Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Sri Lanka as the chief guest of the UN Vesak Day celebrations was as near as it gets to the perfect neighbourly visit. It gave India the opportunity to underline the civilisational ties between the two countries. Sri Lanka views itself as the land ordained to protect and preserve Buddhism; India is where Buddhism travelled out from. Irrespective of Sri Lankan apprehensions about Indian “designs” on their country, this is one bond that is undeniable and enduring. India embellished it further by announcing a direct air link from Colombo to Varanasi, close to the Buddhist pilgrimage centres of Sarnath and Bodh Gaya. No politician in Tamil Nadu raised any of their own “concerns” about Sri Lanka, busy as the two Dravidian parties are in sorting out their own futures.
Colombo even refused permission to a Chinese submarine that wanted to dock there this month. Both New Delhi and Colombo played down Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s participation in the Belt Road Initiative in Beijing over the weekend, hours after PM Modi’s Buddhist swing through Sri Lanka.
When PM Modi visited in 2015, it was the first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister in three decades, and the first ever by an Indian leader after Mahatma Gandhi went to Jaffna, the symbolic centre of Sri Lanka’s Tamil question. This time, Modi appeared to be deliberately keeping out of the wranglings in the Sri Lankan polity on Tamil demands, gladdening the hearts of Sinhalese nationalists. Instead, he headed out “upcountry”, becoming the first Indian leader after Gandhi and Nehru to visit the “Indian Tamils”, descendants of the 19th century Tamil Nadu natives who were taken to the central hills of the island to work on the tea plantations.
Whether India’s display of soft power diplomacy has softened Sri Lanka enough will become clearer over the coming weeks and months. On this visit by Modi, Delhi left unstated the economic and security partnerships that it really wants from Colombo. The two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding during Wickremesinghe’s visit to New Delhi last month. Under the broad title of “co-operation in economic projects”, it contains the details of all projects that both sides have officially agreed upon, from developing the oil tank farm in Trincomalee to road and railway projects in North and East Sri Lanka, to an LNG terminal in Colombo and a solar power plant in the East. In Sri Lanka, the MoU has been contentious. Under all the Buddhist bonding, New Delhi will be expecting the Wickremesinghe government to make good on the specifics of the MoU.