Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled visit to Sri Lanka begins today. It is the first bilateral visit by an Indian PM in 28 years, since Rajiv Gandhi came to Colombo in July 1987 to ink the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
Former PM Manmohan Singh visited Sri Lanka once, for the Saarc heads of state summit in 2008. But he avoided the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2013. That left little room for bilateral indulgence between the two neighbours. Modi will also be the first Indian PM to visit post-war Jaffna and the second head of government to do so after British PM David Cameron. He will also be the fifth Indian PM to address Sri Lanka’s parliament. But what explains the reported hype about the visit?
For one, it is accepted without contest that the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime had tilted very much towards China and that had left New Delhi distraught. Therefore, there is a new hype about loosening the taut relationship between the two countries. Second, vis-a-vis the Tamil conflict in the northeast, the Rajapaksa regime had left India’s previous UPA government in continuous friction with Tamil Nadu. The first reason is a political fiction that allowed the two governments to manipulate nationalistic mindsets. The second was also about politics, which the Rajapaksa government lived on for the Sinhala majority vote. The question today is how the new Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government will handle these two issues — and what Modi would expect from them in settling the Tamil political conflict.
That should leave China on the periphery. The China-Sri Lanka issue has been clarified by new Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera on his visit to New Delhi, and also when Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj came to Colombo recently. Sri Lanka will keep China out of its bilateral relations with India. The media keeps reporting about Chinese projects coming under scrutiny and Rajapaksa complaining that the Chinese are being harassed. As for Chinese investments in Sri Lanka, India will only have an issue with the competition. India is a big player in commuter transport. Bajaj, TVS and Tata vehicles ply on all roads in Sri Lanka and the Indian Oil Corporation is well into the fuel market. The matter of Chinese military interests and influence in Sri Lanka is just rhetoric. India has a defence pact with China since 2008. They even have military training programmes between them. In a globalised world, the two emerging powers will not leave space for military conflicts, although they will compete for economic advantages.
While local political rhetoric on “India versus China” still gets media coverage, Wickremesinghe’s new government is bound to tilt towards the West. Wickremesinghe and his United National Party have always been a pro-West, liberal political entity — blamed by the LTTE, too, for wooing international forces to push it for a negotiated settlement in 2002-04 when he was PM. This resentment within the LTTE leadership and its diaspora consultants resulted in Wickremesinghe being defeated in the November 2005 presidential polls. This time too, Wickremesinghe’s government has begun negotiating with the US and EU, attempting to avoid an international investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity as resolved by the UN Human Rights Council. For the same reason, this government would want India at its side and for it to back its proposal to initiate a domestic investigation into war-related issues.
For Modi’s government, the Sri Lankan Tamil issue is not a sore thumb. Even when Tamil Nadu and J. Jayalalithaa emerged as a forceful united voice in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, he could not be intimidated to drop Rajapaksa from the list of invitees for his swearing-in. What matter now are Delhi’s business interests in Sri Lanka, which Modi seems to be catering to. He will be in Mannar for the Talaimannar-Rameswaram ferry service to be given a new lease of life, and the Tuticorin vessels
to Colombo have also been prioritised. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that the Rajapaksa regime kept deferring will also be a topic of discussion. Modi will also pledge more support for infrastructure and a new Indian credit line to Colombo.
In Jaffna, Modi will meet the controversial chief minister of the Northern Province and former Supreme Court judge C.V. Wigneswaran. He may be treated to Tamil agitations demanding Indian intervention in solving the political question once and for all. For the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the problem is the flipside. President Sirisena’s visit to Delhi did not provide it any leverage on addressing post-war problems and reaching a political solution, as well as on the fishermen’s issue. There was no indication on how the Modi government would help resolve post-war issues, except that India would continue dialogue on the basis of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and provide financial assistance for recovery.
The 13th Amendment under the accord is no longer enough as a political solution. Besides, the Tamil leadership wants an international investigation into war crimes. Modi, however, may not go far in treading sensitive areas. He is not being harassed by the Tamil Nadu lobby, with M. Karunanidhi out of power and Jayalalithaa no longer CM. Nor is the TNA leadership seriously taking up the matter of poaching by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters, which is the only issue on which Modi will have to return with a positive answer. That seems to be Colombo’s burden too. Wickremesinghe has already angered Tamil Nadu with his comments that serve no purpose in finding answers. Thus, Modi will not have much baggage to carry back. For now, he could satisfy Wickremesinghe with a shift in India’s position to support a domestic inquiry, with the UNHRC and the US agreeing to give Colombo time to make a serious move in that direction.
With two full days to be spent partly travelling to politically popular destinations and no hurry to take up Tamil issues while Colombo agrees to ease the tension in the northeast, Modi will have no reason to push the Sri Lankan government into rocky waters. The real reading of the visit will be left to the future, as time goes by for the Tamils up north.
The writer is a journalist based in Colombo.