Bridging the gap to Sri Lanka
Imagine living next door to a small, generally harmless neighbour who has never meddled around, but not taking the trouble to go over to see him for nearly 30 years. True, we may be going across to help him in his troubled times when afflicted by disaster, but not to see him and then pretend your relations are wonderful and caring is being both hypocritical about the relationship and evasive about the truth.
When neighbours do not meet often enough, then the relationship becomes formal and loses substance, when this is applied to nations. There is news now that Prime Minister Modi would be visiting Sri Lanka in March 2015 and that the last Prime Minister visited our neighbour in 1987. Though President Rajapakse visited India in 2010, we have remained in permanent sulk all these years.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a visit to New Delhi to improve strained ties after elections in the island nation toppled long-time strongman Mahinda Rajapakse. Pic/AFP/PIB
The 1987 incident with Rajiv Gandhi had something to do with this, but one wonders why our foreign policy advisers never thought of ensuring that the Indian PM or President would go over to Colombo. Apparently the compulsions of coalition politics and, therefore, the need to keep the DMK happy in Tamil Nadu prevented any Indian response to Colombo at an appropriately high level. In this process, we let crucial strategic opportunities slip away from us, one of them being the offer from Sri Lanka to develop the Hambantota port. The US could afford to ignore its neighbour Cuba for decades, or Iran similarly, but India does not have that stature. In the last few years we traipsed all over the world, but ignored almost all our neighbours. Relations with neighbours have begun to warm up. There are many who see the declarations of intent by the Pakistan to ban terror organisations as a reason for us to seize the great moment. Wait a second, though. Even many Pakistanis are skeptical about what they see as an elaborate charade.
Sri Lanka has had a change of government and New Delhi would see in this a positive development. There is a great deal to be done with Sri Lanka apart from the Tamil refugee issue. This is an issue which has a long history, and it will take time to resolve and it is in India’s interest to resolve this. Given the will on both sides and the presence of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremasinghe, interacting with a Modi government that is sensitive and friendly to neighbours, other new avenues could open. The LTTE were defeated militarily during Rajapakse’s time, but he and his Cabinet failed to win the benefits of peace. They could not, nor seemed interested in, winning the hearts and minds of the Tamils. It is in Sri Lanka’s interests that this happens so that the Tamil diaspora outside has fewer grievances, and for India as well.
Prime Minister Modi’s planned visit to Sri Lanka is, of course, not the only reason to conclude that Achhe Din are around the corner. There will be a flurry of visits between the two countries ahead of the Modi visit. Let us hope these exchanges go beyond the banal and become substantive. This means going beyond mere visits and promises. In dealing with smaller countries, India needs to remember that our security lies in their well-being and it is in India’s interest to help Sri Lanka in every way possible that the country seeks from us.
A bridge in the Palk Strait that connects Sri Lanka with the rest of India would enable movement all the way from Srinagar to Galle, and is a far better proposition than dredging the strait, which helps only India. Even if we go for symbolism, building bridges is better than a deep moat. ‘Make in India’ could also mean ‘Make in Sri Lanka’, if the Sri Lankans are willing.
Meanwhile, one hopes that there are no moves in Sri Lanka which begin to get the whiff of a vendetta against the previous government. As it is, there has been a police raid on the armoury of Rakna Lanka security firm linked to Gota Rajapakse, former President Rajapakse’s trusted brother. The fear is that such vendettas distract a government from other priorities, which the new government can barely afford.
South Block, too, should not be hyper-sensitive when Sri Lanka seeks to improve its ties with other countries. In fact, India should have the maturity that a comity of nations means precisely this.
The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)