India’s foreign policy under the current dispensation has accorded the right priority to nurturing and improving relationships with neighbours such as Sri Lanka and Nepal. Even otherwise, India has always been proactive in providing humanitarian assistance to countries in distress, near or far, without too many policy calculations, as it ideally should be. So it is not surprising that India rushed aid to Sri Lanka which was reeling under challenges posed by floods due to depression-induced torrential rains. A Sri Lankan defence ministry press release gratefully acknowledged the arrival of two Indian naval ships laden with essential emergency relief supplies. India even pressed into service its IAF C-17 transport aircraft displaying its keenness to lend a helping hand to the island nation.
India’s swift response cannot but also be viewed in the context of the race with Pakistan, Nepal and China on disaster relief. Though India has made the right moves and gestures towards Sri Lanka, the government cannot afford to ignore the lessons from India’s disastrous engagement with Nepal during the 2015 earthquake. Indian media and Indian citizens on social media went to town trumpeting their contribution totally oblivious of the plight of the Himalayan nation in the throes of a disaster it couldn’t handle. The backlash from the people of Nepal was so strong that its tremors were felt in Delhi’s South Block. The amateurish and insensitive television and social media response was vulnerable to misinterpretation by Nepal as a reflection of Indian government’s attitude towards its small and dependent neighbour.
This time, both the government and the media have tread with caution, especially given the history of India’s relationship with Sri Lanka which is marked by challenges ranging from post-LTTE political settlement, reconciliation and reconstruction to Indian fisher folk in conflict with the Lankan navy. That’s a relief indeed, given Sri Lanka’s importance.