Ever since becoming the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy, Narendra Modi has concentrated on building strong diplomatic ties with foreign nations. The process began with the swearing-in ceremony of the new Indian Prime Minister when Modi extended a formal invite to the heads of state of neighbouring countries which included Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
There were two principle intentions behind the move. The first was obviously to attempt a geo-political re-alignment in the region aimed at containing China’s influence in South Asia. The second one was slightly personal. When Modi was serving as the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, communal riots in the region led to large scale death of Muslims. The incident hit his reputation badly as he was turned into a “pariah”. The United States refused him a visa while the European Union also remained suspicious of his role in the anti-Muslim riots.
However, Modi started becoming diplomatically acceptable to the West as he emerged the frontrunner in the 2014 Indian General Elections. Therefore, the invitation extended to foreign leaders on the occasion of Modi’s swearing-in ceremony was the Indian Prime Minister’s way of announcing his arrival at the global stage and putting an end to the political isolation or untouchability associated with him internationally.
On 13th March, 2015, Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Sri Lanka following a gap of 28 years. The last Prime Minister to do so was Rajiv Gandhi who sent peacekeeping forces to Sri Lanka in the battle against LTTE. Rajiv’s involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war cost him his own life as he was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber on 21st May, 1991 in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
By ending a near three-decade long absence of an Indian premier in the island nation, Modi made it well known that Sri Lanka happens to be in his priority list. His trip to Sri Lanka was as well planned as his previous foreign visits. In USA, Modi addressed a jam packed public meeting of Indian Americans at the Madison Square Garden in New York. He addressed a similar public meeting in Brisbane, Australia when he visited down under for the G-20 summit.
In Sri Lanka, Modi met President Maithripala Srisena and batted for better ties by stating, “The future I dream for India is also a future that I want for our neighbours.” He stressed on the need for Tamils to be able to lead “a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in a unified Sri Lanka.” But Modi’s symbolic visit to the war-torn region of Jaffna was the most crucial event.
Modi became the only second international leader after British Prime Minister David Cameroon to visit Jaffna where he handed over 27,000 homes to Tamil families who became homeless as a result of the civil war.
This move of Modi was indeed strategically carried out as it had a significant domestic importance. The plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka has been a subject of high political relevance in India. Tamil Nadu based parties, namely Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam, have strongly supported the Tamil cause in the past.
During the 2014 General Elections, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept through nearly all regions except for places which had strong regional leaders. These included Mamata Banerjee ruled West Bengal, Naveen Patnaik’s Odisha and Jayalalitha’s Tamil Nadu.
Jayalalitha’s hold on Tamil Nadu has slipped since then as she was convicted in a disproportionate assets case. As a result, Jayalalitha was disqualified from being Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. However, she continues to exert political influence in Tamil Nadu through proxy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam. AIADMK also has 37 Member of Parliaments (MPs) in Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament, and 11 MPs in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house.
While Modi’s BJP has a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha, it is clearly short of numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Considering the arithmetic, AIADMK can be a crucial player in helping the Modi government pass key reforms in the Union Parliament. In January this year, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had paid a visit to Jayalalitha’s residence in Chennai. Though the meeting was labelled as a “courtesy call”, its political ramifications cannot be overlooked.
Narendra Modi’s BJP is in search of an aide inside the Union Parliament. As Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka indicates, the ally which they are seeking is definitely Jayalalitha’s AIADMK. By reaching out to the oppressed Tamils in Sri Lanka, Modi intends to not merely position himself as a statesman but also capture the imagination of Tamil-sympathizers in India, a large section of whom reside in Tamil Nadu and support Jayalalitha’s AIADMK.
The move is set to catapult Modi’s popularity in the region. It would ensure that AIADMK extends support to the government at the Centre because the Dravidian party would not wish to be seen as being opposed to a pro-Tamil government. Considering BJP’s expansion programmes and the recent inroads which it has made into West Bengal, AIADMK would remain wary of allowing a national party like the BJP to eat up its vote-bank and it is most likely to compliment BJP’s initiatives at the Centre to keep them in good humour.
However, it would be interesting to see as to what extent Modi will go to win the trust of Tamil sympathizers in South India. Tamil politics in the region has often attracted controversy as demands have been raised to grant clemency to the killers of Rajiv Gandhi. The state assembly in Tamil Nadu had unanimously passed a resolution on 30th August, 2011 seeking clemency for the three persons who are on death row for assassinating Rajiv Gandhi. The resolution was moved by none other than the former Chief Minister Jayalalitha herself.
The BJP’s trump-card has been its supposedly uncompromising approach towards terrorism.
Will Modi cave into any such pressures which might be exerted by Jayalalitha in exchange for her support? Another interesting development to watch out for would be to see which way India would vote when it comes to the 28thSession of the UNHRC where a US-sponsored probe report is to be tabled documenting the human rights abuses carried out by the Sri Lankan army and LTTE between 2002 and 2011.
In case a resolution is initiated against Sri Lanka, Jayalalitha would surely pressurize the Modi government into voting against Sri Lanka but such a measure would only alienate the Lankans more from India as they continue to drift towards China. India cannot afford to be isolated any further in the region as neighbouring Pakistan is already seen as close to Beijing. A hostile Sri Lanka would mean a volatile neighbourhood which is tantamount to speedy economic growth which Modi’s government is desperately eyeing.
In an interview given to Hong-Kong based South China Morning Post, Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa accused India, US and other European countries for having played a key role in his defeat in the Sri Lankan Presidential Elections held in January 2015. Though Modi did meet Rajapaksa before concluding his visit to Sri Lanka, the fact is that the former president is visibly miffed with India.
With his visit to Sri Lanka, Modi has certainly tried to build a rapport with Srisena which was obviously lacking in the case of Rajapaksa as his recent comments indicate. But how long will Modi-Srisena camaraderie last will depend largely on Modi’s relationship with Jayalalitha and the political concessions which she would seek to extract from Modi.
(This article was originally published in Groundviews.)