The just-concluded general elections in India have clear significance in the entire region, including Sri Lanka — and especially when there is a new dispensation of unknown qualities at the helm of affairs in New Delhi. The theory across the board is that the election of Shri Narendra Modi from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) [...]


A strategy to deal with Modi


The just-concluded general elections in India have clear significance in the entire region, including Sri Lanka — and especially when there is a new dispensation of unknown qualities at the helm of affairs in New Delhi.

The theory across the board is that the election of Shri Narendra Modi from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with such an unprecedented mandate is a positive factor because his Government has no need to rely on the support of the regional parties which often try to dictate how foreign policy must be conducted. The outgoing Indian National Congress was so under the thumb of the states of Jammu and Kashmir vis-a-vis Pakistan, West Bengal vis-à-vis Bangladesh and Tamil Nadu vis-à-vis Sri Lanka that it hardly had a foreign policy of its own.

A month ago (April 20), we said in an editorial that coalition compulsions have changed the entire complexity of India’s modern-day foreign policy and whether the winner in the just concluded elections will have sufficient seats to avoid this… or be beholden to the states like Tamil Nadu. The best for Sri Lanka, we said, would be for New Delhi to “get a strong Government without the need for coalition compulsions”.

Such a situation has now arisen by the grace of the voters of India. The Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi (who formally assumes office tomorrow at an astrologically auspicious hour) has got off to a flying start by inviting the leaders of India’s neighbours — and India’s satellite state Mauritius for the swearing-in ceremony signaling a new era of rapprochement with those nations that are at variance with India. Where Indo- Sri Lanka relations are concerned, an opportunity will go abegging to mend fences between the two countries if both governments do not reset their agendas for a new beginning to bring back the friendship that existed in the first three decades of post-Independent India and Sri Lanka.

The Government of Sri Lanka must not be coy to take the initiative. Some years back we would comment that every new Sri Lankan foreign minister would first pay homage at the ‘Temple of the Tooth’ then go to pay pooja to the leaders in New Delhi. Former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar went to New Delhi to meet his new counterpart even before he had taken his oaths after an election.

While that was one extreme, there is an urgent need for the Colombo Government to quickly prepare its brief and establish contact with the Modi Government. There are those already making their pitch. The Tamil Nadu lobbies are offering flowers to the new Prime Minister (even if they did not vote for Modi’s coalition partners) and in Sri Lanka, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) members are packing their bags to fly out to New Delhi to make their familiar refrain of the long suffering people of the North (without mentioning the injustice being done to the fishermen by Indian poachers).

The problem, though is, what is Sri Lanka’s India policy? And who is handling it? One thing we know is that it is not the Ministry of External Affairs. Is it still firmly in the hands of the Rajapaksa Brothers? Even so, a cogent stance is required to recalibrate relations that plunged when India voted against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council and later only abstained. If the 13th Amendment and its implementation are Indian cross-party policy (as the BJP-led all party delegation to Sri Lanka not long ago made it known), has the Government in Colombo a strategy to wean India away from a Tamil Nadu-centric foreign policy to a win-win economic partnership with that emerging powerhouse of a nation?

In that April 20 editorial we also wrote that the Indian elections were an example to the democratic world of free and fair elections. We referred to an Election Commission (EC) that had ‘teeth’ to rein in errant candidates and their campaigns. Alas, that does not seem to have been the case. Disappointingly, the recent elections were riddled with irregularities and gross violations of the model Code of Conduct. Despite repeated missives from the EC, including those to Mr. Modi and his stalwarts, and to state assemblies using their machinery, those playing the communal and caste cards, intimidation and downright bribery of voters with cash, liquor and gold were rampant. What a pity India could not showcase a free and fair election.

This still does not take away the gloss from the fairytale rise of India’s new Prime Minister. From a ‘chaiwala’ (a boy selling tea at the railway station), he became a party worker in the Rasthreeya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a party banned twice in India for its radical, sometimes virulent politics, climbing the ladder to be Chief Minister of Gujarat and finally the greasy pole of politics to be the BJP’s candidate for the Prime Ministerial post.

He seems to not only have received a negative vote (anti-incumbency of a lacklustre, rundown and corrupt Congress Government), but also a resounding positive vote of hope for economic upward mobility which the Indian people are now eager to savour after decades of socialist stagnation. The opening of the Indian economy must largely be credited to the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, first as Finance Minister and then as Prime Minister, though as he grew older, and weaker, he let slip the high esteem he was held in. Politics and old age, can often be cruel.

A follower of a lesser celebrated Indian freedom-fighter, Sardar Patel, Mr. Modi’s victory was achieved in presidential fashion. It is acknowledged that the victory was his, and not his party’s. The Modi wave became a Modi tsunami.

But with such high hopes, expectations will be correspondingly high. Modi’s Achilles heel is his subservience to the RSS, which he emotionally referred to as his “mother” in his post victory address to his parliamentary group and the suspicion the minority Muslims have of him. Campaigning around the Indian countryside, outside his cocoon of the state of Gujarat he would have realised that India is a secular country, not a Hindu theological state. His decision to contest from Varanasi, where Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists have lived side-by-side for centuries was a good omen, though it worried the Muslims when his victory parade was at the mouth of the Ganges River, one of the holiest sites of the Hindus.

An Indian political analyst said he believed that there would be no “substantial change” in the Modi administration’s policy towards Sri Lanka, but probably “a greater assertiveness and result orientation”. How the Government of Sri Lanka will react, we will need to wait and see.

This is not the first time the Congress Party has been defeated. In 1977, the Janata Party, a precursor to the BJP toppled the powerful Indira Gandhi Government. That Janata Government had excellent ties with the J.R. Jayewardene Government that came into office in Sri Lanka the same year. But the Congress returned to office in New Delhi within two years – sending the Janata Party into oblivion, and venting vengeance on Sri Lanka by triggering a separatist insurgency in the island.
Despite the walloping seat-wise, the Congress received 25% of the vote to the BJP-led alliance’s 38%. The margin wouldn’t look so bad had there been Proportional Representation in India. But it is indeed a fresh start for both countries to mend fences. While personal chemistry is important in bilateral relations, solid negotiating skills and a vision for Sri Lanka in its surroundings are paramount for the Government.

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