Sri Lankan reset

India’s foreign-policy establishment is unlikely to have viewed with equanimity the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the feisty former wartime defence minister, to the Sri Lankan presidency. But the development is not entirely negative from India’s point of view. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first leaders to tweet his congratulations to the brother of a former president (Mahinda Rajapaksa) with whom he scarcely enjoyed warm relations, a strong signal that the Indian government was keen to reset relations with the island-nation’s most powerful political family. Indeed, it is a little-known fact that as defence minister, the younger Rajapaksa enjoyed a positive engagement with the Indian establishment during the civil war against Tamil separatists. India also conspicuously chose to remain an observer in these polls, addressing a major grievance voiced by Mahinda Rajapaksa of poll interference in 2014. The opportunities to build on this relationship, then, are manifold, not least because of the natural personal affinities between two “strong” leaders and the fact that India’s current foreign minister had wide experience in Sri Lanka during his Indian Foreign Service days. 

For India, however, China is the biggest elephant in the Sri Lankan island. On Mahinda Rajapaksa’s watch, the country became the biggest foreign investor in Sri Lanka. Though his successor, Maithripala Sirisena, sought to leaven that relationship — not least by signing an agreement with India and Japan to develop a deep-sea container terminal at Colombo port — he could do little to stem the tide. Under him, China took over the strategic Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, and has moved ahead with plans to develop an international financial centre near Colombo, which could eclipse Gandhinagar. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reliably expected to augment this relationship. India can do little to alter these facts on the ground. By incrementally building on the strong ties between the two countries, New Delhi could usefully strengthen the relationship. For instance, one little-noticed fact is that air connectivity between the two countries has grown exponentially over the past few years — one in four tourists to the island nation is Indian — and there has been closer integration between India’s southern states and Sri Lanka in terms of student exchanges and ferry services. India is also Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, and the opportunity to augment a Free Trade Agreement signed in 2000 with a wider Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement has the potential to bind the two countries beyond the trade in goods. 

Apprehension also arises over Mr Rajapaksa’s overt ethnic nationalism, evident from the fact that none of the Tamil-speaking areas of the north and Muslim-dominated east — the two groups that account for a fifth of the population — voted for him. It is also significant that Mr Rajapaksa chose to be sworn in at Anuradhapura, capital of an ancient Sinhala civilisation closely associated with Buddhism, and emphasised national security as a priority in his inaugural speech. His message was, no doubt, addressed to the IS terrorists who orchestrated attacks on tourists earlier this year but the optics for Tamil minorities would not have been reassuring. India has the opportunity to play a moderating hand. It has already played a role in building housing for war-displaced people in the north. In short, emphasising a positive agenda would go a long way in tackling the challenges embedded in the Indo-Sri Lankan relationship.


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