Getting India right

Tuesday, 11 June 2024 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Ranil Wickremesinghe was in New Delhi to attend the swearing in ceremony of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, last Sunday. Modi is set for a third consecutive term as Prime Minister of India with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) emerging victorious in the parliamentary elections. He will equal Jawaharlal Nehru’s record of becoming the Prime Minister of India the third time after completing two full terms.

President Wickremesinghe’s attendance at this important event is welcome. He has not been the most astute in selecting his foreign trips, being more focused on attending funerals and coronations of far away, irrelevant monarchies rather than visiting and enhancing relations with immediate neighbours with greater trade, political and diplomatic relevance. In this regard, he has paid little attention to relations with greater South Asia or Southeast Asia and there have been little strategic development in these relations.

The fact that Sri Lanka is now facing some degree of economic stability after an unprecedented economic crisis two years ago, is in large measure due to the timely intervention of our neighbour. In 2022 alone India provided about $ 4 billion in rapid assistance, including credit lines of over a billion dollars, a currency swap arrangement and deferred import payments, and sent a warship carrying essential drugs for the Sri Lankan people. Later it was instrumental in securing the $ 2.9 billion credit facility from the International Monetary Fund.

This increasing dependency on India for financial assistance has further complicated relations in other areas. It is known that there has been certain pressure from the Indian side to push for projects in Sri Lanka, especially in the energy and transport sectors. Some of these projects are very much based on crony alliances with political and business powers rather than old school mutually beneficial development assistance. Sri Lankan leaders have had to walk some tight ropes in accommodating these requests and the scope to manoeuvre has been limited due to the high level of financial dependency.  

However, President Wickremesinghe’s efforts to enhance greater connectivity and insert Sri Lanka into the once in a generational economic growth experienced by India is welcome. This comes with reasonable political risks with the natural nationalist sentiments being paranoid with greater connectivity and integration with India and the subcontinent. Unless Sri Lanka succeeds in inserting itself into the phenomenal growth currently taking place across the Palk Straits it would have once again missed a moment “which comes but rarely in history.”

The increasing polarisation of the Indian polity, especially the propagating of the Hindutva ideology should be of concern to Sri Lanka. These nationalist, anti-minority policies would have a destabilising effect n not only India but the whole South-Asia region. This assertive, and even misguided notion of Indian supremacy was demonstrated during the recent election cycle when Prime Minister Modi castigated his political rivals for “gifting” the island of Kachathivu, a matter that had been amicably diplomatically resolved 50 years ago. 

It is due to these various reasons that President Wickremesinghe and his administration should grant greater care and attention to this most vital of relationships for Sri Lanka. Everything is not going to be smooth in Indo-Lanka relations and will require dedicating time and energy to get things right. President Wickremesinghe will be better served if he did so with a competent team of professionals.