visit of the LTTE-slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, as far back as 1987.

Owning up a commitment to cooperative federalism, Modi, a three-term former Gujarat chief minister, said that Sri Lanka should 'go beyond' 13-A, and address the aspirations of 'all communities' (and not just the Tamils, who alone have been craving for the same). He also underlined the traditional Indian commitment to Sri Lanka's sovereignty and territorial integrity, implying continued support for whatever official position that the new rulers in Colombo would take on 'war crimes', 'accountability issues' and other security-related demands of the Tamil leadership and concerns of the Sri Lankan State.

Prime Minister Modi's Sri Lanka visit was even more noticeable for his tour of the Tamil-majority Northern Province, punctuated beforehand with his offering prayers at the Maha Bodhi tree, the original sapling of which was believed to have been planted at the Buddhist holy town of Anuradhapura by Emperor Ashoka's children centuries ago. In the North, he visited the Siva temple at Naguleswaram. The prime minister's engagements in the province and those with the local leadership and the people at large underlined India's commitment to the well-being of the people who had suffered enough and more during the decades-long war.

It was thus that Prime Minister Modi flagged off the train on a railway line, re-laid by India, commenced the handing over of constructed/reconstructed war-destroyed houses to the 50,000 beneficiaries in true sub-continental style, and laid the foundation stone for a world-class cultural centre in the provincial capital of Jaffna. Media reports indicated that the local population was enthralled by the reassuring presence of the Indian leader, which they had hoped for long.

Ocean economy and more

Taking a comprehensive and all-embracing look at bilateral relations, Modi continuously underscored various components that had either been not addressed in the past or not wholly and meaningfully addressed. He referred to the unfinished task of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which came under unilateral Sri Lankan review after the draft had been initialled and readied for political level attestations when then prime minister Manmohan Singh visited Colombo for the SAARC Summit, as far back as 2008.

After a three-day visit to two common neighbours, namely, Seychelles and Mauritius, on the previous days, the prime minister gave greater breadth and depth to what was predecessor Singh's commitment of India being the 'net provider of security' in the region. His call for evolving an 'Ocean economy' or 'blue economy', and speaking and initiating bilateral maritime security cooperation with all three nations should not be seen as India seeking to compete with the West-inspired China's 'String of Pearls' or Beijing-committed 'Maritime Silk Route'.

The well-timed Indian initiative to network with smaller neighbours in the shared Ocean for shared prosperity on the one hand and secured neighbourhood seas on the other has to be viewed in the overall context. Apart from the fact that extra-territorial powers are becoming increasingly assertive and even more competitive in the shared seas of South Asia in recent years of the post-Cold War era, their national and home economies have also suffered due to global issues over which none have got any control.

If India is coming to be seen as being responsive and responsible, at times to the point of being assertive, as seen by others, it owes to the ever-improving economy and consequent importance it now commands in the global fraternity, and the increasing challenges it faces all-round, including on the geo-strategic front. Today, there is enough in the Indian pot to share with the neighbours than ever before in the past.

There is also the greater Indian confidence that it could manage its future and also help the neighbours manage theirs, which includes their greater sense of security and sovereignty, to secure which they would continue to lack the wherewithal, now as ever. In the 21st century India, Prime Minister Modi personifies new India's new confidence. His Sri Lanka visit thus was a reflection of the new Indian confidence in being able to manage the affairs of the region through regional cooperation and global cohabitation of a new order.

Modi's Sri Lanka visit in the new environment and circumstances in the two countries and the neighbourhood Indian Ocean region as a whole was not one of 'came, saw and conquered'. Instead, it was one of 'came, saw and won over' the minds of the leadership and the hearts of the people! It is also how a larger neighbour with a long history of cultural linkage should be drawing the neighbours with their distinctive civilisational independence and inter-dependence, to work for their common good, now and always.

(N. Sathiya Moorthy is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai)

Courtesy: South Asia Monitor

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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