When a head of government goes abroad on an official visit, the countries involved are usually only too eager to reel off the number of agreements that will be signed. Even when there was a dialogue between India and Pakistan, however half-hearted, there was always the expectation of a joint statement or an agreement on some low hanging fruit, such as visas, never mind if it was belied each time.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka must be among the few in which both sides have been expending considerable energy to emphasise that there will be no bilateral agreements during the two days he will spend there. Instead, it is being described as a ‘religious visit’, in keeping with Modi’s primary engagement, which is to inaugurate the UN Vesak Day celebrations on Friday.
This is the first time the event is being held in Sri Lanka after the day was instituted in 1999 thanks to the efforts of the late Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Representatives from 85 countries are attending the celebrations, including the Nepal President Bidhya Devi Bhandari. Modi will also travel to the Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth Relic, in Kandy.
Both India and Sri Lanka are keen to project Modi’s visit as one that underlines the civilisational ties between the two countries, the common link to the Buddha, and the cultural ties that bind them. And both are playing down Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit this coming weekend to Beijing for the May 14-15 One Belt One Road summit, hours after Modi’s departure for India.
Ties between the two countries have improved greatly since the exit of Mahinda Rajapakse from the presidency in January 2015, which ended Sri Lanka’s open pro-China-tilt. But there is no denying that China’s continued involvement in Sri Lanka remains a worry for New Delhi. And Sri Lanka continues to harbour the same suspicions about Big Brother India that it has done from the time of independence – some would say from even deeper in Sinahla-Buddhist history.
Now it appears New Delhi has decided to use religion as the language, perhaps more saleable in Sri Lanka, through which India will pitch the security co-operation that it wants with its closest Indian Ocean neighbour. So, Modi will hold meetings with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, at which the Indian side is certain to push for the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed between the two sides during Wickremesinghe’s “working visit” to
The MoU for Co-operation in Economic Projects is a document brimming with possibilities, each with a timeline for roll out:
*A 500 MW LNG fired power plant, for which the Sri Lankan government will issue a letter of intent to India by “end May 2017”.
*An LNG terminal/floating Storage Regasification Unit in Colombo, and other associated projects such as CNG outlets, for all of which Sri Lanka will issue a letter of intent by “mid-May 2017”;
*A 50 MW solar power plant in Sampur, near Trincomlaee for which Sri Lanka is to issue a letter of intent by “mid-May 2017”.
*Joint development of the Upper Tank Farm containing 84 tanks in an area of 800 acres by Lanka IOC and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation for which the two will set up a joint venture by the “end July 2017” and make business
development plans by September 2017.
*A port, petroleum refinery and other industries in Trincomalee for which both governments will set up a joint working group by “end June 2017”.
*Road and railway projects in Trincomalee, Mannar and Jaffna.
In Sri Lanka, the government is being attacked for this MoU. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe spoke in Parliament defending it, pointing out that Lanka IOC had been paying USD 100,000 per annum since 2003 for a lease signed in that year for the tank farm. “None said no to the monies”, he pointed out.
The general impression in Sri Lanka is that there is nothing in the MoU that binds the country to anything with India. Among India’s objectives during the visit by Modi is to convey quietly but firmly that New Delhi is serious about implementing each of the projects, and expects Sri Lanka to reciprocate.
A significant engagement during Modi’s visit is his public meeting in tea growing central Sri Lanka where he will address Tamils of Indian origin, the first Indian leader to do so after Jawaharlal Nehru. This Tamil community, also known as ‘Upcountry Tamils’, are different from the Tamils of North and East Sri Lanka.
They first arrived from Tamil Nadu in the mid-19th century as labourers to work on British coffee plantations, and after a scourge killed coffee, the tea plantations that came soon after. Unlike the Tamil of the Northeast, who wanted to secede, these Tamils struggled long to get citizenship of Sri Lanka, finally achieving closure in the initial years of the 21st century. They continue to have strong links with India and look up to the Indian government for support in improving their economic condition, the worst among all ethnic groups in the country.
Though they do not compare with NRIs, this public gathering may lend something of the flavour of meetings with the Indian community that Modi likes to have in every country he visits.