As he >inaugurated the reconstructed Northern Province railway line during his two-day, four-city visit to Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signalled in more ways than one that he would like to flag off a new start to India-Sri Lanka ties, that could put them on track to the “golden chapter” that he had promised earlier. Mr. Modi has done well to focus on strengthening India’s historical links with Sri Lanka, invoking the ancient ethnic, linguistic and religious ties that bind them. His careful emphasis on India’s support for a “united” Sri Lanka was deeply appreciated given the mistrust in Sri Lanka of perceived Indian intrusiveness, riding on concerns over the Tamil question. Yet, Mr. Modi struck the right resonances during the historic first prime ministerial visit to Jaffna, which clearly >struck a chord with the Sri Lankan Tamil community there. He also stressed the need to go beyond the Thirteenth Amendment in terms of the political empowerment of the Tamil minority. There was another message, equally powerful, in the flagging-off and in the inauguration of a slew of projects: that of an Indian intent to deliver on its promises of development. The rail line is one of the regrettably few major Indian infrastructure projects to have been completed in the post-war period. Projects such as the Kankesanthurai port, the Sampur power plant and the construction of homes have been delayed by tardy Sri Lankan government clearances, but a bulk of the blame for the lack of progress must lie with Indian inefficiency. India cannot cavil at Chinese investment in the island unless it is able to finish its own projects on time.
Significantly, during his official meetings the Prime Minister refrained from the kind of showmanship that often hangs over Indian approaches to Sri Lanka, typically signalling an assertion of strategic primacy in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean region. The >agreements signed in Sri Lanka were minor ones, and already in the pipeline. This could help the Sirisena government ward off allegations of being too India-centric. There were some critical comments in the Sri Lankan media over the fact that four high-level visits between New Delhi and Colombo have taken place in less than 60 days, with one newspaper calling it “too much too soon”. It was possibly this apprehension that was reflected in the controversial remarks on India by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and some other members of his Cabinet just before Mr. Modi’s visit, and the Indian Prime Minister did well in not reacting to them. India must start a fresh chapter with Sri Lanka as that country emerges from a troubled and turbulent phase. Gently offering a hand of friendship while reminding Colombo that its promises to the Tamil minority must be kept, would serve India’s strategic interests well. That would also help enhance India’s image as the leading democracy in the region.