Both countries have a seminal role in tackling common problems like poverty, unemployment and above all terrorism that seeks to create a schism in society.
India-Sri Lanka relations have undergone a sea change in recent times, especially in the context of finding convergences in the bilateral approaches. Sri Lanka remains critical to India’s national security calculus because of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean Region. India’s proactive nature of diplomacy has been given a new look to promote its interests by putting emphasis on its “neighbourhood first policy”. Sri Lanka features prominently in the changing horizon of India’s diplomacy.
India and Sri Lanka have inked a new chapter in their long and chequered relationship going back centuries. The visiting President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a strategist and former Defence Secretary of the island nation, made New Delhi his first foreign destination after being elected President in the recently held election.
The visiting President no doubt comes with a long wish list and is also likely to promise to address all or as many concerns of India, giving New Delhi and Colombo a new opportunity to reset the bilateral relationship. The statement made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that Sri Lanka will not do anything which would harm India’s interests has found its resonance in the statement made by the new Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and assumes greater salience. Mahinda Rajapaksa, after assuming office, had said that he would work with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi for peace and prosperity for both countries and the region. Statements of both brothers holding the two highest offices in Colombo should be music to the ears of the occupants of South Block in New Delhi.
In fact, Prime Minister Modi was probably one of the first few world leaders to congratulate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the newly elected President of the island nation, who in return visited India, making it his first foreign visit as President, which is symbolically very significant for both countries. Soon after the results were declared, the Modi government had asked External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to air dash to Colombo and ensure that the new President decided on New Delhi as his first foreign destination, sending the right signals to all those closely monitoring the events in the Indian Ocean nation that lies strategically between India and the South Pole.
The significance of Sri Lanka, if not the geographical size or the volume of its economy, was enough for the Modi government to exhibit the best side of his deft diplomacy.
Back in 2015, it was this very same Mahinda Rajapaksa, the tallest of the present Sinhalese leadership, who shot to fame among his voters by eliminating the dreaded terrorist outfit LTTE and put the country on the road to reconstruction and economic recovery amidst serious accusations of war crimes. The international community hounded him to no end on the death of civilians and some of the political parties in India, especially in Tamil Nadu joined the chorus. Meanwhile, the then President faced criticism for nepotism and corruption. New Delhi absorbed these happenings with the customary wait and watch policy.
But South Block was piqued for a far more serious reason: that of Colombo’s tilt towards China, at the cost of jeopardising India’s security and economic interests not only in Sri Lanka but in the IOR as well.
The pro-China tilt accusation was used to the hilt by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political opponents that led to a regime change, which brought about a United Front government headed by his former colleague and Health Minister Maitripala Sirisena. But soon, the new dispensation, which made Rajapaksa’s China connections an issue, landed in Beijing and awarded the US$1.4 billion land reclamation (Colombo Port project being part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative) to China Harbour Engineering Company. It certainly had a detrimental impact on India’s national security.
While New Delhi was dismayed at the Sirisena government veering towards Beijing, it could do very little to regain the lost strategic space. It would be better for South Block to realise that while it is convenient to blame Colombo for getting entangled into the Chinese debt trap, New Delhi itself cannot free itself of the responsibilities of erroneous policies, bad judgement of the situation and actions/inaction all of which shoved Colombo deep into China’s strategic space.
New Delhi’s objection to Colombo handing over the strategic Hambantota port project to China was found to be hugely untenable as the project was reportedly first offered to India around 2006, which promptly refused on grounds of it being unviable. India seems to have not done a comprehensive assessment on the offer given by Sri Lanka for building the port. If Beijing saw the strategic importance and grabbed the project, it was no fault of Colombo’s. The diplomatic community is aware (and probably rightly so) of the fact that New Delhi has lost a number of commercial projects in the region only due to not having a broad based understanding of the rationale and related strategic dimension.
According to media reports, Colombo under the new President is seriously considering to undo the deal of leasing the port to China for 99 years. “We would like to revert to status quo, pay back the loan in due course without any disturbance at all”, Nivard Cabraal, economic advisor to the PM is reported to have said.
The Modi government seems to be in a hurry to correct this image and also the working methodology so that India becomes competitive in the region and is able to conduct its economic diplomacy with dexterity and finesse expected in these times of extreme competition and rivalry.
The return of Rajapaksa should be taken as an opportunity by the Modi government to put an end to the “region-becoming pro-China” narrative and wallowing in self-inflicted harm.
The new regime in Sri Lanka has its own set of problems and concerns, ranging from economic recovery to rehabilitation of the people displaced due to a long running civil strife, which killed lakhs of people and retarded peace, prosperity and growth. Both India and Sri Lanka have a seminal role in tackling common problems like poverty, unemployment and above all terrorism that seeks to create a schism in society. The recent Easter bombings in Colombo targeting churches and hotels were probably a wake-up call for both India and Sri Lanka to fight the growing radicalisation and involvement of foreign and mercenary elements in domestic affairs. Prime Minister Modi has already announced a $500 million line of credit to Colombo to assist in counter terrorism preparations.
Known for his intrepid style of functioning, Gotabaya is an ace strategist who spearheaded the last phase of the war against the LTTE. He has a deeper understanding of the regional situation and would be a valuable asset for New Delhi in redefining its role in the region. It is high time both India and Sri Lanka realised their larger potential and work towards achieving peace and stability in the region by focusing on a bilateral development agenda, thus creating a win-win situation.
Dr Arvind Kumar teaches Geopolitics and International Relations at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.
Seshadri Chari is a well known political commentator and strategic analyst.