Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s carefully crafted two-day visit to the Maldives and Sri Lanka over the weekend, on June 8-9, have seen him meet all the major players in these island nations, cementing and repairing frayed ties that had seen both Colombo under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, as well as Male under Abdulla Yameen’s rule, pivot to China.
It is now upto Mr Modi’s new foreign policy-intelligence team of Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Ajit Doval to turn the shock registered by the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka into an opportunity to bind these nations into a tighter Indian Ocean embrace, without turning that advantage into a chokehold — India, not the proverbial “big brother” as characterised by former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga in a stinging speech she delivered in Pakistan in the 1990s, but a partner in arms, a security provider and vital spoke to an economic and trade hub and wheel.
The first steps to rebuilding bridges with Male came as early as November last year when Mr Modi attended the swearing-in of freshly-elected President Ibrahim Solih, and followed it up in December by offering a $1.4 billion line of credit in economic assistance and development aid during the Maldivian leader’s visit to New Delhi. That cash sweetener — in marked contrast to the foot-dragging that marked India-Maldives relations under the previous government — drew the Maldives back from the China-leaning debt trap of its predecessor, that had seen even India-friendly former President Mohammed Nasheed seek Chinese investment in the face of Delhi’s inexplicable and shortsighted cold-shouldering of a nation that, albeit small, is central to India’s security.
Mr Modi’s sharp new foreign policy team haven’t let the grass grow under their feet in bringing Sri Lanka into play either. Unlike the Maldives, India starts with a tiny advantage as none of the three main players are intrinsically inimical to India. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s frustration with New Delhi’s refusal to make good on its promises to fast-track investment in a multitude of projects, including the Hambantota port in Mr Rajapaksa’s own backyard, as well as the petroleum tank farms in Trincomalee, led to the bad blood. As one Indian intelligence insider said, Mr Rajapaksa simply got tired of waiting. Hambantota was offered to India first!
Despite current Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s strong India links, he too flirted with the Chinese over the Colombo port city project, that fed into China’s Belt and Road Initiative that India rightly sees as a move to restrict its own growth trajectory.
President Maithripala Sirisena has so far not played a pro-China hand, but India must be alert to his proclivity to back majoritarian Buddhist sentiment against the minority Tamil, Christian and now Muslim communities that could give rise to another ethno-religious conflict, on the lines of the violent and bloody separatist war that the Tamil Tigers waged for over 30 years.
The April 21 Easter bombings, in fact, are a watershed moment for India as much as Sri Lanka, given the fact that the bombers drawn from the radicalised National Tawheed Jamaat have a marked presence in southern Tamil Nadu as much as they do in eastern Sri Lanka.
Colombo’s refusal to act on India’s multiple and specific warnings, stem, curiously, from the fact that it saw the alerts as a move by a Pakistan-bashing Narendra Modi government to drive a wedge between Islamabad and Colombo. President Sirisena’s attempts at a coverup, blocking investigations into the security lapse, is undoubtedly worrying, but must be seen as a matter more of internal polemics than external.
The role of one more actor that Mr Modi has befriended, albeit as a means to secure its energy security, impacts India. In documents shared by insiders, a letter from a Saudi official instructs its mission in Colombo to destroy and delete all correspondence relating to funds transferred to Sri Lankans from Saudi individuals. Mr Modi, who sent out an unequivocal message that Delhi would stand by Colombo in its hour of need by visiting St. Antony’s Church that bore the brunt of the suicide bomb attack, during his visit on Sunday offered India’s expertise in tracking terror. India’s National Investigation Agency, dispatched to Colombo to help with the probe into the Easter attack, is a major step forward as it moves the strategic focus away from economic imperatives that are albeit critical to keeping India and Sri Lanka on the same page, to greater co-operation on intelligence-sharing and other joint security arrangements that must provide the bulwark against forces that attempt to destabilise India’s vulnerable southern flank.
And therein lies the flaw in the Modi government’s “Neighbourhood First” policy, the cachet for India’s outreach to these island nations. Thus far, New Delhi has not looked beyond the vilification of Pakistan, when it is a given that we ignore Pakistan at our peril. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s justification for his own failed outreach to Islamabad, paying the price for the false bonhomie of Lahore and Agra, was that “we can change our friends, but not our neighbours”. That is more true today than ever before. Pakistan is part of India’s neighbourhood. And while Prime Minister Imran Khan’s repeated calls for talks may spring from nothing more than a need to re-position himself and his country as standing against terror, to persuade international lending agencies like the IMF to bankroll an economy that’s close to an implosion, the Doval-Jaishankar strategic brains trust must look beyond a tit-for-tat Balakot, however effective that was, in laying out Mr Modi’s “thus far and no further” line on terror, and seek to engage Pakistan on multiple fronts, rather than simply blackball and isolate it.
While at one level it may be naïve to trod the path that late Prime Minister Vajpayee did, when he failed to factor in that former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Army were not on the same page on Lahore, or former President Pervez Musharraf on Agra, in failing to share details of his proposal with the Army top brass, Mr Modi, with his huge mandate, has an opportunity like no other leader before him to secure India’s western flank.
Mr Khan’s conservative credentials can’t be questioned, moored in his Tehreek-i-Insaf government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s open endorsement of the Tehreek-i-Taliban, and Maulana Sami-ul-Haq’s Dar Al Uloom Haqqania, that spawned the Taliban terror factory that continues to terrorise Afghanistan, and through its proxies, Kashmir (where Mr Modi’s muscular approach has not helped matters). Since Pulwama-Balakot and the worldwide calumny, however, Mr Khan has, backed by Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa, cut the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror outfit to size.
Whether Mr .Modi can take it further by building a broader narrative that sees Pakistan pushed to go beyond the window dressing and cut all funding of terror groups that prey on its neighbours Iran and China, will be the way forward.
Mr Modi, no longer in need of an “India in peril” narrative to win votes, must extend the Male-Colombo outreach to Islamabad when he meets Mr Khan at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Bishkek later this week. And, perhaps, go where even Atal Behari Vajpayee couldn’t go before!