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The Modi effect

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an expert at public relations and his flying visit to Sri Lanka on Sunday reinforced this characteristic. Most State visits that barely span five hours would have been limited to basic greetings but Modi’s whirlwind stop made up in punch what it lacked in time and has set the tone for closer India-Sri Lanka relations for the foreseeable future.

Modi’s modus operandi is every inch the populist leader. Like US President Donald Trump, Modi is an avid fan of twitter with every moment recorded on the social media platform for consumption by his nearly 50 million followers. From his tweet “India never forgets her friends when they are in need,” after he touched down, Modi made sure every minute of his presence in Sri Lanka was multiplied to create the deepest impact. 

Modi’s talks with President Maithripala Sirisena were brimming with bonhomie and the greetings were effusive with Sirisena even going so far as to hold an umbrella over Modi to protect him from the inclement weather. Those photos are now likely to live long in Sri Lanka’s meme sphere for time to come. 

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who greeted him upon his arrival and saw him off a few hours later at the airport also seemed to get along well with Modi. The two were seen warmly gasping hands and interestingly even United National Party (UNP) Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa was on hand to be introduced to Modi. Wickremesinghe’s office later said the two premiers had broad discussions on economic cooperation but specific mention of the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) was not made. With elections just months away it would appear that ETCA has been placed on the backburner but there is still considerable interest between the leaders on bilateral cooperation. 

Agreement signing, which is an essential part of all State visits was absent in this instance but this was clearly a stopover that was targeted at maximum visibility rather than technical aspects of cooperation. Modi also stopped at the Kochchikade Church to leave flowers and pray for those who lost their lives in the tragic Easter Sunday attacks. Indeed cooperation on counter-terrorism was one of the common topics of discussion between both Sri Lanka and the Maldives with Modi calling for a global conference on counter-terrorism on South Asia. 

All indications are that in his second term Modi is likely to flex his muscles and take a more aggressive approach to regional issues than during his first term. Analysts see a clear move away from conciliatory moves with Pakistan and other South Asian countries to a more assertive role. While Sri Lanka’s current leaders may see this as being a positive in the overt vote of confidence given by Modi in visiting Sri Lanka barely two months after the Easter Sunday attacks it nonetheless indicates that Sri Lanka, long caught between the competing forces of India and China, could find it more challenging to balance these super powers than before. 

With Presidential elections around the corner these competing forces could become part of Sri Lanka’s internal political landscape as well. The inclusion of Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa in the whirlwind tour also indicates that previous frosty relations have now long since thawed and Modi’s version of India is ready to leave its mark on South Asia.  

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