Indian Ocean currents, Modi turns tides

Years of neglect and reinvigorating historical ties...PM Modi was on a mission the past week. The Indian Ocean rim is being seen as a region that has traditionally provided strategic economic and political opportunities but which have not been exploited to their full potential. It took overarching Chinese aspirations for India to get into action. And last week, Prime Minister Modi was in Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka doing precisely that. Not with a clenched fist but with folded hands, being a generous ally, a big brother nudging and chastising, but with an arm on the shoulder. Making it quite clear that cutting the familial chord would have not-very-pretty consequences. Not that any of these countries want to. Moreover, cooperating wholeheartedly would bring in huge benefits to the people and economies of their country. The message was delivered in unambiguous statements and gestures. Mr. Modi brought the chequebook, not just MoUnaamas. There were frigates and radars distributed along with homes for the needy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi flags off a train in Talaimannar town, the closest point to India in Sri Lanka. He sent a message to that country that India was dealing with it as a whole. Pic/AFP
Prime Minister Narendra Modi flags off a train in Talaimannar town, the closest point to India in Sri Lanka. He sent a message to that country that India was dealing with it as a whole. Pic/AFP

The local media in all three countries gushed in admiration over Modi’s personality. He played to the galleries in all three countries, which have sizeable population of Indian origin. They rushed to click selfies with Mr Modi, laughed at every joke in his speeches....and there were many. They went into raptures when he spoke a few words in the local language, “Modi Modi” rent the air in every interaction that the Prime Minister had with locals. And astute politicians saw the signals.

There were long request lists from politicians, civil society leaders and businessmen and women for meetings with the Indian Prime Minister. The PM had 40 official meetings in five days excluding several interactions with locals. There was a lot of ground to cover. An Indian Prime Minister had not made bilateral visits to these countries in decades. And this is our extended neighbourhood.

In Seychelles and Mauritius, the Prime Minister’s task was relatively easier. India comes with generous offers and meets with little resistance. Maybe a little bit of bruising of egos, but nothing that cannot be assuaged with some old fashioned diplomacy, and stronger trade and defence ties.

It was Sri Lanka where the Prime Minister had to walk the tight rope. This is a complex relationship. While there was visible curiosity about the Prime Minister and the Tamils in the north were ecstatic about an Indian Prime Minister finally arriving there, Modi had sent the message that India was dealing with Sri Lanka as a whole, not piecemeal. Yes, the Tamils are dear to us because of ethnicity but so are the Sinhalas. Buddhism unites us, our ancient historical ties also bind us, was the Indian Prime Minister’s recurrent message.

But there are cross currents in Sri Lanka that are difficult to navigate. Almost impossible…a visible resentment over India’s role in internal affairs since the days of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Sri Lankan politicians resent India’s interference in its domestic affairs. As one top businesswoman said to this columnist, “India can swallow us”. That would really cause some indigestion, but then she didn’t find it humorous. Understandably, Sri Lankans cannot wrap it round their heads that India has valid interests in the foreign and domestic policy of the country. While one pragmatic view is that without Indian assistance and support, it is almost impossible to resolve the ethnic conflicts in the country, find respectability in the international arena and erase the tag of being a human rights violator, there is also a resistance against the idea of being so dependent on India.

Former President Rajapaksa’s obdurate China-centric foreign policy has been the cause of major discomfort for India. While President Sirisena has sought to reverse that, he cannot be seen as completely toeing the Indian line. The sharp statements by Prime Minister Wikremesinghe almost jeopardised the visit. But the Sri Lankan PM was keen to put that aside and revise his attitude. His leanings....that may take some time.

The Modi administration recognises the fact that India did not step up to the task at hand for several decades. China filled in that vacuum with its large purse and a keenness to do business.

Prime Minister Modi has laid the groundwork for a major overhaul of India’s ties with many countries in the neighbourhood. There is a clear and sharp articulation of India’s foreign policy and strategic interests in the South Asian region and the extended neighbourhood. The dealings with our neighbours are more robust which could seem portentous to critics. But this administration is going forth with conviction, and in a hurry. After all, there is a lot of catching up to do.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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