By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“If America can have Monroe Doctrine in Southern Hemisphere, we can have one in South Asia… Like (Lord) Hanuman, we must realise our strength….” – Yashwant Sinha, BJP Leader[i]
The ascendance of Narendra Modi did not take the Rajapaksas by surprise. On the contrary, the Ruling Siblings did their best to reach out to the BJP. The 2013-visit to Sri Lanka, by a BJP-Shiv Sena-RSS delegation, even as saffron-agents of the Rajapaksas were stoking anti-Muslim fires, marked the apogee of this outreach[ii].
The Rajapaksas may have believed that their anti-Muslim image would suffice to build a bridge-of-commonality to a Modi-India. The knowledge that Mr. Modi was declared a persona-non-grata by the US for his role in the horrendous Gujarati-riots[iii] would have further cemented Colombo’s belief that Sinhala-Buddhist strongmen of Sri Lanka and Hindu-strongmen of India can do business, in amity and to mutual advantage.
The Rajapaksas forgot the Dragon in the Room.
A Modi-government would have been willing to just pay lip service to the Lankan Tamil issue, as the previous Vajpayee-led BJP administration did, but for two critical developments – the death of Vellupillai Pirapaharan (the BJP was not enamoured of the Tiger-leader because of his proven unwillingness to become an Indian-pawn); and Rajapaksa Sri Lanka’s growing dependency on China.
The BJP has not been very vocal on foreign policy issues this election season. References to China constitute a clear exception to this general reticence. Last month Narendra Modi warned China about its ‘expansionist mindset’. BJP President Rajnath Singh has demanded the scrapping of Border Defence Cooperation Agreement with China, arguing that it is against India’s national interests[iv].
The BJP’s stance is simple: India is the pre-eminent power in South Asia and China, by developing close relationships with smaller regional-states, is intervening in India’s natural sphere-of-influence. In BJP-eyes this Chinese presence is not only a threat to India’s security; it also encourages India’s smaller neighbours to ‘disrespect’ India. The BJP believes that India, as the sole-superpower of South Asia, has the same rights in her ‘backyard’ that the Americans claimed for themselves in the 19th Century via Monroe Doctrine and the Russians are claiming for themselves in Ukraine.
Brashness is a visceral-vice of the parvenu. In 1895, the American government sent a diplomatic-note, demanding that global-superpower Great Britain respects the Monroe Doctrine vis-à-vis the British Guiana-Venezuela border issue. When asked why this diplomatic note was cast in extremely bellicose language, US Secretary of State Richard Olney replied that since “in English eyes the United States was then so completely a negligible quantity….only words the equivalent of blows would be effective”[v].
The BJP also believes that India’s ‘rightful’ place in Asia can be established only by a government willing to talk tough and flex its muscles. This is what senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha meant when he emphasised that a Modi-victory will not only cause a regime-change but also “a total change in the personality of the government”[vi]. In BJP-eyes, Premier Singh’s mature moderation is exacerbating India’s regional-woes: “Even during the recent meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Myanmar, Sri Lanka did not give any concrete commitment on either on troop reduction in the north and east or the fishermen issue…”[vii] In tone and tenor, if not in deeds, the regional-policy of a Modi-government might resembled that of Premier Indira Gandhi, who implemented her own version of Monroe Doctrine in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The perception of India as South Asia’s hegemon is common to both the Congress and the BJP. Currently, their main difference lies in tactics. Singh-administration’s attitude to potential Chinese allies in the region can be characterised as offering a large carrot while wielding a small stick. (Within the limits set by the existence and politics of Tamilnadu, Delhi did what it could to win over Colombo to a less pro-Chinese position.) The BJP is likely to opt for its antithesis – wield a large stick while offering a tiny carrot. This was implicit in Mr. Modi’s references to Sri Lanka and extremely explicit in Mr. Sinha’s recent remarks. He “dismissed the view that China will occupy India’s strategic place in Sri Lanka if New Delhi took a strong stance against the island nation”. He said that if “America can have Monroe Doctrine in southern hemisphere, we can have one in South Asia” and that “India cannot live in “perpetual fear” of China taking its place in Lanka”. Then came the punch line: “We need to just whisper in the ears of Rajapaksa that he needs to listen else face the consequences.”[viii]
Tough-talking on Sri Lanka by Indian politicians this election season, especially when made in Tamilnadu, must be taken with a pinch of salt. Mr. Sinha’s statement is not an exception to this general rule, up to a point.
The BJP genuinely abhors the moderation of the current Indian foreign policy as a strategic weakness unbefitting a rising regional giant. A Modi-government will be far tougher on Colombo, but not because the Hindu-racist BJP is more committed to the Hindu-Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. A Modi-government will be anti-Colombo because Colombo is openly and extremely pro-Beijing. Narendra Modi will wield the Tamil issue for the same reasons Indira Gandhi did – because constitutes an excellent stick to beat Colombo with[ix].
Apart from the usual border skirmishes (writ a little larger) a hot-war between China and India is impossible, even under Mr. Modi. A Modi-government is likely counter China’s growing footprint in the region by taking a much tougher line on Chinese allies in the region. What India can do vis-à-vis Pakistan is somewhat limited; Pakistan possesses a nuclear-deterrent and the US, due to its own needs, will not abandon Pakistan totally. Sri Lanka has no such protections or protectors; being anti-Lankan is also politico-electorally beneficial to the BJP. Thus Sri Lanka can become the first and the prime target of BJP’s ‘contain-China policy’.
A Modi-government will reach out to other Asian countries with a ‘Chinese problem’. The relationship between Mr. Modhi and Japan’s nationalist PM Shinzo Abe is already so close, that analysts call it a ‘bromance’[x]. China, given its status as a rising global-power, is unlikely to concede South Asia to India, and will retaliate by drawing her own regional-allies, especially Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, closer. Rajapaksa dependence on China will thus turn out to be not only economically disastrous but also politically dangerous. Initial/sporadic attempts by the Rajapaksas to win over the BJP by attacking Lankan-Muslims will worsen Lankan woes.
Strict neutrality in foreign relations and a political solution to the ethnic problem (the Swiss model[xi]) can efface any future BJP/Modi problem. Unfortunately, antipathy to devolution and the need for a rich patron stem from the very nature of the Rajapaksa dynastic project. Colombo cannot avoid becoming a battleground in the Sino-Indian cold war so long as the Rajapaksas rule.
“Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States,” lamented Mexico’s Porfirio Diaz. The unfolding-plight of Ukraine demonstrates the danger of antagonising neighbouring powers. Thanks to Rajapaksa-rule, ‘Stupid Sri Lanka, so far from China, so close to India’ might become our own historical-epitaph.
It is important to bear in mind that when the BJP talks about Ramayanaya, it is not talking literature or even history, but politics.
[iii] Doors in Washington are already opening to Mr. Modi and he will become a valued American ally the day he becomes the PM
[v] Quoted in ‘The Proud Tower – A Portrait of the World before the War: 1890-1914’ by Barbra Tuchman
[ix] It is important to remember that Premier Gandhi did not create either the Bangla issue of the Tamil issue; she merely made use of these outcomes of suicidal policies followed by Pakistan and Sri Lanka to India’s advantage.
India and Japan have been close allies given their common Chinese problem but with a Premier Modi, this pragmatic alliance will be further strengthened by ideological bonds.
[xi] Switzerland consists of a French-speaking region bordering France, a German-speaking region bordering on Germany and an Italian speaking-region bordering Italy. At least two of these nations were far more aggressive in their time than today’s India can ever be. The Swiss also suffered from invasions, occupations and religious conflicts. Yet it survived though internal moderation and external neutrality. Though no two cases are identical there is much countries like Sri Lanka can learn from Switzerland.