PM Narendra Modi, in his second term, is seeking to elevate ties with the critical Indian Ocean countries — the Maldives and Sri Lanka — on a sounder footing to ensure they remain unimpressed by suitors with whom India is in competition. It was to secure the neighbourhood minus Pakistan that he had invited the BIMSTEC grouping for his second swearing-in ceremony. And it was for a similar endgame that he pencilled the Maldives and Sri Lanka as his first overseas destinations. The Maldives rolled out the red carpet in full measure and the entire Council of Ministers turned out to greet him. Modi was bestowed the highest national honour besides being invited to address Parliament. In Sri Lanka, too, PM Modi was warmly feted and approached by the entire political spectrum.
From available evidence, both countries have warmed up to India after the change in governments. A particularly bitter chapter with the Maldives ended last year with the defeat of the Abdulla Yameen regime. The Rajapaksa administration’s defeat in Sri Lanka also ended the uninhibited entry of China and the stalling of Indian proposals. Elections in both island-nations have swung back the balance to India and PM Modi was quick to capitalise on the regime changes. He was the highest ranking dignitary at Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s inaugural in Male last year while the India-Japan-US troika quickly got down to business in Colombo by winning the contract to set up a container terminal at Colombo port.
But this is work in progress and much will depend on India’s effectiveness in translating promises into actual work on the ground. The fact that the Maldives swung China’s way despite India having historically provided all manner of help shows that New Delhi cannot rest on its oars. It is the same story in Sri Lanka where PM Modi has tried to erase lingering suspicions about India’s bias to Tamil separatists by visiting the site of the Sunday Easter bombing. The challenge is to avoid vacuous announcements or ones that have no hope of being realised, like the ferry from Kochi to Male which was first agreed upon eight years back.