Sri Lanka as India’s ‘Little Brother’

Sri Lanka looks good as India’s ‘Chota Bhai’ (little brother) in trade. Shouldn’t this be the time to take some concrete steps towards it?

Early May saw a distinguished visitor on Lankan soil. His Sri Lankan counterpart welcomed India PM Narendra Modi with open arms – a gesture so far unseen in typically solemn Indo-Lanka diplomatic relationships. India’s press showed unusual interest, reporting on their PM’s every activity. The Times of India website published photos of Modi attending Vesak (Buddha Purnima) celebrations in Colombo, followed by an official dinner with Sri Lankan leaders; announcing Air India’s plans to operate direct Colombo-Varanasi flights so that “our Tamil brothers and sisters” can visit the land of Kashi Viswanath (his own words); opening a rural hospital; meeting Sri Lankan estate workers of Indian origin; visiting the Temple of the Tooth Relic; meeting former President Mahinda Rajapaksa; and finally, minutes before his departure, showing solidarity with his hands in air with the Sri Lankan president and PM.

This wasn’t Modiji’s first visit. He made a two-day, four city visit in March 2015, just two months following President Sirisena’s election to office. Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the reconstructed Northern Province railway line at Talaimannar, the Sri Lankan town closest to India but with no other significance – a place perhaps no Indian leader has ever set foot on. He also visited Jaffna – another first for an Indian leader – and stressed on the need to go beyond the thirteenth amendment, politically empowering the Tamil minority.

The leader of the world’s second-most populous nation won’t spend time on frivolous matters. Traditionally, Indian PMs visited Sri Lanka only for international conferences (Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh or critical political affairs (Rajiv Gandhi). The latter visited Colombo in 1987 to sign the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord and was attacked by a naval officer in a guard of honor, leading to a 25-plus year-long diplomatic winter between the two countries. Hardly any Indian PM spent more than 24 hours here, and almost none travelled beyond Colombo city limits. Notably, Manmohan Singh decided even to skip the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in 2013.

So let’s not fool ourselves. Modiji was not here to admire Vesak lamps. It’s not even in an attempt to strengthen relationships with Sri Lanka. We are too tiny to even be India’s ‘enemy’. Neither the Indian nor Sri Lankan public were the target audience of the two visits. All activities during them were to deliver one message: Hello World, India cares for Sri Lanka. He is my little brother. I won’t like him mingling with the big bad wolf, aka China. So, here I am. Let’s play.

Now, ground realities. We do not feel it, but with the one-year reduction in the presidential term by the 19th amendment, Sri Lanka’s next major election is due in January 2020, just two and half years from now. Given Lanka’s strategic geographical position, both China and India will certainly be interested. The existence of two local political forces aligning with these two international camps may further complicate the situation. Perhaps our next political choice can be: India or China? So, it’s natural that many find Modi’s visit appropriate at this particular juncture.

I feel there are benefits to India’s growing interest to have Sri Lanka as its ‘Chota Bhai’ (little brother), and what it could mean for us. No, certainly not the loss of political independence, but to become a strong trade partner. This means going a step further than the proposed ETCA, as trade pacts with such limitations make little sense. We have to take our big brother more seriously and use this opportunity to build a stronger trade relationship.

Call me biased, but there are more reasons for us to be India’s little brother than that of China. Consider these facts.

Geographically, Sri Lanka is located in the Indian Ocean, dangling from the Indian subcontinent, having been terrestrially connected to it as recently as the Chandragupta Maurya period, as described by Greek ethnographer Megasthenes. The two landmasses are now divided only by a thin strip of sea that can be crossed by swimming. India’s southern capital Chennai (formerly Madras) and Colombo are almost equidistant from the Jaffna peninsula. SriLankan Airlines operates over five daily flights to different South Indian cities, in addition to the ones by Indian operators. Had there been a terrestrial connection between the two countries, at least two South Indian metros will be just 12 hours from Colombo. India is too proximate.

The Indian economy is huge – the seventh largest globally, measured by nominal GDP. It is one of the G-20 major economies, a member of BRICS and a developing economy with an average growth rate of 7% over two decades. More importantly, it has the potential to become the world’s third-largest economy by the next decade, and one of the two largest economies by mid-century. India has one of the fastest growing services sectors in the world, with an annual growth rate of above 9% since 2001, and is the fourth-largest startup hub globally, with over 3,100 technology startups over 2014-15. In agriculture, it ranks second worldwide in farm output.

Do we need more data? India is gigantic. Trying to be protectionist in the backyard of such a huge economy makes absolutely no sense.

Now, where will we fit in? Sri Lanka, if her sovereignty is forgotten for a moment, would be the 18th state of India in size. It would be bigger than Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala, Goa and each North-Eastern state. By population, it will rank 19th, above Jammu, Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Goa and each North-Eastern state excluding Assam. The bottomline: Irrespective of the base, Sri Lanka cannot stand shoulder to shoulder with India’s bigger states. Still, even from an Indian perspective, bilateral trade makes perfect sense. On per capita GDP basis, Sri Lanka falls behind only one Indian state (Goa) and two union territories (Delhi and Chandigarh). Times are changing, but none of the bigger states is even close to Sri Lanka in per capita GDP terms. So, it is rational for India to offer its hand in brotherhood.

Sri Lanka has always been one of the friendliest nations to India, with the relationship undergoing difficulties only a handful of occasions during post-independence history. Those, too, were minor. Right now, Colombo and Delhi have no serious issues to resettle. Sri Lanka’s political hostilities, if any, are limited to one South-Indian state, that too largely with its government and not with the people. It would be unfortunate if these prevent business between the two countries. It’s time that both governments act in a more rational manner. After all, we are not Israel and Palestine.