When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe meets with his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Delhi this Wednesday, it will be to lay the groundwork for the political summit between Sri Lanka and India in mid-May when Mr. Modi makes a state visit to Colombo. Being our immediate neighbour on the Asian Continent, the world’s biggest, fastest-growing, economic region, relations with India naturally take precedence over all other bilateral ties. Whatever the volume or scale and nature of the Indo-Lanka relationship, the very intimacy of these bilateral ties requires serious attention be paid to this inter-state engagement.
The comprehensive re-set in foreign policy swiftly done by this government since coming to power in 2015 has enabled Sri Lanka to revive more complex and mutually beneficial economic and political ties across the global spectrum of nations. Indo-Sri Lankan ties is one such intimate linkage to suffer from Sri Lanka’s lopsided foreign ‘policy’ under the last regime that favoured some powers, ignored some old friends and became hostile to others.
In happy consonance with geographical reality, inter-state relations as well as social linkages between the two South Asian republics have always been intimate. So much so that, leave aside religion, language and economics, even in entertainment and sports, Sri Lankans and Indians share much of what they cherish. They idolize the same film stars, hum the same tunes, enjoy the same foods and, except when it is between their own teams, cheer the same sports heroes and heroines.
After all, Sri Lanka was not an island until the end of the last Ice Age when rising sea levels flooded the low-lying lands that now make up the Palk Strait. Before that physical de-linking from the Continent, the original flora and fauna, including our early humanoid and human ancestors, flourished throughout the southern Deccan peninsula of which Sri Lankan territory was a part. Continued social and economic intercourse across the shallow Palk Strait ensured that tribal, then, Brahminic and, later, Buddhist civilizations evolved in parallel on both sides of the Strait. The roots of the Sri Lankan Moor community, too, largely comprise migrations from the southern Sub-Continent. At one time, in the early medieval period, Anuradhapura was the largest urban centre south of the Krishna River.
Even if Buddhism’s advent here was aided by the diktat of a benign Emperor, its spiritual impact has infused Sri Lankan civilization with a unique aesthetic distinction. Hence, the intended visit by the Indian premier for Vesak serves to cloak our modern bilateral relationship with an authority and authenticity similar to the Asokan overture to our King Devanampiyatissa.
The intimacy of the relationship has not always been of mutual benefit. Historically, the inevitably bigger, more powerful, political entities north of the Strait tended to have the upper hand, with invasions and intruding ruling clans over the millennia. Most recently, the bias of Delhi to the interests of one ethnic community on the island and Indian ploys supporting cross-border insurgency only served to revive old historical narratives of interventions from north of the Strait.
Throughout our mutual post-colonial experience, however, pro-secessionist manoeuvres notwithstanding, economic, cultural and social relations have flourished.
India remains the destination of the biggest number of Sri Lankans travelling abroad annually, and with our own economic success, has also become the destination for the biggest Sri Lankan private sector investments abroad. Some of Lanka’s oldest and largest conglomerates have invested in industrial and technology parks and also in logistical services. India is Sri Lanka’s single largest source of trade and is among the top four sources of foreign direct investment.
Just as much as internal politics influenced Delhi’s attitude towards Colombo, so did ethno-nationalist politics similarly prompt suspicion towards and non-cooperation with our giant neighbour during the previous government here.
Globalisation has taught the world the benefits of closer geographical and cultural interrelations. It has also driven home the significance of geographical location and the advantages of physical proximity for success in international relations. Our geo-political setting, therefore, is a prime factor in fashioning our foreign relations.
And in a world where major problems no longer have national boundaries, closer international co-operation is more important than ever before. If such inter-state collaboration was important for trade and development in our early post-colonial period, far bigger issues have emerged today that require transnational collaboration and initiatives of an even greater sophistication. If cross-border insurgency was a past mutual pre-occupation, today, climate change, energy demand, environmental pollution, population migrations, cross-border ethnic politics and, a new-fangled, globalised, pseudo-religious violence, are all critical subjects of mutual interest to Sri Lanka and India.
There is also the unfinished business of a comprehensive trade and investment arrangement between the two countries. How can two neighbouring national economies, both, with aspirations to expand and prosper, fail to build such a bilateral relationship? It is precisely the lack of a comprehensive ordering of the relationship that has led to fear of damaging economic rivalries between the two countries.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, therefore, has his agenda crowded. Matters such as fishery poaching in the Palk Strait are minor irritants when compared with the bigger political and security issues. The bottom line, however, is the newly recovered trust and empathy between the two countries that has emerged in recent times.