Sunday, March 8, 2015

India waits for Modi’s cruise

Pankaj Sharma
9 March 2015, New Delhi

Prime Minister Modi would do well to remember
Rajiv Gandhi during his visit to Sri Lanka

        I was a young journalist when Rajiv Gandhi visited Sri Lanka as India’s Prime Minister in July, 1987. Apart from winning 404 seats for the Congress party on his way to the Prime Minister’s office, Rajiv was a ray of hope for not only India but the entire Third World. He was passionate about taking India into the 21st century and had laid out an exciting road map for a new world order. Those were the days when Rajiv’s popularity was still at its peak, with global powers closely observing his every diplomatic move. 

    Global diplomacy has dramatically changed in the last quarter of a century. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting Sri Lanka in the following week. During his visit, Modi will hold meetings with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and other senior leaders across the political spectrum in the island nation. It is yet to be seen whether Modi’s visit will provide the much needed impetus for building closer diplomatic contact, besides enhancing mutual cooperation and understanding on major issues of common interest.

      Modi will visit Jaffna and later address the Sri Lankan parliament. He will be the first Indian Prime Minister and the second head of state after Britain’s premier David Cameron to visit Jaffna, a region where Rajiv Gandhi put his best foot forward in India’s national interests. On the eve of Modi’s visit, however, certain political commentators are trying to find faults with Rajiv’s Sri Lanka policy. They have been enthused over the fact that Rajiv could not address the Sri Lankan Parliament and Modi will only be the fourth Indian prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai to address it. These commentators are also trying to tell us that the assault on Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by Wijemuni Vijitha Rohana de Silva, a soldier of Sri Lankan Navy, was an outcome of the former’s diplomatic failures.

       I had an opportunity to visit Jaffna as a journalist, when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was there. I am of the firm opinion that those who criticise Rajiv’s Sri Lanka policy deliberately fail to appreciate his contribution in protecting India’s unity, national interest and territorial integrity, which were under severe threat. Those were the days when external powers were seeking to establish their base and LTTE’s separatist activities had the potential to spill over to Tamil Nadu. LTTE had started working on its dream of greater Tamil Eelam. It was in response to this grave situation that Rajiv Gandhi, on the request of the then Sri Lankan President JR Jayewardene, sent the IPKF to Sri Lanka. IPKF did a commendable job in the island nation, where it restored order in the northern and eastern parts, worked hard to disarm LTTE forces and protected the civilian population in conflict zones. Rajiv had to ultimately sacrifice his life.

Before Prime Minister Modi visits our maritime neighbours, we must recall that Rajiv Gandhi’s dream of a new world order was based on India’s position at the top of the pile. The whole gamut of his foreign policy was geared towards making India strong in a real sense. He practiced a dynamic form of diplomacy that suited India’s purpose. It was conciliatory and accommodating when required and assertive when necessary.

      Modi’s visit comes within a month of new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s trip to India last month, which saw both countries sign a civil nuclear pact. This was Sirisena’s first foreign visit after assuming charge following a bitter presidential poll in which he defeated strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, ending his 10-year rule. India’s desire to further strengthen ties in the Indian Ocean region, especially with Sri Lanka, must be backed with sound diplomacy. The threat to Indian fishermen from Sri Lanka is not a new thing. It was there during Rajiv-Jayewardene days too, three decades ago. I still remember how Rajiv sent Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari to Sri Lanka in March 1985 and his two-day stay in Colombo created the required atmosphere for smooth relations between both countries by calming everyone’s nerves. In this context, it is shocking to witness Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe’s comments that Indian fishermen may be shot if they intruded into Sri Lankan waters. Is it not a matter of serious concern that during the visit of our Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to Colombo, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe snubbed India by making such a rude statement?

Those who criticise Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to send the IPKF to Sri Lanka “without even informing the cabinet” must not forget that consequent presence of our peace keeping forces have been instrumental in ending the decade-long blood bath that took place. Those who think India can remain a mute and idle bystander to what happens in its neighbourhood should revisit the pages of history.

     Narendra Modi has visited eight countries in last nine months and will be touring Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka from 10 to 14 March. The decibel level of his visits to Bhutan, Brazil, Nepal, Japan, United States, Myanmar, Australia and Fiji was quite high. However, we are still waiting to listen to the real echo of the lyrics that were sung all over. The waves in the Indian Ocean need strong manoeuvring. Let’s hope that our prime minister will achieve the required results from his cruise to the island nation. 

Author is editor & CEO of News Views India

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