Delhi must boost image in Lanka

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka has built on the gains made during island nation’s President Maithripala Sirisena trip to India last month. Steps taken to put back on track bilateral relations that had derailed during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa can be expected now to gather momentum in the wake of Modi’s visit to the island. His visit was historic. This was the first bilateral visit of an Indian prime minister to Sri Lanka in 28 years and the first ever by an Indian premier to Jaffna. Clearly, the visit was long overdue. The island is an important neighbour. Its ethno-political conflict impacted Indian politics and security and over the past decade, China and Pakistan’s rising presence and influence there was of concern to India. Modi’s visit was aimed at signalling the priority Delhi accorded to its southern neighbour and to halt the downslide in bilateral ties. India and Sri Lanka will be jointly developing an oil storage facility at Trincomalee. Colombo’s decision to involve India – it has been dragging its feet on the matter – is a triumph for Delhi’s diplomacy and it will benefit both countries. India’s participation in this project will not only facilitate Trincomalee’s emergence as a regional petroleum hub but also provides Delhi a greater presence at a strategic location near the vital Indian Ocean sea lanes.
During his visit, Modi handed over the 27,000 houses India built in Jaffna for the displaced Tamils and flagged off a train to Talaimannar. These would have underscored India’s involvement in reconstruction of the war-ravaged North. Importantly, his statements calling for equality, justice, peace and dignity for all Sri Lankans and for implementation of the 13th amendment would have signalled India’s continuing commitment to reconciliation in Sri Lanka. While India has repeatedly expressed support for a political solution, it had failed to convince the then Rajapaksa government to act on the matter. Modi must now work with President Sirisena to take forward the process of reconciliation and justice in the island.

With bilateral visits at the highest level completed, the two sides must get down to business of resolving the conflict over Indian fishermen entering Lankan
waters. This cannot be ignored any longer. Importantly, Delhi must act to improve Sri Lankan public per-ception of its role in the island. Unlike China, India is perceived as a meddling and hectoring ‘big brother’ in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. India’s efforts to counter Chinese influence in the island will be easier if our image in the island is more positive.

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