Quintessential Rajapaksa Factor in India-Sri Lanka Relations
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Quintessential Rajapaksa Factor in India-Sri Lanka Relations

Quintessential Rajapaksa Factor in India-Sri Lanka Relations

Status Quo or Sea Change?

By Dr. Nanda Kishor and Sindhu D.

Nationalism and national security seem to be the flavor and recipe for success in the 21st-century politics across the world. South Asia has yet again proved this right through the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka against his rival Sajith Premadasa, a housing minister in the Sirisena government. As a mark of respect to the majority community and his resounding victory with 52.25% votes, Gotabaya took oath at the sacred Buddhist temple Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura on November 18, 2020. The Easter attacks almost defined Sri Lankan politics and it had a resounding win over the development campaign of Premadasa. India welcomed the election of Gotabaya almost on predicted lines as the previous regime of Sirisena did not further India-Sri Lanka relations as anticipated by New Delhi.

The Rajapaksa brothers being veterans in Sri Lankan politics for a lot many years since their father was an MP and a cabinet minister in Sri Lanka. If Mahinda had successful two terms as President of Sri Lanka, his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa had served previously as the Defence Secretary under Mahinda, presently the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Both the brothers were known for their pivotal role in crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and ending the long-drawn civil war in Sri Lanka. The combination has often been perceived as unfavorable towards the establishment in New Delhi. However, this time around, there seems to be a shift towards goodwill on both sides. Prime Minister Modi in his visits to Sri Lanka in 2015, 2017 and in June 2019 made it a priority to meet Mahinda Rajapaksa. India has been proactive in welcoming the new regime of the island nation and the goodwill has also been warmly reciprocated by officials in Colombo. The presence of the Rajapaksas’ is inevitable in Sri Lankan politics. More than half a dozen family members are in Sri Lankan politics. Even when they were out of power, their influence did not seize to exist. The loss of power during 2015-19 has only made Mahinda Rajapaksa a matured politician who could play his politics beyond revenge and emotions but on pragmatic conditions. This pragmatic approach to politics has positioned him successfully in securing the Prime Minister’s position. The Rajapaksa combo has been much more careful in their choices about Sri Lanka’s relationships with other nations. It is this realism and pragmatism that has made India deposit a new hope in the Gotabaya-Mahinda combo than the failed Sirisena-Ranil combo.

Ever since the new government has come to power, there have been multiple high-level bilateral visits between the two countries. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar had visited Colombo on  November 20, 2019, to personally invite Gotabaya to India on behalf of Narendra Modi. The President made his first overseas visit to India on November 29, 2019. The 3-day official visit included among other things, India providing a special Line of Credit of US$ 50 million to strengthen Sri Lanka’s counter-terrorism abilities in addition to the US$ 400 million Line of Credit announced for the Island’s infrastructure development projects. On December 22, 2019, India’s Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Karambir Singh met Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss the bilateral maritime relations of the two countries which included matters like security, defense, and intelligence as well as training between the two defense establishments. As a follow up on the commitments made during the President’s visit, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Relations, Dinesh Gunawardena visited India on January 9, 2020. He met Jaishankar and discussed bilateral issues and regional concerns. Gunawardena also had discussions with Minister for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship Mahendranath Nath Pandey and Minister of State for Labour and Employment Santosh Kumar Gangwar. This was followed by a visit of India’s NSA Ajit Doval to Colombo on January 18, 2020. India also pledged to provide US$ 50 million to help the country purchase equipment for its security forces. PM Mahinda Rajapaksa is scheduled to visit India in February.

If this has been the development in India-Sri Lanka relations since Gotabaya has come into power, few unresolved issues need careful persuasion. The encirclement of India by China in the Indian Ocean is certainly a reality and Sri Lanka has moved beyond denying this fact in the last few months. The Chinese debt trap model has been slowly sinking in Sri Lanka. Though the politicians have good relations with China, the domestic mood in Sri Lanka seems to be talking something else. They sense a greater corruption unfolding, debt repayment burden and can sense the debt-to-exports being extremely high. The Mattala Rajapaksa airport, the lotus tower in Colombo are some examples of the Chinese debt trap model due to which debt repayment, in the long run, can be a major concern for the Sri Lankan economy. This can also be seen as part of the plot for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The challenges erupt for Sri Lanka in balancing the Chinese interest and investment and simultaneously make sure that it directly does not hurt India’s interests. India had raised the issue of the Chinese Navy’s presence in Sri Lankan waters. Changzheng II, a nuclear-powered submarine was docked at the Colombo International Containers Terminals Ltd on September 15, 2014, and there was also the presence of Chinese Naval vessels prior to that. Since then, there have been numerous activities happening in Sri Lanka and India has been varying in proximity between Sri Lanka and China threatening India’s national security. This time after Gotabaya has come power, Doval brought up issues of inter-operability of the two coast guards to control illegal fishing, smuggling, trafficking and small weapon transfer by insurgent and terrorist organizations. There are reports that Sri Lanka suspects India’s intelligence agencies involved in domestic politics unsettling Mahinda Rajapaksa 2015, but these are not completely verified as some Indian leaders were engaging with Mahinda even after he lost.

The Easter attacks provided a special place for India-Sri Lanka relations. Sri Lanka was warned by India of probable attacks and the organization. This has brought some amount of confidence and convergence has been built on counter-terrorism operations. The security scenario post-Easter attacks have also posed risk for the Foreign Direct Investment as the mood of the investors in the small island nations certainly depends on the security scenario. Having known the capacity of Gotabaya and his track record, one can be rest assured that security will be a priority and no insurgent or terrorist group can survive by threatening Sri Lanka and his government. The new government has been strongly articulative about pursuing a neutral foreign policy and resolve to stay out of regional power struggles. During the visit, in his interview with The Hindu, Gotabaya had expressed that he is committed to pursuing consistent strong ties with India. He had also stated that an alternative to the Chinese investments is for India and other countries to invest more in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is signaling for an open embrace of India if its economic expectations are met. The question remains is, is India ready for the challenge?

About the Author:

Dr. Nanda Kishor (ORCID: 0000-0002-2024-100Xteaches Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education. His area of interest is West Asia and South Asia

Sindhu D. (ORCID: 0000-0002-0691-5784) is a Post Graduate Research Scholar in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Her area of interest is Geopolitics of South Asia and India’s relations in the Neighbourhood.

Cite this Article:

Kishor, N., Sindhu, D., "Quintessential Rajapaksa Factor in India-Sri Lanka Relations", IndraStra Global Vol. 07, Issue No: 1 (2020), 0061, https://www.indrastra.com/2020/01/Quintessential-Rajapaksa-Factor-in-India-Sri-Lanka-Relations-006-01-2020-0061.html, ISSN 2381-3652

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of their parent organization, or IndraStra Global.

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