Briefing statements often veer between the effusive and the inane. The one issued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, during the visit of Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena achieved this balance with aplomb. In the 27 paragraph-statement, the word Tamil was not mentioned even once. The only reference, and that too as a politically neutral expression—Internally Displaced Persons—occurs in the context of India helping build 27,000 houses in Sri Lanka. Forget contentious subjects such as the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution (that devolves greater power to Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern regions), the statement was extraordinarily deferential to Colombo’s sensitivities.

To be fair to the prime minister, the official spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs had clearly stated last week that return of Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka was work in progress. He also said that subjects such as the 13th Amendment would feature in the discussions between the two leaders.

The two countries did agree to four, rather low-key agreements on agriculture, nuclear cooperation (for medical and scientific purposes) and other subjects (cultural cooperation and enabling Sri Lanka to participate in the Nalanda University Project).

What is the reason for India’s deference to Colombo? For starters, India does not want to queer the pitch for Sirisena by insisting on a solution to a tough problem. Sri Lanka’s politics was polarized during the long fight with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which was further accentuated during the decade-long rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa who cynically used it to bolster his appeal and pulverize the opposition—or whatever remained of it—into submission. Sirisena has barely begun the process of return to normalcy. It is best not to make demands of him that will create problems for him. A complicating factor is his dependence on the same hardline Sinhala electorate that once supported Rajapaksa.

While the Tamil issue has an emotional resonance in India, it should not be allowed to distort India’s interests in Sri Lanka. Foremost among these interests is to keep its southern flank free from any external political and military influence. Bringing back Colombo to a state of acceptable neutrality (code for reduced Chinese influence) should be India’s primary goal at the moment. Rajapaksa had gone to an extreme that went against India’s interests: if Chinese submarines begin calling on Sri Lankan ports for goodwill missions, then that is too much of goodwill for India.

Restoring balance in our relations with Colombo is important for another reason. In the second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the conduct of foreign policy had become hostage to interests of regional parties. The refusal of prime minister Manmohan Singh to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo in 2013 hurt the Sri Lankans. India’s abstention from voting at the United Nations Human Rights Council, during an NGO lobby-promoted resolution on human rights, was another irritant. These actions reduced the room for manoeuvre of the Union government in making informed foreign policy choices. If Modi does what is necessary to further India’s interests in Sri Lanka without fear of domestic repercussions, he will restore insulation in foreign policymaking.

Global Roaming runs every Tuesday to take stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.

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