A window of opportunity
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy initiative is probably witnessing its first sign of success, after the recent visit of his Sri Lankan counterpart Ranil Wickremesinghe. On Tuesday, governments from both nations pledged to boost economic and maritime ties, with an aim to renew their strategic relations. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to New Delhi comes at a sensitive time. Recent elections in the island nation saw the ouster of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had steered Sri Lanka closer to China. During his interaction with the media, Wickremesinghe categorically stated that both India and Sri Lanka needed to take long-awaited steps to beef up trade and facilitate greater cooperation between their security forces in the geo-strategically sensitive Indian Ocean. Such statements come at a time when Colombo is reevaluating its economic ties with Beijing while strengthening ties with the West. In a move that will concern Beijing, the Sri Lankan government has suspended a Chinese-backed development project and ordered a probe into certain alleged illegalities. These developments come as a boost to New Delhi since its foreign policy framework looks to improve ties with its neighbours, in response to China’s growing clout.
Interestingly, Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari also held talks with Wickremesinghe to discuss the construction of a sea bridge and an underwater tunnel linking the two countries. The one point of contention that may have bearing on this new-found strategic alliance is the United Nation’s claim that a special court should prosecute war crimes committed during the island nation’s long-drawn civil war with international judges. New Delhi, however, may ignore or abstain from voting against Sri Lanka on the UN forum if the claim is to be put up for a vote. Last year, under the previous UPA dispensation, New Delhi abstained from voting against Sri Lanka, when the UN passed a resolution demanding an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights excesses in Sri Lanka. Domestic politics notwithstanding, even Prime Minister Modi seems to have stuck to this line. In his earlier visit to the island nation, Modi urged leaders from the Tamil National Alliance based in Sri Lanka to focus on their future within the island nation, as opposed to the interests of Tamilians outside it.
Opportunities for trade and investment abound in Sri Lanka. To stem China’s influence in the region New Delhi has vowed to assist the island nation in constructing its infrastructure projects. Sri Lanka’s former Power and Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, however, had some rather unkind words for New Delhi before Modi’s previous visit to the island nation. Ranawaka, who has now been entrusted with the portfolio of Megapolis and Western [Province] Development after the recent snap elections, was clear in his belief that New Delhi cannot dictate Colombo’s policy. In an interview with South China Morning Post, the minister complained about Indian commitments on project costs and deadlines not being kept. New Delhi will, therefore, have to tread these waters rather carefully and not present itself as a ‘big brother’ to Sri Lanka. Ranawaka is an important figure in the current scheme of things due to the portfolio he holds. According to news reports, Ranawaka’s brief is to implement a $3000 billion city development and urban renewal project spanning the entire Western Province of Sri Lanka. True to its pledge, New Delhi must take him seriously.