Narendra Modi in Sri Lanka: PM is transforming India's foreign policy through soft power and cultural diplomacy

On the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Sri Lanka to take part as the chief guest in International Vesak Day celebrations — the most significant day in Buddhist calendar — Chinese President Xi Jinping was giving final touches to the first Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a super-massive infrastructure project connecting China with Europe and Middle East. Nearly 30 world leaders have flown to Beijing to take part in Sunday's maiden forum.

 Narendra Modi in Sri Lanka: PM is transforming Indias foreign policy through soft power and cultural diplomacy

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AFP

China has already invested more than $50 billion into the project and global ratings agencies suggest the final figure could be as high as $900 billion, connecting 100 countries through the ancient 'Silk Road Economic Belt' (the belt) or '21st Century Maritime Silk Road' (the road) across five continents with Chinese investment estimated to cross billions and billions of dollars in over 60 countries.

Let's take a deep breath.

It is obvious that India does not have the resources to a engineer such a sphere of geopolitical influence. It has neither the money to invest in such a cross-Continental economic initiative, nor does it have the political will to do so.

Moreover, decades of post-Independence isolationism has lessened India's sub-continental sway compared to what it was during even the British Raj. Two churns roughly in the same timeline of history — our policy of looking inward and the rise of China as a mercantile superpower — have hurt India's regional commercial ties and subsequently, minimised our geo-economic influence.

In the decades that we were pursuing self-limiting economic policies, China put in place policies that triggered rapid growth since the turn of new millennium. As Brookings points out in a study, "During the six years up to 2007 China’s GDP grew at an average rate of 11 percent, with investment equaling 41.5 percent of GDP. The current account surplus was rising in this period, reaching over 10 percent of GDP."

It is obvious that China needed to harness the economic surplus and has since undertaken countless economic initiatives to channel that capacity, in turn increasing exponentially its geopolitical influence. Countries that have been traditionally and culturally close to India and fall within our immediate strategic sphere have also naturally been co-opted within the Chinese geostrategic sphere.

To give an idea about the scale in which this is taking place, Sri Lanka, our largest trading partner in Saarc, whose port in Colombo receives more than 70 percent trans-shipment from India, has received around $15 billion funding and investment from China in 2016 alone, according to a Financial Express report. Most of these, says the report, are in "major infrastructure projects, especially ports and airports" and some are also in roads and railway network.

It will be wrong to view Beijing's actions solely from the lens of geopolitics. Economic integration is important in a globalised world. However, China's economic activism is restricting India's footprint, inevitably harming our commercial interests.

This is the context in which we must place Modi's visit to Sri Lanka, his second since assuming office. The challenges that the PM faces are immense. He must resurrect the ties from the morass of mutual distrust, salvage goodwill from the baggage of recent history and create an atmosphere conducive to greater economic and cultural integration.

Arising out of constricted political opportunism, India's Sri Lanka policy consisted of an ill-advised interventionist strategy that eventually gave rise to bad blood between the two nations. So much so that former president Mahinda Rajapaksa saw India more as a regional bully and showed a pronounced China tilt to balance the equation. Modi's first task was to effect a rebalance.

Recent media reports suggest that prior to Modi's visit in Colombo, Sri Lanka turned down China's request to dock one of its submarines in Hambantota port so as not to upset India's sentiments. Reuters, quoting a senior government official, reports that not only has Chinese urge been denied, Sri Lanka is "unlikely" to agree to China's demand even at a later time "given India's concerns."

Under Modi, Sri Lanka-India relationship has taken a sharp positive turn. Both countries have been willing to engage in high-level diplomacy and bilateral visits have increased manifold. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have been to Delhi thrice each and this is Modi's second visit.

This is a far cry from October 2014 when Sri Lanka allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo, raising a furious protest from India. Ho and why did this change? The answer lies in Modi's novel approach. Since assuming office, the PM has moved with intensity and speed to repair India's ties with one of its most important strategic partners. And he has brought a refreshing approach to foreign policy by tying it with India's soft power.

Modi has shown that he understands India's shortcomings in conventional diplomatic and economic resources and has therefore leaned on using India's considerable soft power — by way of cultural and human resources — to shape India's foreign policy. This has been his signature approach.

On Modi's Sri Lanka initiative, Carnegie India director C Raja Mohan points out in his column for The Indian Express: "Modi has also sought to restore the deeper cultural connect between the two nations as part of his effort to go past the divisive discourse of the last few decades and rebuild mutual trust between Delhi and Colombo. That, precisely, is where an important dimension of Modi’s second visit to Colombo comes in: the bonds of Buddhism that bind India and Lanka."

The moorings of Modi's cultural connect with Sri Lanka lies in this context. Through the message of Buddhism, Modi has sought to take the relationship away from baggage of Tamil politics and place it within the ambit of cultural unity: India being the birthplace of Buddha. This not only rekindles the 2,500-year-old ties between the two nations, it shows India as a benign power interested in Lanka's well-being, not a challenge to its sovereignty.

Note Modi's opening remarks during his speech as the chief guest of International Vesak Day, where he said: "On this auspicious occasion, I also bring with me the greetings of 1.25 billion people from the land of the Samyaksambuddha, the perfectly self-awakened one."

His announcement, that from — "August this year, Air India will operate direct flights between Colombo and Varanasi. This will ease travel to the land of Buddha for my brothers and sisters from Sri Lanka, and help you directly visit Sravasti, Kusinagar, Sankasa, Kaushambi and Sarnath" — not only carries forward this theme, it also reflects his effort to project India's soft power by way of proposing closer ties between trans-international cities to bring forge greater partnership.

US foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs has noted how Modi, "...used a visit to Japan to initiate a sister city agreement with Kyoto. He similarly used Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Ahmedabad to strike up a partnership with China’s manufacturing powerhouse of Guangzhou. As part of his visit to Australia for the G-20 Summit, Modi proposed a sister city agreement between Hyderabad and Brisbane and argued that relationships between countries can prosper fully “only if we bring our states and cities together."

Modi is challenging the key tenets of India's foreign policy and bringing his own dynamism into it. The Sri Lanka outreach provides immediate and clearest example.

Updated Date: May 12, 2017 16:37:44 IST