By Dayan Jayatilleka –
As the Indian TV station WION’s program ‘Gravitas’ correctly reported, “Modi Reshapes Sri Lanka Policy”. What a reshaping it was and what a shape it has now taken! It has to be analyzed in all its dimensions and implications.
Though my old teacher of international relations, Prof Shelton Kodikara, would surely have traced Modi’s ‘Vesak discourse’ in Colombo back to the Indian Ocean-centric theories of KM Panikkar and thus posited a conceptual continuity, I would add or attribute two new reasons for the Modi doctrine.
Firstly, the competition with a rising China in the Indian Ocean has led Modi to attempt a downward thrust of India’s power, extending its sphere of influence southwards, hardening and transforming it from a sphere of influence to a domain of secure possession, acquiring Sri Lanka or at least its North and East which contains Trincomalee.
Secondly, Mr. Modi’s ideological lineage and mindset make it easier than it would be for a Congress leader, to think in terms of a Greater India, a quasi-empire—which extends to and incorporates the island of Lanka.
India’s absence at the ongoing, widely attended global conference on the Belt and Road Initiative in Beijing shows the seriousness and adversarial character of Delhi’s view of China’s emergence as a powerful global player.
The Modi doctrine announcing the New Indian Expansionism or the New Indian Imperialism has to be seen against this backdrop. Sri Lanka is a test case.
The Modi doctrine seems to have its accompaniment in the Wickremesinghe doctrine. Going by the hybrid Modi-Wickremesinghe Doctrine, US, Indian, Japanese, British and European warships can and do dock in Sri Lankan ports while Chinese submarines are prevented.
This is ‘balance’ and ‘even-handedness’ and ‘nonalignment’ in the composite ‘Modi-Yahapalana’ dictionary. It means that our fickle friends can dock their warships in our ports but our faithful friends cannot—all in the context of a competition in Asia where our fickle friends block our faithful friends.
A charitable and conventional explanation would be that Mr. Modi wants Sri Lanka to be a satellite, subordinate to Delhi. My own explanation is less charitable but perhaps more Realist. The Modi Doctrine assumes that India’s new borders extend beyond and include Sri Lanka; that Sri Lanka lies within India’s borders; that Sri Lanka is borderless and has no borders or cannot and must not have borders, economic and political, that separate it from India.
The Modi Model for Indo-Lanka relations involves not only a deep reshaping of Sri Lanka but also impacts deeply on and fundamentally reshapes of the domestic balance of forces i.e. the power relations between the communities of the island.
What are the clear consequences of the Modi model for the Sinhala-Tamil equation? What is the deep impact on the destiny of the Sinhalese who are not concentrated in large numbers anywhere else on the planet and whose only home this island is?
In terms of the island’s domestic geopolitics, and the acceptance of Mr. Modi’s doctrine for us, we are incorporated within Greater India and therefore, the domestic balance tilts against the Sinhala majority and in favor of the Tamil minority, because the latter have 80 million co-ethnics as important stakeholders within India.
The security and strategic de-linking from China means that the Sinhalese are weakened twice over, because they will be cut-off from their staunch and economically powerful ally, while the latent separatist Tamil minority is strategically empowered by the borderless linkage with India and the Indian veto over our relations with China.
The Sinhalese will be unable to balance off the US and India while the Tamils will be able to leverage them thanks to the Diaspora and Tamil Nadu, and we would have given the Indo-US friends of the Tamil nationalists a huge leverage over us and our only home, this island.
In the Modi Model, the only borders that Sri Lanka is expected to have are those of a federal state unit within India. In this sense, the sum total of Mr. Modi’s Vesak speech in Colombo is to change Sri Lanka’s status from a free, sovereign, independent country to a federal state of the Indian union!
Both discourse and body language show that he already regards Sri Lankan leaders as Chief Ministers and no more—and for their part they already behave like Chief Ministers or aspirant ones, in a federation of which Mr. Modi is the Prime Minister!