Modi’s Sweet and Spicy Sri Lanka Strategy

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Modi’s Sweet and Spicy Sri Lanka Strategy

India is likely to pursue a pragmatic approach toward Sri Lanka, one less shackled by Tamil Nadu politics.

Modi’s Sweet and Spicy Sri Lanka Strategy
Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Post-independence India’s foreign policy has been defined more by continuity than by change. India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is unlikely to break from this tradition. He respects the bureaucracy and his foreign policy experience is minimal. But every government has its own flavor, and subtle changes in policy emphasis are inevitable. In the case of its relations with Sri Lanka, India’s engagement under Modi is set to become both sweeter and spicier. Pragmatically upgrading economic and connectivity links, combined with a possible de-emphasis of engaging through the UN Human Rights Council process, could sweeten ties. On the other hand, holding Colombo to past bilateral commitments, such as implementing the Thirteenth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, could add a piquant note to the relationship.

The interplay between Delhi’s foreign and security establishment and Tamil Nadu politics principally determine Indian policy towards its island neighbor. South Block babus favor honey: a more pragmatic and accommodating approach towards Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu prefers chili: pressure to accommodate Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority’s concerns. But post-elections, Tamil Nadu’s influence in Delhi is waning and Modi’s ear is attuned to those in South Block endorsing a more strategic and nationalist approach. These advisors want India to promote greater regional cooperation, connectivity and integration – especially on the economic front – while simultaneously asserting her interests and national pride.

Waning Influence

Tamil Nadu’s influence on the center remains considerable. First, the Tamil Nadu AIADMK’s support in the 245 seat Rajya Sabha, the Indian parliament’s upper chamber, could play a critical role in enabling Modi to pass key economic reforms. The Congress-led UPA coalition has 79 seats, but the NDA led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has only 57. As a result, to muster a majority, the NDA will need the support of an additional 66 Rajya Sabha members. Of the 94 non-UPA and non-NDA members, many, such as those from the Trinamool Congress, will not support economic liberalization. Therefore, the AIADMK’s 10 seats give it some leverage with Delhi. Of course, this influence could decline if the rarely used two-house procedure, a joint sitting of the lower and upper house, is invoked more frequently.

Second, the BJP may well have an eye on winning a few Tamil Nadu seats to offset incumbency fatigue in the next election and maintain its majority in the Lok Sabha. And even if it is unable to secure Tamil Nadu seats by itself, it will be loath to antagonize the Tamil Nadu population and raise the cost of gaining a coalition partner.

Third, the AIADMK is the third largest party in the Lok Sabha, the lower house, and its views will need to be taken into account. As will Vaiko’s – the leader of the BJP’s miniscule Tamil Nadu coalition ally. Despite winning just two seats in the Lok Sabha, he secured a half-hour audience with the key players in the new government – including Modi, Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley – soon after the election.

Yet despite the enabling influence of these three factors, Modi’s large majority in the Lok Sabha reduces his reliance on Tamil Nadu compared to the previous Congress administration, which needed Tamil Nadu support. Therefore, Delhi will not be as constrained by Madras as it was in the past, permitting greater leeway to develop a more coherent and pragmatic strategy towards Lanka.

Modi’s SAARC Pivot…

Modi, a nationalist, is committed to a strong, resurgent India – especially in the SAARC region. His respect for the bureaucracy and unfamiliarity with foreign affairs will encourage him to lean heavily on South Block in developing foreign policy. This is no change from past governments. So in order to understand that change in emphasis, we must dissect South Block to understand the newly influential parts. And here, new éminence gris Ajit Doval is the one to watch. Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister, will undoubtedly play an important role, but her views – analyzed elsewhere – are less likely to cause strategic shifts and may not be as influential in “neighborhood” engagement .

Doval, a hand-picked appointee who shares Modi’s vision of a united, strong Hindutva India, appears to already wield the greatest influence over Modi’s foreign affairs strategy. Doval’s trusted views – which strongly emphasize regional security and integration – will play a central role in deliberations. His advice is the driver behind changes in foreign policy emphasis: for example, elevating the “neighborhood” to India’s number one foreign policy priority, implemented through his  engineering of the invitations extended to SAARC heads of state to attend Modi’s swearing in. In fact, the idea may well have germinated at the think tank he founded, the Vivekanda International Foundation. Swaraj, on the other hand, is a politician from the rival Advani camp, and by some accounts was appointed foreign minister to keep her away from Delhi.

…and Pragmatic, Bilateral Shift

Unlike most other national security advisors, Doval is an intel ops-man, not a diplomat. Still, known as a strategic thinker, his foreign affairs credentials were burnished via his think-tank, a second home to retired senior Indian security and foreign affairs bureaucrats. So he may rely more on external advice – especially on matters outside his core areas of expertise such as Pakistan and China. Those likely to shape his views include his think tank’s staff. Their perspective could provide some insight into those subtle shifts of emphasis outlined above. Countless others will undoubtedly be influential. But analyzing the writings of Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary who is also in the running for deputy national security advisor, and M.N. Buch – deans of the foundation’s centers in international affairs and politics respectively – provides a hint of the flavor of the wisdom Doval is likely to seek, and thus the advice Modi will receive.

India’s 2013 UNHRC vote may have been the high point of its multilateral engagement with the Sri Lanka. Both Sibal and Buch were extremely critical of Delhi bending to Tamil Nadu pressure by supporting the U.S. resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council. As the resolution, which originally focused on calling the Sri Lankan government to promote reconciliation, shifted towards an investigation into alleged human rights abuses, India moved to abstention. Now, after the election, the Indian foreign secretary’s latest statements indicate even less willingness to acquiesce tacitly with investigations of a sovereign state. Therefore, India voting against a resolution to continue investigations against Sri Lanka should not be ruled out.

Thus, the sections of South Block that have Modi’s ear will push for a combination of tougher bilateral engagement and toned-down multilateral diplomacy. This view is of course the established Delhi consensus, but its prominence in policy calculations may be greater than in the past.

What will this bilateral diplomacy look like? What issues will be emphasized? Will India honey the relationship or spice it up? The indications are that continuity will prevail and the usual issues will remain firmly at the center of bilateral relations: in particular the Thirteenth Amendment, fishing and economic relations.

The change to expect is that India will pour more honey, while sprinkling more chili. Greater Indian aid flows and trade ties between Lanka and India, especially in education, can be expected. That process has already begun – within weeks of the election, India signed a memorandum with Sri Lanka to open a cultural center in Jaffna. But on the other hand greater pressure will also be exerted. The signal is clear: India wants to assert itself in the neighborhood.

Rumors are afoot in Delhi that in view of Doval’s limited foreign policy experience, a foreign affairs man will be appointed deputy national security advisor. The current favorite is Arvind Gupta, another strategic thinker and director-general of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, an established Delhi think tank. A proponent of the Gujral Docrine, Gupta made his pragmatic non-interventionist approach towards Sri Lanka clear at a talk in Colombo last year. After his visit he summarized his views given at the talk:

“The way forward should be for both sides to take a balanced view of their relationship. India should continue to urge upon the government of Sri Lanka to take effective steps towards devolution but be also aware that the present ruling dispensation is politically in an unassailable situation and may not be easily persuaded. International pressure may also not work beyond a point. A visible progress on the devolution issue will greatly help Indo-Sri Lankan relations and bridge the trust gap…A pragmatic but progressive approach to bilateral relations is needed”

Ultimately, then, Indian foreign policy towards Sri Lanka – less shackled by Tamil Nadu and driven by the likes of Doval – will become selectively sweeter and spicier. Strategic expansion of socioeconomic cooperation and pressure to implement the Thirteenth Amendment will go hand in hand. Meanwhile, engagement through multilateral processes could wane. Buch’s exhortation – “economic and foreign policy ties between India and Sri Lanka must be very strong, but India must lay down the bottom line which can be transgressed by Sri Lanka only at peril – could become an apt summary of India’s foreign policy trajectory over the years to come.

Daniel Alphonsus is an analyst at Verité Research, an independent think-tank based in Colombo. He read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Balliol College, Oxford.