The Sri Lankan President is doing a delicate balancing act between India and China
Politics in South Asia is highly personalised. Dynasties come and go and those who win the elections assume celebrity status and they try to create their own dynasties.
Continuity of policy is ensured in Pakistan and Myanmar regardless of leadership as the army is the sentinel of policy. India’s relationships with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal wax and wane, depending on those who form the governments there.
In India, criticism is voiced that India is not able to ensure that friendly governments are elected in these countries, in spite of its influence and capabilities. But India does not intervene in the elections in our neighbours. But in certain cases, India is given credit for the victory of one person or the other.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the elections in 2015 to Maitripala Sirisena, it was alleged that India was responsible for Sirisena’s victory because Rajapaksa had taken Sri Lanka too close to China, thus hurting India’s interests in the island.
But Sirisena himself eventually became close to China and even alleged that India had conspired to harm him. But after the Easter bombings of last year revealed a common terrorist threat to both India and Sri Lanka, the relations improved to a certain extent.
When Gotabaya Rajapaksa won an impressive victory and co-opted his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, India’s cup of woes in Sri Lanka filled to the brim.
India was quick to test the waters with the Rajapaksas by sending the External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar as a Special Envoy of the Prime Minister to extend an invitation to the new President and the invitation was accepted with alacrity, leading to his first visit abroad as President and that too within ten days of his election.
The visit was a difficult one as it was during the latter part of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term that relations between India and Sri Lanka took a negative turn. Though India had adopted a hands-off policy during the war against the LTTE, its support to the US-sponsored resolutions in 2012 and 2013 criticising Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government for not taking enough steps to prevent war crimes and violation of human rights marked a clear rift.
Irked by these developments, Mahinda Rajapaksa allowed China to make deep inroads into Sri Lanka. Defying India’s sensitivities, conveyed personally to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, when he visited India as the Defence Secretary, Sri Lanka allowed the Chinese submarines to dock at the Colombo Port.
China was also liberal in extending loans as well as political support to defend Sri Lanka in its international censure over the alleged violations of human rights during the war against LTTE.
Against this backdrop, it was a calculated risk that India took by inviting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa so soon after his assumption of office. But it turned out that President Gotabaya had his own reasons to mend fences with India.
First, Sri Lanka is in the grip of a fear of a Chinese debt trap on account of the number of projects set up by China for their own reasons and priorities.
Secondly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not enjoy the confidence of minorities, particularly Sri Lankan Tamils for the alleged atrocities against civilians in its war against the LTTE. They and the Muslim minority voted massively against Gotabaya, giving the opposition 48% of the vote.
Thirdly, he wants India’s help in the UN Human Rights Council to withdraw the efforts of the West to punish Sri Lanka for war crimes. Most western countries concede that India has a legitimate stake in Sri Lanka and they may not push the UN effort beyond a point if India takes a helpful stand towards Colombo.
At the moment, Sri Lanka is banking on Chinese and Russian vetoes to escape censure by the Security Council. No wonder Rajapaksa announced his desire to take India-Sri Lanka relations to a higher level on arrival in India.
India’s response was instant and in full measure. India has announced USD 400 million Line of Credit to Sri Lanka for infrastructure development and another USD 50 million Line of Credit for strengthening Sri Lanka’s capacities to counter terrorism, taking into account the grave consequences of the Easter bombings and the likely attacks by a regrouped LTTE against India and Sri Lanka.
India also agreed to make operational the USD 100 million Line of Credit announced earlier for solar projects in Sri Lanka. President Gotabaya has gone at length to address some of India’s major concerns.
He emphasised that Sri Lanka understands the “importance of Indian concerns” and that “Sri Lanka would work with India as a friendly country and won’t do anything that will harm India’s interests.”
He also acknowledged that Sri Lanka was too small a country to get involved in any “balancing act” and therefore would like to remain “neutral” rather than get caught between the power struggle of superpowers”. He underlined the strategic location of Sri Lanka as all sea lanes were passing close to his country and added that “these lanes should be free and no country should control these sea lanes,” a reference which may not please China.
He renewed his commitment to the creation of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace, which has become redundant in the context of India’s initiatives in the India-Pacific.
He also tried to explain away his brother’s embrace of China as purely economic. He sounded as though his links with China will be economic and ties with India will be political and strategic.
Rajapaksa had declared soon after he was elected that he would be the President of all Sri Lankans and not only of those who voted for him and also that he would find a political solution to the remaining Tamil issues. Mahinda Rajapaksa had claimed after the war that there were no minorities in Sri Lanka anymore. Gotabaya’s statements in India indicated that he would look up to India to bring the Tamils into the mainstream.
Sadanand Dhume of ‘The Wall Street Journal’ wrote: “With this month’s election of Sinhalese hard-liner Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president, Sri Lanka, Asia’s oldest democracy, has become the latest country in the region to tilt toward illiberal rule…… For Rajapaksa foes, the family stands for ethnic chauvinism, despotism and nepotism.”
India’s position is critical for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to remove these charges. By taking the first steps to improve relations with India, he has begun a long journey to win back the west and the east without abandoning China.