It is not common for an Indian prime minister to visit a foreign country twice in a period of two years. Now that it is happening, the significance of such a visit cannot be emphasised enough.

Narendra Modi reached Colombo on Thursday evening for a two-day visit. If you believe the government of India, at the top of his agenda is not any complex bilateral discussion, but his participation in a cultural event.

On Friday, Modi will take part in the United Nations Vesak Day celebrations, which marks the birth anniversary of the Buddha. A Buddhist-majority country where language and religion are strongly intertwined to form the primary identity of the majority Sinhalese community, Sri Lanka is hosting the celebrations for the first time since 1999, when the United Nations recognised the day of Vesak as a UN Observance Day.

But lurking in the backdrop of the festivities will be the shadow of the dragon. After former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost his bid for a third term in 2015, India hoped that Sri Lanka would make the much-needed course correction away from China, which was aggressively investing in the island nation. While the new President Maithripala Sirisena did put several Chinese projects on hold temporarily to pacify India, it is increasingly clear that Sri Lanka will not ignore the money flowing in from China for too long.

Meanwhile, Indian trade interests in Sri Lanka are facing domestic opposition with hardline Sinhala-Buddhist elements, backed by Rajapaksa, speaking out against what they term as the “Indian colonisation of Sri Lanka”.

Crucial visit

Since 2015, there have been six significant bilateral discussions at the highest level between India and Sri Lanka. Months after Sirisena won the presidential elections that year, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Sri Lanka in 28 years. He signed crucial agreements during that visit.

Modi also became the first Indian prime minister to visit Jaffna, the cultural capital of Sri Lankan Tamils. Since then, Sirisena has visited India twice, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe three times.

Rajapaksa had accused India of backing Sirisena covertly during the presidential elections, and blamed it on New Delhi’s perception that he was ignoring Indian interests for Chinese investments. He also cited India’s 2013 vote in favour of a US-sponsored United Nations resolution against his regime for war crimes, to support his contention.

In 2009, in the concluding part of the civil war, which pitted the island nation’s security forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an estimated 40,000 Tamils perished. Political parties in Tamil Nadu and several human rights organisations maintain that this was genocide.

Rajapaksa’s decision to allow Chinese submarines to dock twice at the Colombo port in 2014 earned him an enemy in India. New Delhi even formally protested against this move. He further needled India by awarding the Hambantota port and several other crucial infrastructure projects to China. Under his regime, China became Sri Lanka’s largest donor.

After Rajapaksa’s exit, it seemed that India had won a crucial round in its fight to keep Chinese influence away from one of its closest neighbours. After taking over, Sirisena did not show keen interest in moving forward with projects the Chinese were interested in. But this seems to be slowly changing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Sri Lankan counterpart Ranil Wickremesinghe at a Buddhist temple in Colombo on May 11. (Photo credit: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP).

A fine balance

Last month, Prime Minister Wickramasinghe signed a memorandum of understanding with India, which promised economic cooperation in projects covering several sectors like power, infrastructure and agriculture.

This agreement has faced stiff opposition in Sri Lanka, where Wickramasinghe was forced to defend the deal in Parliament. Trade unions have been protesting against the proposed joint venture between Ceylon Oil Trading Corporation and Ceylon Indian Oil Corporation to construct an oil storage facility in Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka. Wimal Weerawansa, an MP backed by Rajapaksa, called for black flag protests against Modi’s visit.

Adding to this was the Sri Lankan government’s own attempts to reach out to the Chinese. Even as he received Modi in Colombo on Thursday, Wickramasinghe is also preparing to visit China next week, where he is expected to ink a crucial deal to join China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” project. This project will connect “the Eurasian landmass and Indo-Pacific maritime routes through an overland belt and a maritime silk road”. India will not be part of it.

Recently, Sri Lanka also relaunched a $1.4 billion China-funded project for land reclamation outside Colombo port.

Reiterating cultural ties

Coming in the backdrop of such developments, it is hard to believe that Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka is purely a “religious and cultural one”. Modi will hold talks with both Sirisena and Wickremasinghe on Friday, where he is expected to take forward the memorandum of understanding he signed last month.

Apart from tough-talking, Modi’s participation in the Vesak Day celebrations and his important visit to Kandy, where he will meet plantation Tamils, are being seen as an attempt to reiterate the significance of India’s cultural ties with Sri Lanka. Unlike ethnic Tamils of the North and East of Sri Lanka, plantation Tamils are Indian migrants taken to tea plantations in Sri Lanka during British rule. Given their strong Indian roots, they could serve as an able pressure group for India if Modi plays his cards well.

However, the Vesak Day celebrations have also attracted criticism from the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka. May is the month when the civil war ended in 2009. During the conclusion of the civil war, thousands perished. Every year, Tamil groups mourn the dead in the month of May and therefore feel Vesak festivities are mocking the memory of a tragedy.