Successful Modi visit
Posted on May 14th, 2017

Editorial Courtesy The Island

It has been axiomatic that good relations with India must be the cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. This necessity has been largely observed during the post-Independence period, admittedly with some serious aberrations particularly during the war years. Relations were badly damaged when India, no doubt influenced by sub-regional concerns in Tamil Nadu and the demands of realpolitik, permitted the LTTE to train, base and stage from Indian territory during the early days of the civil war that wracked this country for nearly 30 years. Then India with its infamous parippu drop over Sri Lanka’s north weeks before the Rajiv-JR Indo-Lanka Agreement of 1987, prevented the Tigers being defeated at Vadamarachchi and indeed forced the agreement itself. Later, relations between the Premadasa government and India were strained due to the Sri Lankan president’s insistence that the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), here under the Indo-Lanka Agreement, must withdraw.

During the Sirima Bandaranaike years too there was a problem despite the special relationship between Mrs. Bandaranaike and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Mrs. B’s United Front Government during the Bangladesh war of 1971 surprisingly permitted technical stopovers at Katunayake to Pakistan Air Force flights denied entry into Indian air space while flying from West Pakistan to the East which eventually became Bangladesh. India’s unhappiness about this was palpable, but with Pakistan defeated and Bangladesh created, the Sirima – Indira relationship remained intact. But for the much greater part of Sri Lanka’s contemporary post-Independence history, relations with India were good primarily because Sri Lanka, at least tacitly, accepted India’s role as the regional power. We did not always totally fall in line with India’s wishes such as when the JRJ government permitted the Voice of America to set up a radio transmission station at Iranawila along the Western coast. But the broad brush canvas is that relations have been cordial without Sri Lanka ever becoming a client state of India. Incontrovertibly, India’s ongoing development thrust is offering Sri Lanka economic opportunities in many areas.

The Modi visit was undoubtedly a success with the visiting prime minister, despite his 66-years, shown on television sprightly bounding up the aircraft boarding ramp when he left on Friday evening demonstrating his physical fitness. Visiting dignitaries often interact with opposition personalities but the fact that the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa requested a meeting with the Indian prime minister came as a surprise in the context of Joint Opposition (JO) frontliner Wimal Weerawansa calling for a black flag protest over the visit. Neither the Indians nor the JO were forthcoming on the substance of the conversation between Modi and the Rajapaksas beyond saying that the 40-minute meeting at India House had been cordial. It wasn’t long ago that the JO had been freely alleging that India had a hand in the regime change in Sri Lanka two years ago. In fact, an Indian journalist who interviewed Rajapaksa recently pointedly put this question to him. The former president deftly fended her off saying there is no point in dwelling on the past; what we must do is focus on the present and the future, he said. That story had wide play in India.

Some analysts would surely have wondered whether Colombo leaked the news about the Chinese being refused a submarine docking in Sri Lanka, timing the story for the Modi visit to score brownie points with India. But well informed sources say this was not the case. After the story about the docking being denied broke, Reuters reported from Beijing that China’s Defence Ministry, in a statement sent to the news agency, did not directly mention the denial of the request but had said that in recent years, the Chinese and Sri Lankan militaries have had fruitful and effective cooperation in areas like mutual visits and training. It had said such cooperation “is beneficial to regional peace and stability and not aimed at any third party and should not be interfered in by a third party.” The ‘third party’ reference was obviously to India; equally obviously, Colombo’s denial of the submarine docking, last permitted in October 2014, was due to India’s unhappiness over the previous event. Sri Lanka has been quite open about the fact that the refusal was due to India’s concerns.

Contrary to what was said in some published reports, Prime Minister Modi did not “open” a new hospital at Dickoya. The plaque unveiled on this occasion made clear that this Indian-gifted hospital was dedicated by him. It had been completed and handed over to the Sri Lankan authorities in 2014 but had been only part-running since then due to equipment issues. Given that Modi was visiting Sri Lanka, and would welcome an opportunity of meeting of people of recent Indian descent upcountry, it had been decided that he would make the dedication and address the meeting that attracted a large crowd. Always the consummate politician, Modi who does not speak Tamil had worked hard on a few Tamil sentences to begin his speech, much to the delight of his audience, before switching to English. He said all the right things on this occasion although some carping critics have argued that any public meeting he had should have addressed a cross-section of the country’s population rather than exclusively people of Indian descent.

It was clear from the visit that India is keen on strengthening bilateral relations that are now excellent and is perceptive about the concerns and desires of the host. Agreeing to come here as chief guest for the UN’s International Vesak Day celebration was a generous gesture giving the event more weight and prestige than it would have otherwise attracted. This was of immense benefit to Sri Lanka. The occasion had great visibility in India and also elsewhere in the Buddhist world. In the context of domestic politics here, Indian diplomats were at pains to stress that the visit was purely Vesak related and no substantive issues would be taken up. That was the way it was played. Nobody would or could dispute the truth of Prime Minister Modi’s assertion India’s current development thrust would benefit her neigbours immensely. Sri Lanka has for long been using her location on the doorstep of the subcontinent as a major plank to attract foreign investment.

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