What does Modi’s return mean for Sri Lanka?

By N Sathiya Moorthy


The President’s Office in Colombo has since announced that incumbent Maithripala Sirisena would be attending the swearing-in of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a second time, in New Delhi, on 30 May. Indications are that Modi is inviting neighbourhood Heads of State for his Inauguration, as he did on the earlier occasion in May 2014.

In a way, such an occasion will be a reiteration of PM Modi’s first-term declaration of a ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Though India’s bilateral relations with neighbouring nations, barring Pakistan improved during the past five years, the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy per se remained mostly a declaration of a pious declaration of a good intention.

Even in the case of Pakistan, PM Modi did initiate fresh moves on India’s behalf by landing at then counterpart Nawaz Sharif’s Lahore home for the latter’s birthday on 25 December 2015, but it lead to nowhere after the 2 January 2016 cross-border terror-attack on the Indian Air Force Base in Pathankot. The rest is all contemporary history.

Today, when Modi’s launching a second-term, and both his leadership of India and the nation’s growing global importance, the chances are that he may devote equitable time to South Asia as to the rest of the world – if not more. Fair enough to successive Indian PMs from at least Indira Gandhi and up to Modi’s predecessor in Manmohan Singh, they had felt frustrated with the lack of cooperation from neighbours on whatever Indian initiative was possible and extended for the common good.

Modi’s experience with the ‘South Asia’ satellite-launch for weather and other predictions and usage for the region as a whole was nothing much to write home about. Some neighbours did enter the ‘space age’ during his first term, but sent up their maiden satellites aboard extra-regional launch-vehicles. It may have owed to previous commitments or a reflection of the continuing suspicions in the collective neighbourhood over India’s intentions over the medium and long terms. Either way, India would have to address them, and Modi is at the right place at the right time, to do so.

First in 27 years

Modi’s first term witnessed an Indian Prime Minister visiting Sri Lanka on a bilateral for the first time in 28 long years. Before Modi’s visit in March 2015, less than a year after his becoming PM, Rajiv Gandhi was the last Indian PM to visit Sri Lanka, when he signed the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord with late President J R Jayewardene.

Between Rajiv’s visit and the Modi visit, PMs Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh visited Colombo for the bi-annual SAARC Summit, not on an official visit. Singh might have also strained bilateral ties when he chose to stay away from the Commonwealth Summit in end-2013, and upsetting mercurial President Mahinda Rajapaksa, possibly, no end.

The boycott also meant that then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown became the first overseas Head of Government to visit the erstwhile war-zone, as he claimed. Modi’s visit to Jaffna in 2015 thus became historic for his Jaffna visit and the Indian infrastructure projects that he either inaugurated or launched.

Rajiv Gandhi’s visit however is remembered more for a naval cadet attacking the Indian PM at the guard-of-honour in Colombo airport than for the Accord. In turn, the Accord is remembered not for the enactment of 13-A where it mattered but for the non-implementation of the same over the past three decades and more.

Sore thumb, cooling off

Modi’s Sri Lanka visit was a stand-alone affair, considering his multiple visits during the first five years to some of the other neighbourhood nations – and definitely many other global capitals. However, both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been visiting New Delhi and/or rest of India, especially the southern temple-town of Tirupati, every now and again – at times, personal at times official.

Through the past five years, India-Sri Lanka relations have remained low profile otherwise, though a lot of business has got done, especially in terms of economic initiatives and cooperation. However, China remains a sore thumb, considering that the incumbent Government converted the Hambantota port costs from loan to equity, blaming it on the debt-trap created by the Rajapaksa regime, yet went ahead and borrowed more from Beijing.

The China projects and debts went on the fast-track, as always in Sri Lanka’s case. However, Indian interest in the China-built Matale airport and the development of eastern Trincomallee port and town have remained slow-paced as with other Indian initiatives during the Rajapaksa regime and those before it.

On the political front, there is a visible cooling off, either owing to the China cause or other reasons. On the crucial 13-A and the ‘national problem’, there does not seem to be much formal or informal consultation between the two Governments, as under Rajapaksa and the rest. India seemed to have left it all to the new Constitution Assembly in Sri Lanka, which has remained a non-starter for all practical purposes – and, as expected.

Better or worse still, the symptomatic Tamil political equations from the Sri Lankan side towards the Indian Government has also suffered – and even more visibly so. Throughout Modi’s first term, the TNA seemed to have either ignored/overlooked India, preferring the US and other western nations to do their talking with the Colombo Government, in the place of India.

The results, if any, are there for the Tamils and the rest to see. Many in the Sri Lankan Tamil community have reportedly come to see the post-war ‘sole representative’ in the TNA as playing second fiddle to the Government leadership on most crucial issues and at critical junctures. Even when the TNA could have extracted firm and public commitments when PM Wickremesinghe needed their support in Parliament after President Sirisena had replaced him with Rajapaksa in October-November last year, the party purportedly ‘put the nation’s larger interests above the community’s ethnic and political interests’.

Now, when the nation is facing a repeat of the forgettable past after the Easter Sunday serial-blasts, the TNA voted against the extension of Emergency regulations by a month, when Parliament voted for the same recently. The parliamentary vote itself proved to be a sham as all but 30 MPs, including eight of TNA’s 15 took part. The rest stayed away. There are no reports about the action, if any, the TNA was initiating against party MPs who stayed away.

Tamil Nadu angle

From the perspective of certain sections of Sri Lanka’s strategic community and also the divided Tamil polity (which may be said to be disintegrating faster than expected), the Indian elections are important not only for Modi’s re-election, that too with a bigger majority than last time and also for his return to power against perceived odds. To them at least, southern Tamil Nadu’s negative vote against Modi should be an equal pointer, if not more.

In the midst of the long drawn-out Indian elections, Sri Lanka witnessed the unanticipated Easter Day serial-blasts, on 21 April. There is no reason to believe that the blasts ahead of the 18 April polling in Tamil Nadu and many other parts of south India could have helped Modi’s BJP and electoral allies, including ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.

If ‘Pulwama’ and other immediate security issues pertaining to the nation could not turn the Tamil Nadu voter in favour of Modi, as at least some voters in the rest of India had purportedly done, there is nothing to suggest that a serial-blasts across the Palk Strait would have made a difference. Truth be told, after the ‘Coimbatore serial blasts’ in the state’s western region which then top BJP leader and federal home minister L K Advani had a providential escape, Tamil Nadu handed down a split verdict in terms of Lok Sabha seats for rival alliances, one of them led by the party and included AIADMK, then under the late charismatic leader, Jayalalithaa.

As through most of the post-Accord era, especially after the LTTE assassination of then party leader Appapillai Amirthalingam, the TNA has been circumspect in associating with Tamil Nadu’s dominant ‘Dravidian’ political parties. However, this time round, former TNA Chief Minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, former Supreme Court Judge, C V Wigneswaran, now leading the breakaway Tamil People’s Alliance (TPA) lost no time in congratulating Tamil Nadu’s Opposition DMK leader, M K Stalin.

Stalin-led DMK alliance, of which the Congress Party, opposed to Modi’s BJP at the national-level, won 37 of the 38 parliamentary seats from Tamil Nadu for which elections were held. The Congress ally also won the lone seat from the Union Territory of Puducherry, another Tamil political unit under the Indian Union. Election for the Vellore seat in Tamil Nadu was cancelled over corruption issues, only one of the 543 seats across the country, where fresh polling dates would be announced later.

It’s not only the likes Wigneswaran who are selectively seeking to play the ‘Tamil Nadu card’. The pro-LTTE Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, especially the TGTE, has been playing around common Tamil sentiments in India, but to little or no effect. Ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls in the Indian State, the TGTE openly supported then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK – not that the TGTE or other Sri Lankan Tamil parties and groups mattered electorally in India, now or earlier.

Yet, there may be genuine concerns in Sri Lanka about some ‘pan-Tamil parties’ like actor-politician Seeman’s ‘Naam Tamizhar Katchi’, (NTK) or ‘We, the Tamils Party’, making some vote-share gains in the state. While not coming anywhere close to winning any Lok Sabha seats or even one to the State Assembly, for which by-elections in 22 constituencies (electorates) were held simultaneously, the NTK did a relatively respectable 3.88 per cent vote-share.

Among other ‘minor parties’, the breakaway AIADMK party in the ‘Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam’ (AMMK), led by T T V Dhinakaran, maternal nephew of Jayalalithaa’s jailed, one-time live-in confidante Sasikala Natarajan, came on top, with 5.25 per cent vote-share, most of which otherwise possibly belonging to the parent party. The third minor party contesting alone was actor-politician Kamalhassan’s Makkal Needhi Maiyam (MNM), with 3.72 per cent vote-share. All political parties, or their allies, contested in all 38 LS constituencies and all 22 Assembly seats for which by-elections were held.

There is nothing to suggest that NTK or any of the other minor parties, together or separately, could have gained a seat, not even to the State Assembly. Their combined total of 12.72 per cent vote-share is at best a reflection of the selective yet continuing Tamil disenchantment with the status quo. Adding the ‘NOTA’ vote, or ‘none-of-the-above’ self-declared disenchanted voters in India who in recent times are given the freedom to register their ‘protest’ (?) in electoral terms, would not have made much difference.

Leaving out the AMMK, whose votes might have otherwise gone to the parent AIADMK without the break-up, the two other minor parties, along with NOTA vote of 1.28 per cent would have added up to only 8.8 per cent vote-share, the kind of which has been recorded by new-comers to electoral politics in the State over the past seven decades and more. From every national election since Independent India’s first one in 1952, around 10 per cent of Tamil Nadu voters have stayed away from the mainstream, but to no avail, otherwise. Worse still in recent decades, in the absence of sustainability and staying-capacity, they have either withered away or merged with bigger parties and/or alliances.

What does it all mean for India’s Sri Lanka relations? Selectively reading the TN voting figures, the Diaspora on the one hand and the NTK on the other, jointly or severally, would seek to provoke the official Opposition in the DMK now and the ruling AIADMK, in turn, to flag the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil cause’, from political platforms and also the state Assembly and national Parliament. With local government elections in the State long overdue and Assembly polls scheduled for May 2021, the NTK, and not Kamalahassan’s MNM, would seek to sustain its vote-base and build on the same, but it might not make much of a difference.

If anything, in the light of the ‘Easter serial-blasts’, the DMK and other mainline Tamil Nadu parties would seek to play it safe on the Sri Lanka front, in their pronouncements and private thinking. The DMK was the electoral victim of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination (1991) and the ‘Coimbatore serial-blasts’ (1998). The AIADMK might have electorally benefited from the same, but as the party in power just now, the leadership may well be aware of the ‘Tamil Nadu links’ of the blasts-perpetrators in Sri Lanka, as has been reported since.

Indications are that despite grave provocation to the contrary, Tamil Nadu’s mainline political parties would play safe on the ‘Sri Lankan ethnic issue’ or any other related concern. Considering that the mainline TNA itself seems to have kept away from Tamil Nadu and even Government of India for most parts, their ignorance and negligence would be understandable even more. Yet, as in the past, the possibility of ignorant voices from Sri Lanka making political hay, citing statements from select Tamil Nadu political parties, cannot be ruled out either. After all, they have been doing the same, insensitive to the blasts nearer home, and have been playing politics with allegations of intelligence-failure and police probe, not to mention the abject absence of impartiality of the political leadership in dealing with related issues!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)


  1. There are some huge biases in this article that need clearing up.

    The AIADMK did not campaign on a united front and indeed the internal conflict had been taken to the High Court during the early months of 2019. The lack of a strong leader handed the government to DMK. In many ways it was not a vote on Modi, which it won in 2016 anyway.

    Furthermore, it is very much highly likely that the Easter Bombings would have played a role in the elections. There are plenty of Sri Lankan Tamils on social media complaining about the lack of media coverage over the riots and conflicts between Muslims and Non-Muslims in Sri Lanka.


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