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Time to call on Colombo

comment Updated: Aug 19, 2014 22:59 IST

It should have been fairly high on the agenda, but barring the photo-op when Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa attended the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the island nation seems to have dropped off the foreign policy radar.

The reason seems fairly easy to discern, it has all to do with internal politics, particularly Tamil politics.

AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa is not one to take it lightly if the Modi government were to disregard her feelings, especially on the Indian fishermen issue, and extended its outreach to Colombo.

But this would be myopic in the long run, given Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to India. In fact, if the Indian government is seen to interfere too much on the Tamil front, it could well be detrimental to the cause the Tamil islanders.

Of course, New Delhi’s engagement with Colombo would give it more opportunities to seek a better deal for the Tamils. And it must do this. Sri Lanka is part of China’s strategic plans of gaining a foothold in India’s neighbourhood, what is being called its string of pearls project.

China has already invested heavily in ports and infrastructure in the island, which is recovering from the debilitating war. India cannot afford to adopt a hands-off policy with Sri Lanka if it is serious about deepening ties in the neighbourhood.

The government should have, by now, got the Tamil MPs on board on the fishermen issue and made it clear to Tamil parties that foreign policy cannot be held hostage to regional political compulsions. The government certainly has the mandate to do this.

The external affairs minister has been meeting the Tamil MPs but it must be made clear that the NDA government is in the driver’s seat. The Rajapaksa government is well-disposed towards New Delhi but the previous government did not really seem to notice or reciprocate in any serious measure.

The points of contention with Sri Lanka, unlike say with a Pakistan, are very few and can easily be sorted out.

There is a strong government with a decisive mandate in both countries. This affords both the best possible chance to take ties to the next level.

Though there are reports suggesting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi may visit Sri Lanka early, our peripatetic external affairs minister can set the ball rolling.