Religion and Politics in Modi’s Visit

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 the Indian Prime Minister Naredra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka 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 civilizational 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.

Briefing media on Modi’s visit, Joint Secretary of Indian External Affairs Ministry, Sanjay Panda said on the eve of the Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka that it assumed significance because this is a reflection of the shared Buddhist heritage of the two countries spanning over 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’ the Buddhist majority.

However, Indian Premier’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 single day visit from May 11 evening to May 12 evening.

Let us examine this ‘religious and cultural’ visit. If it is such a visit, Cultural Minister Mahesh Sharma should have been on the delegation. However, there was nobody from the Indian Ministry of Culture or any top archeologists or religious scholars. Instead Foreign Secretary Subramanium Jaishankar was visible at every venue. (Here one wonders why Foreign Secretary Esala Weerakoon never accompanies the President or the Prime Minister during their visits abroad.).

Jaishankar is Modi’s trusted political strategist and he was given an unprecedented extension by the PM. His presence was conspicuous at Modi’s meetings, including the late night chat with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

It is true that the Indian Prime Minister allotted the biggest part of his Vesak Day address to Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy and its relevance today and peace building. He also recited a suutta and a slokha to emphasize a point. At the same time he loudly wondered what to do about certain destructive hardliner elements -those who refuse to have a 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, the Indian Premier said that an economically sound, stable Sri Lanka was all that India wanted. However, Modi pitched the security co-operation that he wants with the closest southern neighbor. He pointed out the importance of India’s security in ‘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 make a visit to the sacred Sri Dalada Maligawa. In Dikoya, 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 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 the President 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 the UN Vesak Day and the Buddhist philosophy.

On the other hand the question arises what would Modi get out of this ‘religious visit’? Whether one talks political and economic cooperation or not, the visit would definitely boost the friendship and cooperation and it would be a catalyst for further action on treaties needed for the push.

Furthermore, the visit would be helpful to boost up Modi’s ‘secular’ image or at least to water down his negative ‘Hindutva’ image. Although, Modi’s Bharatiya Jantha Party (BJP) swept multi-religious Uttar Pradesh State Assembly elections last month, he needs a more secular image to sustain his position as the Leader of India. By attending UN Vesak day in Sri Lanka, he gives 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 and worships as a God.  Internationally too, Modi’s stock would go up as the international community, especially the West is bending backword to find ways and means of forgetting Modi’s ‘so-called anti-Muslim’ past and to ‘do business with India.

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 SAARC satellite and held a live telecast with all other SAARC leaders minus Pakistan. If Modi’s strategy to succeed, Sri Lanka, one country in SAARC that maintains very close bilateral cooperation with Pakistan needs to be wean away gradually. The best weapon for such a strategy is ‘religious politics’ and ‘peace building with Buddhist politics’ is even better.

However, as for now it is a ‘religious and cultural’ visit as both India and Sri Lanka are keen to project Modi’s visit as one that underlines the civilisational ties between the two countries, the common link to the Buddha, and the cultural ties that bind them.