On his first foreign visit to Maldives and Sri Lanka in his second prime ministerial term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken first steps to give concrete shape to his new neighbor hood policy that ostensibly aims at isolating Pakistan regionally and globally. Unlike his first term when Modi had invited all the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders to his swearing-in ceremony, this time invitations to the grand event on May 30 were sent to the leaders of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation).
While the policy was on display when newly appointed External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar travelled to Bhutan on his first foreign trip, the Prime Minister’s trips to Male and Colombo carry meaningful significance to the emerging contours of the foreign policy of the Modi 2.0 government to take multifarious challenges that confront the country.
Tweet of the Prime Minister before embarking upon the trip to two countries “These visits indicate the importance that we attach to ‘Neighbour hood First’ and will further cement ties with key maritime neighbors” is a confirmation of the policy that was born and followed with some success in his first term and is being followed with lot more application and determination with some changes.
Chosen with strategic calculations, both Maldives and Sri Lanka underline the growing importance of the Indian Ocean that is not only a lifeline of the country but also outlines the new maritime policy of the country.
Maldives, where the return of democracy in September 2018 in the presidential elections when pro-China President Yameen Abdul Gayoom who had subverted the country’s constitution and had undermined the rule of law was defeated by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, needs special attention if India is really serious to secure its interests in the backdrop of growling Chinese clout. Modi had paid a short visit when President Solih had been sworn in.
Parliamentary election, held this year on April 26, confirmed the trend as the President Soilh’s Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) won 65 out of 87 seats (total seats are 88). Former President Mohamed Nasheed, who had suffered a dubious defeat in 2012 election and was in exile, returned to win a seat and is now the Speaker of the Majlis (Maldivian parliament). A close friend of India, Nasheed is the one who made Majlis pass a resolution inviting Modi to address them.
Taking full advantage of the invitation to address Majlis, the Prime Minister congratulated people of Maldives saying your “success is an example and motivation for the world” and India is proud and happy at the developments.
By announcing to conserve Maldives’s historic Friday Mosque made of coral. Modi took a step that may be small but has immense significance beyond mere symbolism as it sends a positive signal to positive Islam that stands against menace of terrorism that is the “biggest threat in today’s times”. At the same time the Prime Minister’s call for a global attempt to remove terrorism from the soil of an Islamic country is a message to countries like Pakistan that use terrorism as an instrument of state policy.
During his two days visit, five MoUs and one technical agreement on Sharing Shipping Information between the Indian Navy and Maldives National Defence Force were signed. A Composite Training Centre and a Coastal Surveillance Radar System were also jointly inaugurated. The two countries also agreed to start ferry service between Kochi and Male. A cricket stadium is also going to be built by India that also opens doors for further cooperation in development of the game of cricket.
India had already announced infrastructure development aid worth $ 1.4 billion during former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit last month during the Lok Sabha polls. India’s benign development aid and other measures are aimed at countering China’s chequebook diplomacy to further India’s security and other national interests.
While China like in Maldives is the common factor in the visit of the Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka, there is much more in it than meets the ordinary eye. Island country Sri Lanka, closest southern neighbour, is faced with a simmering crisis as communal tensions between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese community and minority Muslims grows.
In April this year, the Easter Day church bombings further deepened the ongoing crisis of confidence between the two communities that is being politically exploited by the party of Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. President Maithripala Sirisena had won the elections with massive support of the two minority communities of Muslims and Tamils.
Every word that Modi spoke in Sri Lanka was carefully heard across the South Asian region and beyond because while fighting terrorism battle of winning hearts and minds is equally important for total elimination of the menace that is increasingly engulfing more and more countries.
Visit to St. Anthony Church – one of the targets of the terrorist attack in April and the Prime Minister’s expression of solidarity and offer of help along with a call for “joint action” against terrorism are expression of India’s sincere desire to stand with the island nation at the time of crisis and is bound to go well with people.
Neighbourhood has assumed a new meaning today particularly at a time when the international system is going through a turbulent phase with global governance structures crumbling under the new US President Donald Trump’s dispensation. Ongoing rivalry between Washington and Beijing on trade and other issues had added to uncertainties that have turned the world affairs so unpredictable.
In the prevailing circumstances, the success of the policy and the shifting of focus from Islmabad with a stated aim to isolate it may sound good to the domestic audiences and also serve political objectives but Pakistan is a reality that cannot be wished away. Sooner then later, India will have to take a call on it and an unscheduled meeting between Pakistan premier Imran Khan and Modi may be in diplomatic pipeline and breaking news is only awaited.
Dr. Satish Misra is a Veteran Journalist & Research Associate with Observer Research Foundation.