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Sri Lankan perceptions of the Modi government

Dr Gulbin Sultana is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 01, 2014

    There is a common perception in Sri Lanka that India’s policy towards the island nation is greatly influenced by Tamil Nadu. This perception gained ground during the days of coalition politics in India over the last two decades, when political parties from Tamil Nadu formed part of the ruling coalitions at the centre. Therefore, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) succeeded in securing an absolute majority and its leader Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, a section of the commentators in the Sri Lankan media, particularly from the Sinhala community, heaved a sigh of relief that Tamil Nadu would no longer be able to dictate India’s Sri Lanka policy.

    The turn of events after the elections seemed to strengthen this perception. Prime Minister-elect Modi ignored protests by Vaiko and Jayalalitha against extending invitation to the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in New Delhi. In fact, Vaiko, who is an alliance partner of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), was arrested along with other activists while protesting against Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit in Delhi on May 26.

    However, the Sri Lankans were in for a shock when Modi reiterated the previous government’s position on the ethnic issue and requested President Rajapaksa to ‘expedite the process of national reconciliation by fully implementing the 13th Amendment and going beyond’, during their bilateral discussions in Delhi on May 27, 2014. Following this, hundreds of activists, led by the National Freedom Front (NFF), a coalition partner in the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government, protested in Sri Lanka against Modi over his advice to Rajapaksa to step up post-war reconciliation with the Tamils. The Lankan government spokesman and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva said that the government would cooperate with India but no one should interfere with the internal affairs of the country.

    Sinhala Nationslist Perceptions

    The Sinhala community, particularly the Sinhala nationalists had their reasons to be hopeful about a shift in India’s Sri Lanka policy under the new government. Modi was seen as a nationalist leader and therefore, it was believed that there could be better understanding and cooperation between Modi and Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was also argued by some in the media that Modi, who was allegedly responsible for human rights violations during Godhra riots in India, would not raise the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka. It was also argued that since, Modi was denied visa to the US as a private citizen, he would not cooperate with the US on any issue detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests.1 Further, it was perceived that Modi would not have to listen to Tamil Nadu on his decisions on Sri Lanka, as his party had a majority (282 seats) in the parliament. Although Jayalalitha’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) got 37 seats out of 39 in Tamil Nadu, it would not play any decisive role in the Lok Sabha far from influencing Modi government’s policies towards Sri Lanka. Extending the same logic the optimists in Sri Lanka also hoped that the other two Tamil parties, most vocal on Sri Lankan issues— Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK)— despite being alliance partners of the BJP, would also not be able to carry much influence in this regard. Therefore, Sri Lankans saw in Modi a reliable ally and partner. However, after the bilateral discussions, Modi was seen, like previous Prime Ministers of India, as interfering in the domestic affairs of Sri Lanka.

    However, it would be wrong to say that there is only one nationalist Sri Lankan view on the Modi government. Among the Sinhalas, there are also the liberals who are quite realistic about their assessments.

    Indian Policy, Independent of Tamil Nadu

    The liberals would argue that there may be a change in leadership in India, but the cornerstone of India’s policy vis-à-vis Sri Lanka will remain the same. Some liberal elements in Sri Lanka however make an objective assessment of the role of Tamil Nadu in India-Sri Lanka relations and argue on a number of occasions in the past the Central government in New Delhi took policy decisions without factoring in concerns in Tamil Nadu. Indira Gandhi signed the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary agreement with Sri Lanka and signed away Kachhateevu island without consulting Tamil Nadu. But during her second term, even though she had a comfortable majority in the Parliament, Tamil Nadu’s role was much more visible. Similarly, contrary to the expectations, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which was a coalition, supported Sri Lankan government in its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and abstained from voting in the 2013 United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution against Sri Lanka ignoring the Tamil Nadu demands.

    Thus they argue that irrespective of which party or coalition has been in power at the centre with or without the support of political parties from Tamil Nadu, India’s Sri Lanka policy has always been determined by its larger national and strategic interests.

    Some of them would say that if Modi is an assertive and nationalist leader that does not necessarily mean he would favour a nationalist government in Sri Lanka. Rather, as an Indian nationalist he would be uncompromising on protecting India’s interest. Therefore, they suggested Mahinda Rajapaksa to have a clear strategy to resolve the ethnic issue if he wanted Indian support at the international level. To deal with the challenges coming from the Tamil diaspora and Western pressures, Sri Lanka needs solid backing from India. And India’s support will largely depend on the sincerity of the government in Colombo to devolve powers to the North under a reconciliation policy which takes due note of the grievances and concerns of all affected communities.

    They would thus imply that the ball is now in Rajapaksa’s court. It remains to be seen whether he postpones the process of political reconciliation or finds reason in Modi’s observations and expedites the process, and how the Modi government responds— either to Rajapaksa’s defiance or concurrence.

    The Tamil Perspective

    Let us also examine the Tamil perspective here. The Tamils of Sri Lanka do not form a homogeneous community. There are pro-government, hardliner and soft-liner Tamils. Although all these factions have their own views on the issue of 13th amendment, they are unanimous in their view that India can and should play a major role in bringing meaningful political reconciliation to the country. However, they are worried about Tamil Nadu’s loss of leverage with the coming of a majority government. But after discussions between Modi and Rajapaksa, and Modi and Jayalalitha were made public, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leaders are convinced that the government of India and Tamil Nadu will not be at variance in regard to the political needs of Sri Lankan Tamils.

    For the Tamils particularly the TNA, the 13th amendment is not a perfect solution, but a first step to achieve their goal of larger regional autonomy. Largely under India’s insistence, Sri Lankan government conducted Northern provincial council election last year, where TNA emerged as victorious. However, due to militarisation of the northern province and partial implementation of the 13th amendment, as well as interference of governor, who is a former army commander, the elected chief minister has not been able to deliver anything as yet. Despite Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s repeated demands for appointment of a civilian governor, withdrawal of military from the north and dismantling of High Security Zones, no initiative has yet been taken by the President in this regard. Therefore, the TNA leaders wrote letters to both Jayalalitha and Modi seeking their permission to meet them and discuss all these issues, hoping that India can convince Rajapaksa government to take positive steps in this regard.

    Need to diversify the relationship

    It is interesting to note that the Sri Lankan media has discussed Indo-Lanka relations under Modi mainly from the prism of Tamil question. Other than political reconciliation, human rights issues during the last phase of war and the fishermen issue, the signing of Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is also another contentious issue between the two countries. Tamil Nadu hardly played any role in this regard. The two countries could not sign the agreement because of the objections of some businessmen in Sri Lanka considered close to the ruling party. As economic development is expected to be the key aim of the Modi government, it would be interesting to see how he approaches the issue of CEPA with Sri Lanka. However, there is hardly any discussion in the Sri Lankan media on how economic issues with India can be tackled. Sri Lankans seem to be more concerned about perceived India’s interference on the Tamil question rather than exploring other important facets of India-Sri Lanka relationship which can diversify and strengthen bilateral relationship by creating webs of interdependence between the two countries.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

    • 1. “BJP’s landslide victory a blessing for Sri Lanka”, The Nation, May 25, 2014