Indian PM Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy puts Sri Lanka in the spotlight | Sunday Observer

Indian PM Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy puts Sri Lanka in the spotlight

25 June, 2023
President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi
President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi, the 73-year-old Indian Prime Minister from Gujarat, recently achieved a remarkable milestone by completing nine years in office on May 26, 2023. Throughout his tenure, which began in May 2014, Modi has continuously challenged conventional political norms, prioritising the uplift of the Indian economy and pursuing a “Neighbourhood First” policy, with Sri Lanka being at the forefront of this approach.

Throughout his nine-year tenure as Prime Minister, Modi has set an exemplary standard for others to emulate. His transformative endeavours have propelled India from its modest beginnings towards prosperity, earning him significant recognition.

During Modi’s tenure, India’s economy has experienced substantial growth, surpassing the US$ 3.5 trillion mark from its initial 1 trillion dollars in 2014. This exceptional progress serves as tangible evidence for Sri Lanka, India’s prominent neighbour, that India is undoubtedly the path to follow in various aspects. In fact, Union Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar recently emphasized that India has provided more assistance to Sri Lanka than even the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Financial support

India reaffirmed its commitment to the people of Sri Lanka to enable them to use the US$ 1 bn Indian credit facility for the procurement of medicine, food and other essentials for one more year. On more than three occasions, India has awarded credit lines with minimal interest rates.

Dr. Jaishankar underscored the importance of India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy and highlighted the significant financial support of US$ 4 billion provided by India to Sri Lanka last year. He emphasized that India was the first nation to extend assistance to Sri Lanka for debt restructuring and play a crucial role in securing financing assurances from the IMF. This support has been instrumental in facilitating Sri Lanka’s progress and enabling the implementation of the IMF program.

Additionally, Dr. Jaishankar reaffirmed India’s commitment to fostering greater investments in key sectors of the Sri Lankan economy. He emphasized that India stands ready to provide further support whenever Sri Lanka needs it. He welcomed the agreement in principle on a renewable energy framework, which aims to address Sri Lanka’s energy security challenges.

Despite facing increasing political criticism and personal attacks, Narendra Modi has shown remarkable resilience in dealing with various domestic and international crises. Rooted in his humble beginnings, he has applied his personal philosophy to drive India’s transformative journey. A recent example of his distinct approach was witnessed during the inauguration of the new Parliament in New Delhi, where he chose to walk alone towards the building, halting his motorcade, bodyguards and bureaucrats some 200 meters away.

Another testament to his commitment to equality is the appointment of Droupadi Murmu, a member of the tribal community, as the President of India. This decision reflects his dedication to providing equal opportunities to deserving individuals, regardless of their background.

When faced with the loss of his mother, Modi led the funeral procession personally, demonstrating his simplicity and rejection of extravagant rituals. Modi’s actions have exemplified his commitment to serving the nation and his determination to bring about positive change solidifying his stature as a distinguished global leader.

In 2019, the Modi Government fulfilled a significant electoral promise by revoking Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, despite facing substantial protests. These articles granted a special status to the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, setting it apart from the rest of the country and contributing to separatist sentiments. The decision to abolish these articles was made with the aim of addressing the issue of separatism and promoting closer integration of Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of India.

One significant aspect of India’s transformation under Modi’s leadership has been its transition into a digital economy. In the fight against black money, the Modi Government took proactive measures by establishing the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on its first day in office.

Currently, the Indian Government is working in collaboration with the Swiss Government to obtain information on cases investigated by the Income Tax Department. Additionally, the Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets (Imposition of Tax) Bill 2015 was approved by the Government. This bill includes strict penalties and punishments for undisclosed foreign income and assets, while also mandating the use of PAN (Permanent Account Number) for transactions involving amounts exceeding INR 100,000.

Personal guarantee

Following Narendra Modi’s election victory in 2014, Sri Lankan politicians warmly embraced his leadership, with former Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the brother of Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa at that time, even drawing similarities between Modi and his brother. However, the political landscape has since shifted, with the Rajapaksas facing a huge setback politically and decline in popularity, while India’s economic policies have gained recognition under the term ‘Modinomics.’ Furthermore, India has provided significant assistance to Sri Lanka, including substantial financial aid and India’s personal guarantee in obtaining the IMF bailout of US$ 2.9 bn in support for the country’s economic stability.

Senior BJP leader Vijay Jolly told this writer, “Prime Minister Modi has proved that after completion of nine years in power, he still commands the majority admiration of all Indians.” He said, “Modi as the Prime Minister as emerged as a global leader and is widely accepted by Western leaders and nations alike. He added their leader has made India politically, militarily and diplomatically vibrant.

He stressed that their leader has provided Sri Lanka a fiscal breather during its serious financial crisis and India stood as an all-weather friend of Sri Lanka. On India’s support of houses in Sri Lanka, Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Gopal Baglay, highlighted the significant funding for the Indian Housing Projects (IHP). He emphasized the expeditious completion of Phase-3 of the IHP, which aims to construct 4,000 houses through grant assistance from the Government of India (GOI) in the plantation areas of Sri Lanka. These houses are being built across seven districts in the Central, Uva, and Southern Provinces.

Baglay said that the first two phases of the IHP have already resulted in the construction of around 46,000 houses in different parts of Sri Lanka. In line with Prime Minister Modi’s announcement, the next phase of the project will commence soon and will focus on constructing an additional 10,000 houses in the plantation areas, the High Commissioner added.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy towards India has had mood swings. While Sri Lanka has been having a close alliance with China, they express appreciation and gratitude whenever India provides assistance. However, Sri Lankans have also demonstrated a tendency to revert to aligning with China afterwards which reflects the complex dynamics of Sri Lanka’s relationship with both India and China.

Energy sectors

Currently, India is actively engaged in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery efforts as the crisis-hit country is struggling. Discussions have centered on further economic integration, increasing Indian investments and tourism in Sri Lanka, promoting bilateral trade, and collaborating in the power and energy sectors. However, Sri Lanka maintains its stance as a sovereign entity, emphasizing that it cannot be controlled by India. The strained relationship, particularly during the war period, has been attributed to the perception that India does not support the political aspirations of Southern politicians. These factors have contributed to challenges in the India-Sri Lanka ties.

India has taken proactive measures to counterbalance China’s influence in Sri Lanka. This includes providing financial aid, infrastructure development, and support for Sri Lanka’s economic stability. The Modi Government has also emphasized the importance of bilateral cooperation, increased investments, and collaborations in key sectors such as trade, energy, and tourism.

India’s engagement with Sri Lanka now surpasses the efforts of any previous Indian administrations. Despite fluctuations in the relationship, both Premier Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have catered to the interests of the tiny island in a manner that can be perceived as a competition between the two economic giants.

In navigating this complex situation, the Modi Government has also had to consider the Tamil Nadu (TN) factor, where there is limited support for the BJP.

Recognising the importance of maintaining influence over the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, Modi has worked tirelessly to strengthen the BJP’s presence in TN.

As part of his approach to promote peace and stability in Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Modi has called upon the Sri Lankan Government to implement the 13th Amendment. This Constitutional Amendment is considered vital for achieving peace and stability in Sri Lanka and the wider region. Premier Modi has consistently expressed unwavering support for TN and Sri Lankan Tamils, aiming to prevent the recurrence of a civil war and foster harmony in the region.

“India’s foreign policy has experienced remarkable changes, leading to a transformation in the nation’s global standing. The world now witnesses India’s rapid progress across all domains, inspiring other countries to seek collaboration with us,” Dr. Jaishankar said recently.

Over the course of nearly a decade, India’s economy has undergone significant transformations due to Prime Minister Modi’s decision-making, resulting in profound and lasting impacts. His reputation as a statesman extends beyond mere political recognition, commanding deep respect and often inviting comparisons with global leaders. As India’s neighbouring country, Sri Lanka stands to gain valuable knowledge and benefits from having such a statesman in the neighbourhood.

The bond will be strengthened further when President Ranil Wickremesinghe makes an official visit to India next month for bilateral talks with Indian political and business leaders. This will be his first visit to India since becoming President last year. The two leaders know each other very well, which should bode well for the future diplomatic relationship.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist.