Soon after assuming his second term in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his fresh diplomatic innings by prioritising ties with the key neighbourhood States of Maldives and Sri Lanka. On Saturday, he received a warm welcome from the relatively new government of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih who defeated the pro-China President Yameen Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom in his time in office had subverted the Constitution, arrested Opposition leaders, sacked the independent judges and clamped down on civic freedoms and a free press.
The new government has restored popular rule and civic rights. And, equally significantly, recalibrated foreign policy to purge the strong pro-China tilt. In fact, former President Mohamed Nasheed who was persecuted by Gayoom lived in India during his forced exile. Nasheed is now the Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament or Majlis. Addressing the Majlis, Modi pointedly mentioned that India had no desire to trap Maldives under a burden of debt, a clear reference to China which accounts for 70 per cent of her external debt. “We don’t want to either increase people’s dependence on us or to leave their future generations with an impossible burden of debt.”
China has exploited its superior financial clout to set the direction of foreign and domestic policies of the relatively poorer recipient-countries by extending generous project and other loans. Pakistanis are already beginning to resent the way China has curbed their freedoms through huge investments in shipyards and other infrastructure projects. Modi also spoke of the state-sponsorship of terrorism as one of the biggest dangers to the world, a clear pointer to Pakistan. It was unfortunate that some people still made a distinction between a good and a bad terrorist. The Prime Minister proposed a global conference on countering terrorism along the lines of summits on climate change. Maldives too in recent years has come to face a serious threat from growing Islamic radicalisation. Six agreements were signed, including the development of a cricket stadium. To bail out the debt trapped nation, India had extended financial assistance of $ 1.4 billion last December. Maldivian President Solih said that though ties with China will continue his country espouses ‘India First’ approach, indicating growing fears of malign Chinese designs.
Maldives is important for China’s Maritime Silk Road project in the Indian Ocean. It already controls the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka through a reckless expansion of debt to the island nation. While the PM had skipped visiting Maldives during his first term, it was his third visit to Sri Lanka on Sunday. Coming in the backdrop of the Easter terror attacks on churches which killed more than 250 people, terrorism was high on the agenda. India has been assisting Sri Lanka in unravelling the conspiracy behind that deadly terror attack.
The prime minister visited the St Anthony’s Church in Colombo as a mark of respect to the victims of the synchronised terrorist attacks. He asserted that the cowardly terrorist acts cannot ‘break the spirit of Sri Lanka’ and pledged India’s full cooperation in helping it combat the scourge. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, under pressure from his own friend-turned-foe Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been hard put to explain his failure to act on advance intelligence input provided by India about the Easter blasts.
However, the Sri Lankan government as a whole was happy to see Modi win the general election, appreciating that his strong anti-terror stand would ensure further cooperation from India in fighting its home-grown terror, and to balance ties with China which under the previous dispensation had tilted wildly in favour of China. Modi’s visit to the island nation comes at a time when the Sri Lankan society is thoroughly divided on communal lines with the 70 per cent Sinhala population turning increasingly hostile against nearly ten per cent Muslim component following the barbaric blasts last Easter. Admittedly, Prime Minister
Modi’s first visit after winning re-election to Maldives and Sri Lanka underlines India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. President Sirisena along with four of his ministers had attended the swearing-in ceremony of the second Modi government.