Reorienting the Relationship
In May 2014, the newly elected Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi kickstarted his tenure by inviting the heads of all SAARC countries for his swearing-in ceremony, suggesting that contacts with neighbours should be made a matter of routine than treated as exception. This has held true most aptly for Sri Lanka, with seven bilateral state visits on record between the two sides in three years. Inheriting an unfortunate legacy of three difficult decades of mistrust between India and Sri Lanka, PM Modi’s commitment to restructure ties with its island neighbour deserves credit. A closer look at specific deliverables on four key issues of deliberation between the two sides will give a fuller picture.
The Tamil Question: Moving Beyond
Before the 2014 Indian general election, a common perception in Sri Lanka, mostly of the Sinhala community, was that India’s policy toward the island nation is largely dictated by Tamil Nadu politics. A perceived Indian intrusiveness, riding on concerns of the Tamil question, had been a significant itch that overshadowed most Sri Lankan debates on India. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) securing an absolute majority and the subsequent turn of events, including arrests of political leaders from Tamil Nadu (some were even BJP allies) while protesting former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s New Delhi visit, the perception among most sections of the Sinhala nationalists has gradually been recalibrated.
The same events, on the other hand, caused the Sri Lankan Tamils to worry about loss of leverage vis-à-vis Tamil Nadu. The Modi government, however, carefully addressed this concern early on through discussions with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation and gave assurances to relevant stakeholders that India and Tamil Nadu will not be at variance with regard to their political needs.
What PM Modi has achieved is sort of a careful balance in assuaging the Tamils’ concerns while lowering the Sinhala nationalists’ criticism. He clearly stated India’s supports for a “united” Sri Lanka, but also stressed the need to go beyond the Thirteenth Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution for the political empowerment of the Tamil minority; while New Delhi backed the UNHRC Resolutions that give Sri Lanka more time to protect Tamil interests, PM Modi made a symbolic visit to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna stressing ethnic reconciliation and rehabilitation.
The implications of these moves on the Tamil problem aside, by establishing this balance, PM Modi has been successful in moving India-Sri Lanka relations away from the prism of the Tamil question.
Cultural diplomacy: Renewed Focus
The Sri Lankan outreach provides an immediate and clearest example of Modi’s use of cultural diplomacy as the regional trump card. Moving past the baggage of Tamil politics, PM Modi has perpetually sought to place India-Sri Lanka relations within the ambit of cultural unity – a move that was initiated by the predecessor, the UPA government, but got a personal push from Modi.
From cooperation in development of the “Ramayana Trail” in Sri Lanka and the “Buddhist Circuit” in India to the unveiling of the statue of Anagarika Dharmapala in Sanchi by incumbent Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, almost every state visit between India and Sri Lanka since 2014 has prominently featured an emphasis on cultural ties. At the height of this trend was PM Modi’s May 2017 visit to Sri Lanka earmarked solely to attend the ‘Vesak’ Day celebrations with no formal talks.
Political commentators view this as Modi government’s strategy to counter China’s growing imprint in the island. Notwithstanding this motivation, cultural diplomacy has undoubtedly become a crucial part of India’s engagement in Sri