Premier Modi’s visit | Sunday Observer

Premier Modi’s visit

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brief formal visit to Sri Lanka last week was his second in two years, and follows several official visits by Indian ministers and senior Indian officials over the past two years. Similarly, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have visited Delhi and other Indian centres several times over the past two years.

Such Indo-Sri Lankan exchanges since the inception of the National Unity Alliance coalition government have been many, with not only several ministers and senior officials leading delegations to various Indian centres, but private sector delegations also crossing the Palk Strait in search of fruitful new opportunities and advantageous Sub-Continental connections.

This renewed interaction between little Sri Lanka and giant neighbour, India, comes after the bizarre estrangement between these two closest of neighbours during the previous Rajapaksa regime - a diplomatic anomaly typical of the ultra-nationalist posturing of a dictatorial regime that sought to violently crush all opposition, whether ethnic minorities or political dissenters and opposition parties. Whipping up ethno-nationalist fervour was concomitant with fear of the foreign, fears also stirred by social discourses highlighting foreign impositions rather than the many benign influences that have been the bedrock of our island civilization.

Shri Modi, himself, embodies some of the cultural affinities of both countries, namely, a religious piety that appreciates and values all the various branches of the ancient sub–continental spirituality. At the same time, his roots are in provincial rusticity and not the anglicized elite, an attribute that resonates with popular cultural chords here.

This second visit focused solely on the cultural and social with Shri Modi’s primary activity being officiating as Chief Guest at the International Vesak Celebration of the UN, hosted this year by Sri Lanka.

Thus, it was to the temple that the Indian leader first went on his arrival to worship the Buddha and be blessed by the Sangha. Then, the Indian leader officiated at the festive inauguration of the International Vesak celebrations, a mix of solemn observances and celebratory cultural splendour.

The Indian media highlighted their Premier’s visit here noting the importance of Indo-Sri Lankan ties for regional stability.

Indeed, those who waited to whip up xenophobia had little to chew on since there were no whirlwind signing of deals unlike the frenzy of deal-making, much of it secretive, that was the hallmark of diplomatic exercises during the previous regime.

Since this government is bound by its commitment to transparency and good governance, not only are bilateral arrangements being done with openness and wide participation of stakeholders, but also with some slowness due to serious attention being paid to issues and their complexity.

The Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) sought by both countries is intended to be as comprehensive as necessary for an arrangement between two very closely related nations with a multitude of linkages and interactions. Indeed, major stakeholders in both countries, ranging from business investors to export-import traders, to the tourism industry, and, to the education and health sectors, among others, are eagerly waiting for the finalization of ETCA so that bilateral collaborations can be mutually supportive in the intensely competitive global economy.

If the business angle is obvious, the social and cultural angles are numerous and the opportunities as exciting.

Premier Modi’s promise that the free public ambulance service introduced here with Indian support would be expanded island wide will be appreciated by all Sri Lankans, especially, the vast majority of the population living in the provinces who cannot benefit from private ambulance services. After all, our indigenous system of medicine also derives from the greater ancient, Ayurvedic traditions of the Sub-continent. Even as Indian and Sri Lankan patients now cross the Strait in search of treatment and health care, ETCA and other collaborative arrangements will further expand such mutually beneficial exchanges.

The destination of the largest number of Sri Lankan travellers overseas is already the Sub-continent and has always been so since the dawn of humanity in this region, thanks to our geographical proximity. ETCA will enable the development of this into a well organized industry that will benefit travellers of all kinds, from pilgrims to tourists to students and sporting teams.

After his attendance at various religious events in Colombo, and formal meetings with national leaders - including former President Mahinda Rajapaksa - the Indian Premier then attended a social development event of the hill country community as a community with the most recent social relationship with India.

In all, this visit symbolizes the deep interrelationship between the two countries where no single visit can encapsulate all aspects of the bilateral linkage.

With such cultural and social affinities affirmed, it is now time to complete the details of the larger relationship. ETCA, energy sharing, fisheries, regional ecological sustainability, ethnic peace and cross-border security all await more hard work and cooperation among all stakeholders.