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Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka: Wooing a neighbour with religious diplomacy
Posted:May 17, 2017
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By Sugeeswara Senadhira
The first impression given to the public when both Indian and Sri Lankan leaders emphasized that there will be no bilateral agreements during Indian Prime Minister Naredra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka is that it would be purely a "religious visit"  to inaugurate the 14th UN Vesak Day celebrations. 
Keeping with the portrayed image, President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe underlined the civilisational ties between the two countries, the common link to the Buddha, and the religious, social and cultural ties that bind them when they addressed the inaugural session of the UN Vesak Day.
Indian officials said on the eve of Modi's visit that it was a reflection of the shared Buddhist heritage of the two countries spanning centuries.
Some political analysts were of the opinion that India now wants to use religion as the language when dealing with Sri Lanka as Buddhism could be easily ‘saleable’ to the island's Buddhist majority.
However, Modi’s itinerary and some of the words he used in his speech gave a more wider meaning to the two-day visit, which was effectively a 24-hour visit from May 11 evening to May 12 evening. 
If it was really a religious visit, then, logically, India's Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma should have been in the delegation. However, there was nobody from the Indian Ministry of Culture or any top archaeologists or religious scholars in it. Instead National Security Advisor Ajit  Doval and Foreign Secretary Subramanium Jaishankar were visible at every venue. 
Former intelligence chief Doval is the all powerful policy formulator. Jaishankar is Modi’s trusted political strategist and he was given an unprecedented extension of his two-year term by Modi. His presence was conspicuous at Modi’s meetings, including the late-night chat with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. 
It is true that Modi allotted the biggest part of his Vesak Day address to Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy and its relevance today, and peace building through Buddhism. He also recited a Buddhist 'suutta' and a 'slokha' to emphasize a point. At the same time he loudly wondered what to do about certain destructive elements who are not amenable to dialogue.  That was a not so subtle attack on Muslim extremist elements and their covert or overt supporters (no, he did not mention Pakistan).
Emphasizing on the need for closer economic cooperation between the two countries, Modi said that an economically sound, stable Sri Lanka was all that India wanted. However, Modi pitched for security co-operation that he wants with India's southern neighbour. He pointed out the importance of India’s security on "land, air and sea" borders. 
On Friday afternoon, Modi visited the hill country to open the Dickoya Hospital that has been built with Indian's assistance and also made a visit to the sacred Sri Dalada Maligawa. In Dikoya, where he addressed Indian-origin Tamils who are now citizens of Sri Lanka with a political clout. This is the first time an Indian Prime Minister visited the upcountry plantations. To New Delhi, this ‘vote bloc’ is strategically important.
Before the visit, the Indian spokesman had  said, "Our approach to Sri Lanka is part of our overall 'Neighborhood First' policy and we believe that our destinies are somehow intertwined. That is the importance we attach to this relationship. We hope Prime Minister's visit will provide further momentum to this," he said. "We are very optimistic as we hope that there will be progress in several areas, particularly in economic cooperation as we also look forward to signing the Economic and Technological Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) which is in advanced stage," he added.
However, there was no official discussion either on ECTA or the MoU signed last month in New Delhi by the two sides in the presence of the two Prime Ministers.
As President Sirisena said in his speech at the Vesak Day, Sri Lanka, as the centre of Theravada Buddhism, is keen to spread the teachings of the Buddha to the world. Prime Minister Modi’s visit, as President Sirisena pointed out, would give a special weight to these efforts. When the world would wonder as to what was the purpose of the visit of the charismatic Indian leader to Sri Lanka, more and more international scholars would, study about UN Vesak Day and Buddhist philosophy, he said. 
On the other hand the question arises what would Modi have got out of this ‘religious visit’? Whether one talks political and economic cooperation or not, the visit would definitely boost friendship and cooperation and would be a catalyst for further action on treaties that needed a political push.
Furthermore, the visit would be helpful in boosting Modi’s ‘secular’ image and neutralise some of his hardline ‘Hindutva’ image. By attending UN Vesak Day in Sri Lanka, he gave a message to Buddhist and Scheduled Caste segment of the Indian electorate that he has a broad outlook when it comes to religion. Attending a Buddhist ceremony would not antagonize the average Hindu, as he sees the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, Hinduism's most popular divinity. Internationally too, Modi’s stock would go up as the international community, especially the West, is bending over backward to do business with India, overlooking Modi’s ‘so-called anti-Muslim’ past.
The visit to Sri Lanka would also help Modi to further advance his strategy of isolating Pakistan from the other member nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). On the eve of the Colombo visit, Modi launched the South Asia Satellite and held a live telecast with all other SAARC leaders minus Pakistan. If Modi’s strategy is to succeed, Sri Lanka, one country in SAARC that maintains very close bilateral cooperation with Pakistan, needs to be weaned away gradually. The best weapon for such a strategy is religious politics, and peace-building with Buddhist politics is even better.
Sri Lanka is quite content with the visit as Modi’s presence helped Colombo to project itself as the most important  centre of Theravada Buddhism in the world.  
(The author is Director (Research & International Media), Presidential Secretariat, Colombo. He can be contacted at sugeeswara@gmail.com)
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