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Modiís visit will herald a new chapter in Indo-Lanka relations

The ongoing political transition in Sri Lanka has generated hope in India about the prospects of an improved bilateral relationship. In view of the coldness exhibited towards India by the previous Rajapaksa government, the relationship had unmistakably taken a dip despite the NDA governmentís enthusiasm for fast-tracking its proactive neighbourhood-first policy.

With Rajapaksaís defeat in the presidential elections earlier this year, the new leadership in Colombo has demonstrated a willingness to address Indian sensitivities and work with India in a spirit of friendship and amity.

Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Narendra Modiís visit to Sri Lanka, the first by an Indian head of government in 28 years, may catalyse positive changes in the bilateral relationship.

A great deal of optimism emanates from the fact that the new government in New Delhi has displayed keenness to engage neighbours with all sincerity. This has to some extent contributed to dispelling the long-held view that Indiaís neglect of its immediate neighbours stemmed primarily from its unwillingness to build relationships based on mutual trust and genuine partnership.

In this context, Modiís visit to Sri Lanka becomes extremely significant in terms of symbolism and political content. As the Prime Minister has himself explained, the visit to Sri Lanka is a ďpart of my objective of maintaining frequent contact with our neighbouring countriesĒ.

This is matched by Maithripala Sirisenaís commitment to reshape Sri Lankaís foreign policy. In his election manifesto, he had, in fact, acknowledged that Sri Lankaís foreign policy was in ďdisarrayĒ (read, under the Rajapaksa government) and assured that he would act ďto have closer relations with an attitude that would be neither anti-Indian nor dependentĒ.

Significance

Sirisena and his foreign minister chose India as their first foreign destination after the elections, indicating their foreign policy priority of repairing the frayed relationship with India.

The itinerary set for him clearly indicates the political and cultural significance that Sri Lanka has for India. Given the multi-sectoral engagement that both countries have already had in the past two decades, it would be unrealistic to expect any major breakthrough in terms of political, economic and strategic announcements.

Nevertheless, the visit will significantly improve the atmospherics, introduce a positive vibe into the process of engagement and serve as a stepping stone for deepening the relationship further.

Modiís visit is significant for three reasons. The first and most important is political. Indiaís neighbours have come to believe that Indian leaders do not consider their countries as important enough places to visit. Further, of even the little attention that India deigns to give to the neighbourhood, a disproportionate percentage goes to Pakistan. Against this backdrop, Modiís successive visits to Bhutan, Nepal and now Sri Lanka within a year of assuming office is being considered as a significant departure and an important political statement.

Culture

Second, Modiís choice of places to visit in Sri Lanka was important from political and cultural perspectives. His visit to Anuradhapura, which is, in a way, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, is quite significant here. It is not only the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, but also the place where Arahat Mahinda, son of Ashoka the Great, arrived to spread Buddhism in the third century BCE (Before the Common Era).

India has made use of cultural diplomacy with Sri Lanka in the past. The decision to lend the Kapilavastu relics to be displayed in Sri Lanka for the second time in 2011 was received well there and large numbers of devotees rushed to have a look at them.

This decision was taken in spite of the earlier directives not to allow the display of sacred relics outside India due to their inestimable value and delicate nature and the huge logistics and planning needed for their exhibition.

Sri Lanka is also one of the countries involved in setting up the international Buddhist University in Sanchi and is part of the Buddhist circuit that India is developing in the subcontinent.

Modiís visit to Anuradhapura and the Mahabodhi Society in Colombo, which are part of the two countriesí common cultural heritage and strong historical connection, will definitely be a huge step forward in public diplomacy.

Both countries have agreed to undertake joint activities to commemorate the 2600th year of Buddha attaining Enlightenment and the PMís reiteration in this regard will go down well with the majority Sinhala audience.

Jaffna factor

Third, Modiís visit to Talaimannar and Jaffna was extremely significant and should be seen in the context of Indiaís engagement in infrastructure development in Sri Lanka.

It would be important for India to stay away from the internal political wrangling of the Tamil political conglomerate, the TNA, especially in the aftermath of the passage of the Ďgenocide resolutioní in the Northern Provincial Council last month.

If possible, India needs to convey the message that Tamils need to concentrate on redressing their immediate grievances related to post-war displacement, rather than exerting pressure on Colombo at this point of time when the government is steering an important constitutional amendment that will go a long way in strengthening democracy and restoring inter-institutional balance.

Greater democracy and strong institutions would benefit the Tamils in terms of political resolution of their longstanding grievances in the long run.

Modiís visit to Sri Lanka and before that to Mauritius and Seychelles underlines Indiaís quest for a cooperative maritime security approach in the Indian Ocean region and its willingness to play a critical role in ensuring peace and prosperity in the littoral countries.

Strategy

There is no denying the fact that Sri Lanka is an important maritime neighbour and an integral element in Indiaís larger maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean. India and Sri Lanka have .instituted an annual bilateral defence dialogue and they have had significant cooperation in defence and security in the past.Nevertheless, a sense of mistrust and suspicion persists between the two countries. The Rajapaksa governmentís strategic engagement with China and its decision to allow the PLA Navy to berth nuclear submarines in Lankan ports, in clear disregard of Indian sensitivities, had led to a dip in the bilateral relationship.

Modiís visit provides an opportunity to take stock of the ground realities after the changes in governments in both countries. India and Sri Lanka must take care to reinvigorate their political and economic relationship taking into account the overall security dimension and geographic, cultural and social closeness. Modiís visit has all the ingredients to herald a new chapter in Indo-Lanka relations.

Smurti Pattanaik is a Senior Researcher attached to the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis

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