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Katchatheevu: BJP’s political masterstroke

Katchatheevu: BJP’s political masterstroke

India will go to polls this month to elect a government for the next five-years. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is seeking a third consecutive victory under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a bigger and broader mandate this time. In a politically charged atmosphere, blame games among and between political parties are common. 

In a surprise entry, Prime Minister Modi raised the issue of Katchatheevu island, a past territorial dispute between India and Sri Lanka resolved in 1974 by the two governments through an understanding. For an Indian electorate, the border dispute with Pakistan and China has made more sense in raising a nationalistic mood in the past. Still, Katchatheevu is a political masterstroke by the BJP targeting the electorate in the state of Tamil Nadu who continue to feel the ire of the 1974 agreement. 

In a recent tweet, Prime Minister Modi took a dig at the opposition party, Indian National Congress (INC), accusing it of weakening India’s unity and interests by giving away Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka in 1974. Whether ceding Katchatheevu was a shortsighted move by the then firebrand Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, under whose leadership India had defeated Pakistan in 1971, the BJP leaves no stone unturned in framing it as one aimed at political gains. 

The fishermen from both sides used to access an island called Katchatheevu in the narrow Palk Strait between Sri Lanka’s northern district of Jaffna and India’s southern state, Tamil Nadu, to dry their nets and replenishment activities. Historically, Katchatheevu fell under British rule in India and became a contested territory post-Indian independence. 

Following long-held negotiations and existing goodwill, the then Indian PM Gandhi and her Sri Lankan counterpart Sirimavo Bandaranaike signed an agreement in 1974 to demarcate the maritime boundary where Katchatheevu ceded to Sri Lanka. 

Considering the resource richness of the waters, Sri Lanka soon asserted its sovereign rights over the island and prevented Indian fishermen from accessing it. It was against India’s expectations that Sri Lanka would consider cultural and historical aspects and allow Indian fishermen to access the territory. 

Katchatheevu has raised regional sentiments in Tamil Nadu following the detention of 6,184 Indian fishermen and seizing of 1,175 fishing vessels in the last 20 years—as reported by Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar. He added that while previous governments ignored and used the issue for political purposes, BJP takes the fishermen’s issue seriously. 

By selecting BJP headquarters to hold a press conference on a foreign policy matter, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar kept the matter under political ambit. He avoided making it the position of the government of India. The Sri Lankan foreign minister has responded, saying Sri Lanka does not intend to entertain further discussions on the matter. 

With BJP expecting to sprout its political clout in Tamil Nadu in the forthcoming elections against powerful regional parties, including ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—an ally of the Congress India National Developmental Inclusive Alliance—it finds Katchatheevu as a solid point to start its campaign. 

Away from the politics of Katchatheevu, small island and island countries are finding prominence in India’s geostrategic thinking today, especially after China’s expansionist entry into the Indo-Pacific. China’s presence in the regional waters became more prominent after Sri Lanka leased its Hambantota Port to China for 99 years. Also, with a China-friendly government in the Maldives, India needs allies to address the China challenge.   

Strategic consideration to find like-minded allies to counter China resulted in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD—a diplomatic partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the United States, committing to supporting an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and resilient. While China makes little in QUAD’s black and white, the unsaid understanding among the QUAD members is attempting to resolve the China challenge. 

In developing its capabilities, India’s ambitions as a naval power in the Indo-Pacific and beyond are visible from its assertion as a ‘responsible naval power’. Recent rescue missions by the Indian Navy concentrating on combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea have involved deploying guided missile cruisers, marine patrol aircraft and drones to monitor commercial shipping activity in the region.

In conclusion, by raising the Katchatheevu issue, the BJP may have increased the political temperature in Tamil Nadu, but it has not affected India’s relations with Sri Lanka. If something comes up from Sri Lanka, India knows it’s manageable, especially after Delhi rescues it from the economic crisis. However, India’s signaling of its rising naval aspirations, including maritime security in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, must be seen from a broader lens of Delhi’s changing strategic geography.