Generally, a visit by a state leader to another state is always significant and it is news. So is the news of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting the island nation and it has deeper meanings beyond the customary diplomatic show off particularly connecting to national security concerns of the two States. The visit took place after Modi’s swearing-in as the leader of India for the second consecutive term.
With this visit, Modi has become the first Prime Minister of India to visit Sri Lanka after a 28-year time gap. The Indian premier is also the first international leader to visit the island nation following disastrous Easter attacks. The visit itself on the surface is significant for two reasons. First, it provided a positive image to the world on Sri Lanka’s current security level. Second, President Maithripala Sirisena despite back stabbings from sections of his national unity government has been able to showcase the public of his ability to tame or align with regional politics in favour of his country. President Sirisena, therefore, owns much credit for this diplomatic encounter as the Indian leader is said to have toured Sri Lanka in response to a warm invitation extended by the former.
Being neighbours, Sri Lanka and India should continue with warm relations always for strategic mutual security interests. It is simply because geography cannot be altered by any of the two nations nor by any other power that has already made significant inroads to the Indian Ocean region which is said to have been the historical domain of the regional power India. Global powers rise, project their power beyond their territories and waters over a period of time and then fall. No powerful nation has been in dominance forever in this world. This is what the world military history educates us. However, in contrast, the geography of countries is permanent and not time bound. Thus, Sri Lanka and India will have to remain as two neighbouring states in the Indian Ocean region as long as the population of these two countries lives as two nations. This is what geopolitics teaches us.
There are discrepancies in the regional order. India and Sri Lanka, even though they are neighbours, the two States haven’t been able to consolidate as really unified modern nation-States as yet. Geographical boundaries of the two States does not corroborate with the boundaries of ethnicities and thus ethnic tensions spill over across the shores weakening national security of both countries. As evident, India saw the partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh on religious lines while Sri Lanka got into a trap to a conflict based on ethnicity after Independence from colonial rule. These two security issues have been genuine now even though it continued to exist at varying levels from the very beginning of their journey as independent States.
In this context, Modi being in the helm of India for his second term today is with a greater promise to Sri Lanka assisting in her national security issues. Modi, in fact, has his own concept code-named ‘SAGAR’ (Security And Growth of All Regions) for this purpose and it is likely to reinforce India’s ‘Neighbourhood first policy’ enhancing the security of the region including Sri Lanka too living despite the asymmetry in terms of size, wealth, power etc. between them. This ground reality has been a plus point for Sri Lanka whenever national security of the island nation is at stake.
In essence, India needs a stable Sri Lanka in her backyard to survive and emerge as power and for Sri Lanka being a small nation, it too needs India for many reasons including for her survival which is her bottom line. Both know this geopolitical game and so, the mutual understanding goes on and observable if one makes a careful look into the recent conflict history of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka defeated the LTTE propagated terrorism in the year 2009, completely on her soil and it would not have been a reality if India had not acted with wisdom in silence to manage sections of Tamil sentiments on their shores.
There were other dangers at the time to go against Sri Lanka’s national security interests by many. For example, over internationalization of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict by the Norwegian-who led peace process had by then been created heaven in Sri Lanka for other powers to play for their own interests in the region endangering both the security of India and Sri Lanka. With the notion of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), sections of the Tamil Diaspora connected to the LTTE, then had attempted to bring a United Nations Peacekeeping Force down to Sri Lanka. There were international plans also to demarcate sea areas for the LTTE by going against the will of the island nation at the time. India’s silence at times and unobservable support in many other times prevented Sri Lanka from being torn apart.
Easter terror attacks
In the most recent case, India had provided real-time intelligence even though Sri Lanka failed to thwart the Easter terror attacks in the country and these are clear indications that India needs Sri Lanka safe. Apart from the above, there are some other lessons to be learnt in hindsight by Sri Lanka’s politicians in power. Following the election victory, Modi appointed Subrahmanyam Jaishankar a non-Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) member but a former veteran foreign secretary and a technocrat to his Cabinet to serve as his powerful Minister of External Affairs. This is a clear indication to say that India will not behave just as a balancer anymore. India will certainly project her power both soft and hard, outwardly and Modi’s journey to Sri Lanka after the Maldives meant the outward projection of her soft power to the benefit of both countries.
Contrary to the notable behaviour of Indian politicians, their equals in Sri Lanka seem unsupportive to the Executive in pursuit of national security interests at least even after a national tragedy. If one takes a careful look into the ongoing proceedings of the Parliamentary Select Committee probing the Easter terror attacks this statement is evident. National security, in theory, is considered a prime responsibility of the government and if there had been any gap between theory and practice, the aforesaid committee should address the gap with no ulterior moves over the Media to make the President the scapegoat. Sri Lanka’s governing politicians at least should learn this lesson from Modi’s new Cabinet on how collective unity matters in pursuit of national interest.
In this context, President Sirisena’s efforts in the clout of Modi’s regional security arrangement satisfying national security interests of Sri Lanka should receive considerable attention from all including politicians and professionals in the Armed Forces and the diplomatic community as is a viable mechanism.