If the invitation by Shree Narendra Modi to President Mahinda Rajapaksa to be present at his swearing in as Prime Minister of India was an important symbol of a new relationship between India and Sri Lanka, and the building of stronger ties of friendship in SAARC, the arrival here this week of a delegation from the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP), the massive leader of the current NDA government of India, is a further sign of the warming of relationships between the two South Asian neighbours.
The five-member delegation comprised prominent politicians, academics, journalists, all those with considerable influence in the current politics of India. Their interaction with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and others in Sri Lanka, gave very good signs of the emerging trends in the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship that bode well for the future. This helps to set aside much of the concerns that existed about a possible weakening of ties between the two countries, that some believed would take place with the defeat of the Indian Congress-led UPA government, and the massive victory of the BJP-led NDA led by Narendra Modi.
This visit also helped put in proper perspective the situation with regard to the role of Tamil Nadu vis-à-vis the BJP-led Government in New Delhi, with regard to India's relationship with Sri Lanka, at a time when there are issues such as fishing In the northern waters of Sri Lanka remains to be resolved, and the Jayalalithaa demands over the status of Kachchativu that keeps coming up time and again, despite the firm position of New Delhi that this is a non-issue due to existing treaties between the two countries.
The group comprising Dr. Subramanian Swamy, Chairman of the BJP's Committee on Strategic Action, Dr. Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu, Dr. Chari Seshadri Ramanujan, Dr. Swapan Dasgupta and Prof. Madhav Nalapat, met President Rajapaksa at Temple Trees, where they discussed a number of issues of bilateral and regional significance, including the functions carried out by the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Sri Lanka's strategic importance in relation to this work, indicating that Sri Lanka plays a pivotal role in guarding the Indian Ocean. They pledged their fullest support for a continued Sri Lankan role in this regard.
President Rajapaksa told the team of Sri Lanka's interest in establishing a centre of excellence in maritime and environmental studies.
The BJP made it clear to President Rajapaksa that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants "excellent relations with Sri Lanka."
Defeat of terror
Speaking on the post-conflict progress that Sri Lanka is making, Dr. Ramanujan said: "Sri Lanka is the only country that has decisively dealt with terrorism." They pointed out that Sri Lanka's security is important to India, and that the end of the battle against terrorism has benefited Indian security as well.
In particular, they commended the government's initiatives in the North and East towards improving infrastructure, bringing better educational opportunities to students and implementing programs to make Sri Lanka a trilingual nation.
The experience and standing of the members of this delegation and their role in current Indian political thinking and analysis give a good indication of the importance attached to Sri Lanka - India relations by the BJP today.
Dr. Subramanian Swamy well known in Sri Lanka as a staunch opponent of the LTTE and the Tamil Nadu support for separatist terrorists is a well experienced Indian politician and economist. He was the President of the Janata Party, which merged with the BJP in August 2013. A former Minister of Commerce and Industry and later Law and Justice, he served as a member of the Planning Commission of India, and has written on foreign affairs of India dealing largely with China, Pakistan and Israel. In 1978, Swamy was a member of the Group of Eminent Persons called to Geneva to prepare a report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on Economic Cooperation among Developing Countries (ECDC).
Dr. Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu is a four-time Member of the Lok Sabha from the Rajapur Constituency of Maharashtra - one of the biggest states of India. He was Industry Minister, Government of India in his first term. Later he was Minister of Environment and Forests, and Minister of Fertilizers and Chemicals. He was also Union Minister of Power, Heavy Industry and Public Enterprises. In the last office he is known for the new dynamism brought to the functioning of the Ministry and was committed to the all round development of this crucial sector. Recently, he has been heavily involved in the international sphere, being elected a member of the World Bank parliamentary network and nominated as the Chairman of the South Asia Water conference. The NDA government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appointed him as the head of a high-level panel on power revamp "Advisory Group for Integrated Development of Power, Coal and Renewable Energy."
Dr. Swapan Dasgupta is a senior Indian journalist, having held senior editorial posts at The Statesman, The Daily Telegraph, The Times of India, The Indian Express and most recently India Today. Over the last decade, he has been accepted as being one of the most frequently appearing faces on Indian television, with strong political views that have a commitment to progress and secular thinking.
Prof. Madhav Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair and is Director of the Geopolitics and International Relations Department at Manipal University. The former Coordinating Editor of the Times of India, he writes extensively on security policy and international affairs. Nalapat is known to influence policy at the highest levels. He is also the foreign affairs expert of Organiser, the in-house publication of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Dr. Chari Seshadri Ramanujan is an important political thinker and strategist and National Convenor of the Foreign Policy Cell of the BJP.
The Modi relevance
If the delegation had a very good and useful meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, that sought to bring the Indo-Lanka relations to a new level of friendship and interaction, this position was expanded by Dr. Subramanian Swamy at a panel discussion on "India under Modi: Relevance or the Region and the World" held later the same day at the BMICH, organized by the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies.
He stressed that India will stand by Sri Lanka's position at the UNHRC, said that there is no fundamental conflict in Sri Lanka. He said that Human Rights are being used as a tool by some quarters to belittle Sri Lanka's achievement in crushing one of the most ruthless terrorist outfits in the world, adding that India is proud of President Mahinda Rajapaksa who decisively defeated terrorism in Sri Lanka.
"No other country has so decisively defeated terrorism," he added.
He noted that India's policy towards Sri Lanka suffered a setback due to the fact of there being a veto from the principal and governing parties of Tamil Nadu, but explained that today there is a shift in foreign policy under the Modi Government of India. "Our policy is based on national interests, which supersedes the interests of States," he stressed. Swamy noted that all hard liners against Sri Lanka were defeated at the general election held in May.
He said there was substantial opposition to President Rajapaksa's visit to India, but, Prime Minister Narendra Modi overruled such thinking, adding that the government led by Narendra Modi has stressed on more cooperation and partnership among the countries in the region.
Swamy noted that Premier Modi has focused special attention on strengthening cooperation among the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries.
"Major restructuring has been started in the SAARC and the organization will be developed into a unit that can solve bilateral issues," he said.
"There are issues that require unanimity and they will be on the agenda of the next SAARC meeting to be held in Kathmandu," he said.
Dr. Suresh Prabhu stated that Sri Lanka can enter the energy market of India too, noting that India has invested in Bhutan and buys electricity from Bhutan. "It is a win-win situation," he said, being of the view that Sri Lanka can enter the huge energy market by providing energy to India as well.
No probe visas
In a very interesting and related development, Sri Lanka had the welcome news this week of five South Asian countries - India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Maldives -- expressing their objection to the United Nations Human Rights Council's international investigation into Sri Lanka by refusing the UNHRC investigation team visas to enter their countries to conduct this probe.
It is learnt that this move has come following the leadership by India, which augurs well with India's promoting of better relations with the SAARC members.
Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa has said that the UNHCR has appointed a committee comprising 13 individuals and three experts. While conducting investigations from Western countries, they also want to conduct the investigations in a country close to Sri Lanka.
India as an important country in this regard, has rejected entry visas to these investigators. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives have taken a similar stance, and are not willing to provide support for an inquiry brought on an individual country. Even Afghanistan has shown its objection towards this, he said.
With this development, the UNHRC Committee will have to conduct the investigation from outside South Asia, and most likely will have to contact witnesses in Sri Lanka through Skype and teleconferencing. Meanwhile, the committee appointed by Navi Pillay will set in motion its investigations from three different locations worldwide, established in New York (USA), Bangkok (Thailand), and Geneva (Switzerland). Further developments on this, which will be supportive of Sri Lanka's position, are expected to be revealed in the coming weeks.