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How the Katchatheevu Island Controversy Impacts India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ Diplomacy 

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How the Katchatheevu Island Controversy Impacts India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ Diplomacy 

Modi’s decision to revisit a sovereignty dispute resolved in the 1970s risks tearing a rift in ties with Sri Lanka.

How the Katchatheevu Island Controversy Impacts India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ Diplomacy 
Credit: Depositphotos

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent tweet condemning the Congress Party’s decision to accept Sri Lanka’s sovereignty claims over Katchatheevu Island, situated in the Palk Strait, back in 1974, has sparked a major political controversy. He accused the opposition Congress party of weakening India’s “unity, integrity and interest” through this “callous” decision. Sharing this sentiment, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, claimed that ceding this territory had violated the rights of Indian fishermen. 

Sri Lanka’s official reaction has been one of dismissal, as reflected in the remarks of Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, who said there was no reason for re-opening talks on an issue that had been “resolved.” Within Sri Lanka’s civil society, there has been more critical opposition to these remarks, which are being described as “unnecessary provocation… that could have serious repercussions.” Members of New Delhi’s strategic community also warn that such remarks could damage India’s credibility and prove to be a “self-goal” for the government. 

While it is true that alleged poaching by Indian fishers, and subsequent arrests by Sri Lanka navy, are witnessed in the Palk Bay, owing to its proximity to the Indian coast, reports of arrests of Indian nationals by the Sri Lankan navy extend well beyond the tiny island, including off the northwestern coast

At the heart of the Sri Lankan fishermen’s complaints is the use of bottom trawling by Indian fishermen and their use of monofilament nets. The Modi government itself initiated measures to stop bottom trawling; it is clear that implementation of the same has failed as this unsustainable practice continues unabated. 

It is not surprising that Modi made this provocation just weeks before the country heads into general elections. In the past also, India has witnessed regional parties making poll promises of “retrieving” Katchateevu as part of their election manifesto. Bringing up contentious foreign policy issues ahead of elections is an age-old tactic. The Congress party has also attacked the NDA’s foreign policy choices, most recently the BJP’s presumed mishandling of the border dispute with China, in a clear ploy to garner votes. Similarly, evoking nationalist sentiments through Pakistan bashing has also regularly featured in elections campaigns, often successfully, as seen with the 2019 general elections. Given this precedent, it is understandable why parties may be tempted to use foreign policy to score points in election campaigning. 

However, notwithstanding the short-term impact such political posturing on foreign policy issues may have on votes, such tactics may also influence India’s larger foreign policy goals, especially in the neighborhood. In other words, if the BJP is to return to power (which it is all set for) will it be able to undo the potentially long-lasting damage such statements have on India’s reputation? 

For a nation that is home to champions of pan-Asian solidarity dating back to the times of Rabindranath Tagore, such narrow nationalistic posturing undermines the historical legacy of ideals of Asian unity. Almost foreshadowing the contemporary situation, noted historian Sugata Bose had warned that the politics of Hindu majoritarianism could undercut the vision of a broad Asian solidarity. 

One may argue that today’s Asia is much more diversified, facing more complex geopolitical problems, rendering Asian solidarity as a lofty ideal. However, it is worth noting that Jaishankar, who is a strong advocate of regional cohesion for a multipolar Asia, himself has on several occasions appealed to “Asian solidarity.” With the rising profile of Asian economies, there is hope for a new era of Asian integration, and India must be the driver of such integration. 

Reopening this dispute with Sri Lanka at a time when New Delhi is facing challenges in its immediate neighborhood due the growing popularity of politically anti-India regimes is not prudent either. Whether it is President Mohamed Muizzu’s “India Out” campaign, which resonated well with the electorate in the Maldives, or the opposition parties’ anti-India tirade in Bangladesh or the return to government of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist in Nepal, which advocates closer ties with China over India, it is clear that India “Neighborhood First” diplomacy faces significant challenges.

Having acquired political goodwill by successfully helping out Colombo during its financial crisis, careless remarks have the potential to undermine India’s regional influence. New Delhi’s strategic neighborhood vaccine diplomacy had injected a positive momentum in its neighborhood diplomacy, which needs to be maintained. 

To be sure, in the short term, tensions between New Delhi and Colombo due to these remarks is unlikely. In fact, even amid the growing anti-India sentiment, New Delhi remains the Maldives’ largest trade partner. Similarly, India’s economic cooperation with both Nepal and Bangladesh continues unabated. However, challenges in the neighborhood can potentially distract New Delhi from its larger foreign policy ambitions  – positioning India as the “Vishwa Guru” in the world stage. 

Increasingly, as foreign policy issues become entangled with domestic politics, New Delhi will have to make careful calculations. Whether it continues to choose short-term domestic gains over long-term foreign policy objectives remains to be seen.