Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa engaged in a virtual Summit on 26 September 2020. The Indian delegation comprised External Affairs Minister, National Security Advisor, the Foreign Secretary and Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan side included Foreign Minister and Fisheries Minister, among others. The virtual summit was significant both in substance and the outcome was a reaffirmation of the significance of India in Sri Lanka’s foreign engagements, and also India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Besides, it was an occasion to reflect on New Delhi’s larger maritime outlook as a basis for the nation’s foreign policy orientation, moving away from its traditional continental mind-set. Keeping with Colombo’s ‘India First’ tradition of the past decades, Prime Minster Rajapaksa has once again made New Delhi his first point-of-contact overseas after winning the parliamentary polls in August.
Summit of Nuances
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has noted that the two leaders discussed a whole range of bilateral issues, including the impact of COVID-19, security, people-to-people and regional and international issues. They also agreed to take forward the High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDPs) that India would undertake in the island-nation over the next five years. The Summit agenda included sensitive and contentious topics such as the Sri Lankan ethnic issue and bilateral fisheries dispute.
The Summit acknowledged the sensitivity of each other to domestic political situation and compulsions nearer home. Prime Minister Modi underlined that India was interested in finalising and realising mutually-beneficial connectivity and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. He acknowledged Sri Lanka’s requests for a US$ 1 billion currency-swap arrangement and debt-restructuring are part of the technical discussions between the two nations.
A nuanced ‘Soft diplomacy’ was at the core of the discussionsand contentious issues have been skirted. For Colombo, given its experience of the past decade, debt and infrastructure projects are no more a part only of its economic diplomacy, but are as much a question of its sovereignty. For India, this issue has impinged upon its security and strategic calculus, especially over New Delhi’s concerns over China’s in roads in the emerald-island and thereby the larger Indian Ocean Region, which New Delhi has considered its traditional zone of responsibility, hence influence.
For India the fishermen dispute to a small extent and Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue otherwise have touched the nerve of domestic politics, especially in the southern coastal state of Tamil Nadu, where Assembly elections are due by May 2021.
Rajapaksa’s return to power has revived the clamour for a political solution to the ethnic issue in the divided Tamil polity in Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Modi reiterated India’s position on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution that was facilitated by the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord. Rajapaksa said that they would find a solution based on their mandate and under the nation’s constitutional scheme. The Indian position did find a mention in the joint statement issued at the end of the virtual Summit.
At another level, domestic pressure within India (from Tamil Nadu) along with that from the West had resulted in New Delhi voting in favour of a US-led resolution for an independent war-crimes probe at the UNHRC. This had led Sri Lanka to lean heavily on China for political and diplomatic support, going beyond economic considerations of the Hambantota Port. Thishad generated suspicions in India; however, over the past years, both sides appear to have relatively smoothened the rough patch and are hoping to nurture bilateral ties even more, with New Delhi maintaining caution all the same.
Beyond Bilateral Ties
India’s concerns about Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and now in the Himalayasare well known. New Delhi would endeavour to prevent its neighbourhood becoming the stage for global power politics, be it China or any other nation. For this reason, the Indian approach to bilateral ties with Sri Lanka would rely more on soft diplomacy, and the nature of engagement for the immediate future will remain sensitive.
Domestic politics in Sri Lanka is another factor which merits attention. The 20th Amendment, or the 20-A to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which was a part of the election manifesto of current incumbent Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of Prime Minister Mahinda, in the last year’s presidential polls, has been widely criticised for its ‘anti-democratic elements’, both nearer home and overseas.
The Amendment aims at restoring the powers of the Executive Presidency, which were earlier curtailed by 19-A, brought in by the predecessor Government. Rajapaksa has argued that the ‘weakening of the Presidency’ by 19-A was one of the many causes that led to political instability and it was also a major contributory facilitator for last year’s ‘Easter serial blasts’, in which nearly 250 people, including 40 foreigners, were killed.
The negative publicity on 20-A owes to the political baggage of the Rajapaksa from Mahinda’s two terms (2005-15) as the President. It comes in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, accentuated by COVID-19 pandemic situation. On this again, New Delhi’s soft approach towards Colombo would be the only tool that could enable a progressive change in Sri Lankan approach.
Dr.Sripathi Narayanan can be reached at email@example.com