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Special Neighbours of Convenience: Narendra Modi and Ranil Wickremesinghe

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra: Laying the groundwork for forthcoming New Delhi visit

by Rajan Philips

Ranil Wickremesinghe is not only Sri Lanka’s parliamentary president; he is also a roving president. The President’s next capital of call is New Delhi. The Indian Foreign Secretary, Vinay Kwatra, was in Colombo this week reportedly to lay the groundwork for Mr. Wickremesinghe’s visit to Delhi on July 20 and 21. He came over to make sure that President Wickremesinghe’s visit to India next week will be “a point of positive transformation in the relationship” between the two countries. New Delhi might fancy that in President Wickremesinghe India has finally found a leader whose assurances that the government of India can trust. That may quite well be, but the question is if India can count on Wickremesinghe as a leader whose politics the people of Sri Lanka, especially the Sinhalese, will trust.

The politics of the visit can be seen from several angles – historical, contextual, more regional than geopolitical, and domestic political fallouts. From a domestic (electoral) standpoint, the visit will mean a great deal to President Wickremesinghe and nothing at all to the Modi government.

The point to make is that there is no Sri Lankan government in a political sense that will be implicated by the visit. There is only President Wickremesinghe. He stands alone as government, with opportunistic SLPP support in parliament. Indian accolades will be another moment of external validation for the Sri Lankan President, who will try to cash them electorally in Sri Lanka, but only with mixed results.

There is nothing to compare between Prime Minister Modi’s US visit in June and President Wickremesinghe’s visit to India in July. The only thing common might be the symbolism and ceremonies that were rolled out for Modi in Washington and those that will greet President Wickremesinghe in Delhi. The US is going all out to cultivate Modi as a reliable ally in international relations.

Modi’s objective on the other hand is to similarly cultivate the US as an international partner, but without losing India’s independence to retain its historical alliance with Russia and without diminishing its reliance on Russia as a source for arms and oil at very favourable prices. On China, India will go as farther as it can with the US including its active participation Quad, but will determine the contours of its engagement with China on its own terms.

Special Neighbours

All of this may seem consistent with the current Indian foreign policy of ‘all-alignment’ championed by Prime Minister Modi and Foreign Minister Jaishankar, which is a repudiation of the old Nehruvian policy of non-alignment and the adoption of a transactional approach to dealing with other countries strategically to further India’s permanent interests. Where does Sri Lanka fit in the new transactional framework of India’s foreign policy, and what is the positive point of transformation that India is hoping to see when President Wickremesinghe visits Delhi?

India’s foremost objective towards Sri Lanka would be to not only confirm but also showcase that India has a ‘special relationship’ with Sri Lanka which is superior to any relationship that Sri Lanka may have with any other country, especially China. Whether President Wickremesinghe’s visit next week will produce a moment of transformation when such a relationship can be articulated by both Prime Minister Modi and President Wickremesinghe remains to be seen. At most, the Sri Lankan President could go along with India as far as Sri Lanka could go while maintaining its ties with China at the same time. That would be an unexceptionable application of India’s transactional approach towards the US and towards China.

At the same time, there is no denying that among all South Asian countries Sri Lanka has emerged as a special neighbour of India. It may not be quite the application of the first principle of the Gujral Doctrine that “with neighbours like Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity but gives all that it can in good faith and trust.” Reciprocity may not be asked for but it does follow in one form or another. Yet there is no question that when Sri Lanka was struck by its debilitating government-made forex crisis, India stepped up to give all it could and more in good faith and trust. It then made special pleadings with the IMF on Sri Lanka’s behalf.

As neighbours go, Bangladesh is not in any need for any help from anyone. Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives have problems and crises that are mostly manageable. Pakistan is a different case, and its needs are far severer than Sri Lanka’s. But Pakistan will never ask and India will never offer any assistance to Pakistan. Last Tuesday (July 11), Saudi Arabia deposited USD 2 billion in Pakistan’s Central Bank, ahead of a critical meeting of the IMF to approve a USD 3 billion loan to the country. Pakistan has been back and forth with IMF much longer than Sri Lanka has been in the current global debt crisis. It has all of Sri Lanka’s problem with everyone of them on a proportionately larger scale, and the additional aftermath of last year’s floods that has left over 1,700 people dead and USD 30 billion in damages. Yet there has been no offer from India to give anything it could in good faith and trust.

India’s main security fears are about spectacular terrorist attacks launched by militant groups based in Pakistan. China, on the other hand, is not seen as a threat but a strategic challenge. China is also India’s second largest trading partner (after the US), while trade among South Asian countries is nowhere near where it should be given their proximity, their massive collective market, and culturally compatible consumption habits. When Modi first came to power in 2014, his foreign focus was all on neighbours and the emphasis was on improving relationships with all of them, including Pakistan. Over time, the Modi government’s attitude to Pakistan hardened, and after his second election victory in 2019, relationship with Pakistan became an immediate casualty of the government’s increasing hostility towards Muslims in India.

President Wickremesinghe was quick to condemn the burning of Quran in Stockholm, Sweden, earlier this month by an Iraqi Christian immigrant, and asked what the UN Human Rights Council was doing about it. On July 12, the UNHRC passed a resolution calling on countries to “prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred that constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” 28 countries, all Asian, African and Middle Eastern, voted for the resolution, 12 all Western countries plus Costa Rica voted against it on the grounds of concerns over violating free speech, and seven countries abstained. But no one questions the Modi government’s increasingly hostile treatment of Muslims and other religious minorities in India. Not to mention the harassment of opposition political leaders, including the politically motivated move to expel Rahul Gandhi from parliament based on his conviction in a rather bizarre defamation case involving Mr. Gandhi’s satirizing of the Modi name.

Hindutva Globalization

No one is expecting President Wickremesinghe to question the Indian government over human rights, minority rights violations, and the creeping authoritarianism at the federal level in India. No western country is questioning the Modi government on any of these matters, the way China is taken to task by them. Modi was once banned from visiting the US over the 2002 riots against Muslims in Gujarat when Modi was the State’s Chief Minister. Now he is among a handful of world leaders to have addressed a joint session of the US Congress more than once. All concerns over democracy and dissent were neatly tucked under the red carpet that was rolled out in Washington for the Indian Prime Minister.

While the Wickremesinghe visit to Delhi will have no domestic political benefits for the Modi government, the Modi visit to the US carried huge political benefits for the Modi government in India as Narendra Modi looks to extend his tenure as Prime Minister for a third term in the Lok Sabha elections next year. The Indian diaspora in the US is now one of the largest and increasingly influential immigrant groups in the country. The BJP and the Modi government have invested heavily in going global with their Hindutva politics targeting overseas Indians, primarily those in the US. The initial purpose behind this ‘globalization’ was to protect the BJP government and Prime Minister Modi from international sanctions.

The Hindutva globalization effort would seem to have served its initial purpose, and it is now spilling over into domestic politics not only in India but also in the US. Modi’s global appeal and adulations of him by Indians overseas will in turn be used to boost Modi’s national appeal in India to overarch the BJP’s many problems and setbacks at the state level in multiple states. On the other hand, in the US and other western countries Hindutva supporters are finding their natural harbours in conservative organizations. There have been indications that well to do Indian immigrants are gravitating to the Republican Party (similar to what happened with Catholic voters earlier), while Muslim Americans are moving in the opposite direction to the Democratic Party.

Ironically, South Asia is left out in the Hindutva globalization scheme of the BJP government. The omission is unfortunate even as it is inevitable given the Hindutva worldview and its outlook for the future of India. The special relationship with Sri Lanka is primarily intended as a counter to China in the South Asian region. Although a broader South Asian unity will benefit all South Asian countries including India, such a regional perspective cannot be fitted within the asecular Hindutva ideology.

There is another dynamic at play, a part of which is India’s interest in keeping alive the old Indo-Sri Lanka agreement and its main outcome, the 13th Amendment. Modi has been committed to it from his first day as Prime Minister, and in President Wickremesinghe he may have a reliable ally in Sri Lanka. The other part of the dynamic is BJP’s intent and effort to make an electoral breakthrough in Tamil Nadu in 2024, and the ongoing efforts to destabilize the current DMK hold over the State. The BJP-DMK bickering may not concern President Wickremesinghe but the fallout from it might spillover ever so lightly into Sri Lanka.


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