Gotabaya and India’s Sri Lanka saga

Sri Lanka’s newly-elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reaches New Delhi on Friday (November 29) for his first official visit abroad. The choice of India as first port of call since winning the Presidential elections is loaded with significance not only for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “neighbourhood first” foreign policy but also for Gotabaya who has been perceived to be pro-China largely due to his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s actions during his decade-long from 2005-15 stint as the President.

India showed remarkable speed in reaching out to the new dispensation in Colombo. Modi began the outreach by tweeting congratulatory message for Gotabaya on the day the results of the Sri Lankan elections were announced. He quickly followed it up with a phone call to Gotabaya and rushing External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in the next two days to Colombo to meet the new President. After calling on Gotabaya, Jaishankar, who was the first high-level foreign functionary to meet the new President, took to his official twitter handle to make the announcement about Gotabaya’s visit to India and the date.

But there is recognition that behind the alacrity shown by both New Delhi and Colombo in finalizing Gotabaya’s first foreign visit lie a big gap between the two countries on how to take forward bilateral relations. More so in the case of India which is acutely conscious how Mahinda Rajapaksa had veered Sri Lanka closer to China in matters of the island nation’s economic development and security. It was during Mahinda’s rule that China has moved into Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development sector in a big way under the controversial Belt and Road Initiative that masked Beijing’s debt-trap diplomacy enmeshing small countries across the world. That was also the time when China toppled Japan as the largest donor country for Sri Lanka. China pumped in billion of dollars in loan to fund construction of ports and highways in Sri Lanka plunging the latter in a debt-trap. That apart, Chinese submarines’ and warships making undeclared docking at the Colombo port in 2014 also caused anxiety in New Delhi. After all, Sri Lanka’s strategic location in crucial sea lanes passing near India is central to Indian maritime security calculus.

There are apprehensions in New Delhi about which way Gotabaya would move. It is to be recalled that Mahinda had accused India of being his defeat in the Presidential elections in 2015. Gotabaya too had in an interview said his countrymen were resentful of India’s “unnecessary meddling-in” in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Such rant by some leaders in countries in India’s neighbourhood is, of course, nothing new. Hawkish strategic affairs analysts in India view Gotabaya’s poll victory as worrying for India claiming it could lead put China ahead in the race for carving out its sphere of influence in Sri Lanka.

It is not that India was not ready for a change of guard in Sri Lanka especially after the serious tussle between the previous President Mathipala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe in the last three years leading to a free-for-all in governance one of whose extremely serious fall-outs was on the security front. The deadly attacks on a church and other installations on the Easter this year that claimed 250 lives was the result of a serious lapse on the then Lankan government to act on the intelligence tip-off provided by India.

India had assessed that a political change was in the offing in Sri Lanka. Keeping that in mind, the Modi government began engaging with Mahinda Rajapaksa in the past one year. Modi had invited Mahinda to Delhi for a meeting in September 2018 and again met the former Sri Lankan President in Colombo in June this year on his way back from a visit to the Maldives.   

India would not like to view its relations with Sri Lanka through the prism of the latter’s ties with China and produce a zero sum game. It has not done so in the case of other South Asian neighbours like Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives and Myanmar. India cannot wish away the role of China, with its huge economic heft, in its South Asian backyard but at the same time expects the South Asian countries to be sensitive to be sensitive to its security concerns vis-à-vis China. There is recognition in New Delhi that no government in South Asian countries can afford to adopt an “either or” policy when it comes to dealing with India and China and tend to leverage their ties with New Delhi and Beijing as per their own requirements. What is needed for India is to fix the bottomline for its neighbours in addressing its national security issues. 

It is futile to view any government as “pro-India” or “pro-China.” Any government in Sri Lanka, or for that matter in any other South Asian neighbourhood, will leverage its ties with New Delhi and Beijing for its own national interests. For example, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe regime, which was considered “pro-India,” had been critical of Chinese loans to Sri Lanka and projects in the country terming them as “unsustainable” only to later support them. It was the same dispensation which awarded a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port to a Chinese company.

India should go for enhanced investment in infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka using its own resources or possibly in collaboration with Japan as the two countries area already doing in Africa. It has also bee suggested that many China-funded projects in Sri Lanka would require India’s participation to be financially viable.

More challenging than China factor in India-Sri Lanka relations will be how the Gotabaya government deals with the highly sensitive ethnic Tamil issue in his country because it has implications for the politics in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. For decades, the Dravidian parties, ruling Tamil Nadu and are supportive of Tamils in the island nation, have shaped, and at times constrained, the reflexes of India’s Sri Lanka’s policy. Gotabaya was the Defence Secretary in the final phase of the military offensive that led to the end of the Tamil separatist movement in Sri Lanka and he was accused of some gross human rights violations.

The recent Presidential elections starkly brought out the polarization between majority Sinhalese in southern Sri Lanka and minority Tamils in the north in terms of voting pattern. Gotabaya got an overwhelming support of Sinhalese voters—much more than his brother had got in the past--and his challenger Sajith Premadasa almost all Tamil and Muslim votes. Gotabaya made his feelings known when he said “I was elected by the Sinhalese vote and my expectations from Tamils and Muslims were not met.” So, it remains to be seen how Gotabaya, who was an American citizen till before the elections and stayed in the US for long, handles the Tamil issue. Like Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya may come under pressure from the US and European countries for a probe into human rights abuses during the anti-LTTE military operations. India knows too much pressure on Sri Lanka on human rights issue could push that country’s government further into China’s embrace. So, India is likely to nudge the new regime in Colombo for a reconciliation with the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

A peaceful Sri Lanka will ensure enhanced security cooperation with India in containing the growing threat of Islamic radicals in the island nation and their cross-border links with Kerala and Tamil Nadu as evidenced by the deadly April bombings. The most important factor behind Gotabaya’s election was his national security plank as voters saw in him a bulwark against terrorism. 

Pallab Bhattacharya is a

 journalist based in India