A neighbour difficult to please

Narendra Modi is visiting Sri Lanka after several invitations by Sri Lankan Presidents to Indian Prime Ministers over the last 28 years were ignored

Updated - March 12, 2015 03:12 am IST

Published - March 12, 2015 03:11 am IST

“It is up to President Maithripala Sirisena and the new dispensation in Sri Lanka to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi with open arms but remain non-aligned.” Picture shows the two leaders in New Delhi in February 2015.

“It is up to President Maithripala Sirisena and the new dispensation in Sri Lanka to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi with open arms but remain non-aligned.” Picture shows the two leaders in New Delhi in February 2015.

A visit to Sri Lanka by an Indian Prime Minister has been long overdue. The last visit to the island by Rajiv Gandhi almost ended in disaster. Requests by former Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, and even Ranil Wickremasinghe who was then Premier, had fallen on deaf Indian ears. However, both Indian politicians and officials on several occasions gave their Sri Lankan counterparts hope of a prime ministerial visit. But the wait lasted 28 years. Many Sri Lankans saw the main reason for this as Delhi’s desire to appease Tamil Nadu.

> Read: PM to inaugurate a slew of development projects in Sri Lanka

There was also an attempt to get Congress leader Sonia Gandhi to visit Sri Lanka, since an Indian Prime Minister was not in sight. It was the brain child of the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was later brutally assassinated by the LTTE. It was then taken up by Mr. Rajapaksa. It was to honour Rajiv Gandhi and to organise a Rajiv Gandhi Memorial lecture. Letters were sent on a few occasions but there was no positive response.

Gesture not reciprocated Sri Lankan Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers always made their pilgrimage to India to meet its leaders soon after coming to power. India always welcomed them with honour. But the reverse did not happen. The Sri Lankan public, academics, politicians and even the media interpreted this as a snub and insensitivity on the part of India. Even the Indian media based in Sri Lanka weren’t pleased with the country’s silence. Dr. Manmohan Singh did not even attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo in November, 2013. Sri Lanka saw this as giving in to Tamil Nadu. Sri Lankan leaders tried to understand the Indian side and were left frustrated.

Both countries boasted of excellent relations between them. Both India’s direct help and tacit support during the final stages of ending the menace of terrorism in Sri Lanka was welcomed and appreciated by Sri Lanka.The Sri Lankan President’s house was always open for India. In an unprecedented gesture, Mr. Rajapaksa even invited Nirupama Rao, who had served as High Commissioner and later as Foreign Secretary, for a farewell breakfast before her retirement. Another former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Shankar Menon, who later became the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of India, was considered a friend.

>Read The Hindu's Editorial on the topic: Striking a jarring note

Whilst India did not reciprocate Sri Lanka’s invitation, Sri Lanka became even closer to China. Mr. Rajapaksa visited and met the Chinese leadership more than five times during his tenure. It was an unprecedented gesture made by the Chinese to a leader of a small nation. Chinese President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese Head of State to visit Sri Lanka in three decades.

Mr. Rajapaksa said this on several occasions: “India is my relation and China is my friend.” Friends did keep calling, but relations were nowhere in sight. Mr. Rajapaksa also found it very easy to work with China on several projects. I am sure he wanted India to show its political will by a visit by an Indian Prime Minister to the island. India could have responded and reached out, and a visit by an Indian Prime Minister would have done a lot for better ties.

Modi’s coming Then Narendra Modi’s sweeping victory in the May 2014 general election happened in India. With Mr. Modi’s invitation to all SAARC leaders to attend his swearing-in ceremony, there were renewed hopes of a visit in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka welcomed Mr. Modi’s strong mandate without being indebted to either All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader J. Jayalalithaa or Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M. Karunanidhi. Though Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko was supportive of Mr. Modi, it was evident to Sri Lanka that the newly elected Prime Minister did not take him seriously.

Mr. Rajapaksa was a very happy man. This was exactly what he wanted. He saw similarities between Mr. Modi and himself. He said on several occasions that he was pleased with his rapport and frank exchanges with Mr. Modi. They even established and built their own line of contact. Mr. Rajapaksa went out of his way to help Mr. Modi in his dealings with Tamil Nadu and released the Indian prisoners who were in Sri Lankan jails for smuggling narcotics. Mr. Modi was thankful. It was evident to Mr. Rajapaksa that Mr. Modi was extending his hand of friendship to both Sri Lanka and its President.

During the recently held SAARC summit in Kathmandu, Mr. Modi had spoken freely with Mr. Rajapaksa without the notes provided by his officials. In his maiden SAARC speech, he even went to the extent of wishing Mr. Rajapaksa success for the January election. Mr. Rajapaksa, in turn, appreciated Mr. Modi’s gestures. He was very hopeful that Mr. Modi would visit Sri Lanka after the presidential election. Mr. Rajapaksa was hopeful that he would secure victory and expected to welcome Mr. Modi.

As the Indian Prime Minister now embarks on a historic visit to Sri Lanka this week, President Maithripala Sirisena could be considered lucky. The Indian Prime Minister’s visit is taking place without much effort on his part. It is also a coincidence that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka is Ranil Wickremasinghe, a nephew of President Jayewardene who welcomed Rajiv Gandhi 28 years ago, and it is a United National Party-run government in Sri Lanka today. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who, under President Rajapaksa, stepped into the late Kadirgamar’s shoes, is considered a good foreign minister. He is again Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs but this time as a MP of the UNP.

Continuous efforts by the Sri Lankan leadership including by two former Presidents — Ms. Kumaratunga and Mr. Rajapaksa — to invite an Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka, during their tenure, must be commended. However, it’s to the credit of Mr. Modi that he is making a state visit to Sri Lanka backed by a strong government in India without any undue influence of Tamil Nadu.

It is up to the new President and the new dispensation in Sri Lanka to welcome their visitor with open arms but remain non-aligned and maintain good neighbourly relations with both relations and friends with no undue influence.

(Bandula Jayasekara is a former spokesman and international media adviser to the former President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was also the Editor-in-Chief of Daily News .)

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