The BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems determined to press the reset button on India’s policy towards Sri Lanka. Equally perceptible is the displeasure of the Dravidian parties from the ruling AIADMK to the DMK as well as the Kazhagams that constitute the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the state.
Although it is certain that a re-set of bilateral ties is underway, there is no clarity on the emerging policy outline and its direction. What is clear is the absence of the dithering that characterised the UPA’s policy under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Even the Congress party was irked by Singh’s flip-flop when it came to Sri Lanka, Tamil rights and the question of human rights violations in the last phase of the war to wipe out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The UPA, which had earlier backed the US-sponsored resolution in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) under pressure from the Tamil parties, did an about turn this year and, with an eye on its electoral prospects in Tamil Nadu, it abstained from voting. Only months earlier, Prime Minister Singh stayed away from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) under pressure from Dravidian parties, merely because the venue of this summit was Colombo.
The UPA’s defensive and non-committal position was always accompanied by platitudes about the rights and aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils and the 13th Amendment. The net result of this was absence of a clear policy, loss of influence over Colombo as well as the Tamils, hostility of the Dravidian parties, erosion of the Congress party’s vote bank in Tamil Nadu and loss of credibility in the international community on India’s Lanka policy.
Narendra Modi broke with this past by inviting Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to his swearing-in along with other South Asian government heads. Modi pointedly ignored the protests and objections of the Tamil parties and signalled to Rajapaksa that he could look forward to a new chapter in India-Sri Lanka relations.
Colombo lost no time in warming up to the Modi regime. The new vibes were further reinforced when Sri Lankan foreign minister came for talks with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
Colombo wants to be seen as being enthusiastic in restoring the lost warmth and trust in India-Sri Lanka relations, and President Rajapaksa and his team of ministers are doing everything to impress this upon the new government. This explains President Rajapaksa being generous with his time, last week, to meet a delegation led by Subramaniam Swamy, Chairman of the BJP’s Committee for Strategic Action. Swamy’s delegation included Seshadri Chari, National Convener of the BJP’s Foreign Policy Cell and former Union minister Suresh Prabhu.
The delegation did not raise the issues of war crimes or the oppression of Tamils. On the contrary, the delegation stressed that India (under Modi) would be far more supportive of the Sri Lankan position in the UNHRC. The delegation underscored that India’s foreign policy, and its support to Colombo, would be guided by national interest and “not regional interest”. This is almost an unequivocal assurance that parties in Tamil Nadu would no longer dictate India’s Lanka policy.
Though this is a big departure from the position adopted by the UPA, it is still only indicative of the government’s thinking. And, Colombo expects more than mere indications, which requires the Modi regime to spell out its own Lanka policy. Unless that happens, India-Sri Lanka relations would remain under a cloud of uncertainty and hostage to regional politics especially with the BJP’s Tamil Nadu allies openly opposing the Centre’s new line on Sri Lanka.
The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator