The news of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decisive win in the just-concluded Presidential elections in Sri Lanka was received with a fair bit of misgivings and apprehensions in some circles in India.
Many felt that the island nation would, under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, return to China’s embrace. But those fears are unfounded, and this article will explain that later. But, first a bit of the background.
The fears were based on past experience. Gotabaya’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa (who has now been appointed the new Prime Minister) was the president of the island nation from November 2005 to January 2015.
During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidentship, he steered his country firmly towards China. This period saw massive Chinese investments in Sri Lanka and a very deep engagement between the defence establishments of the two countries.
China, which pursues a debt-trap diplomacy — extending huge loans to small countries for mega but unnecessary infrastructure projects and then forcibly extracting strategic advantage from the debt-snared countries — had similarly entrapped Sri Lanka in debt (also read this). Mahinda Rajapaksa also allowed access to China’s warships and submarines into Lankan ports, alarming India.
There was the inevitable backlash against China’s alarming influence over the island nation and this became the prime issue in the campaigning for the Presidential polls in end-2015. Maithripala Sirisena campaigned, and won, the polls by whipping up fears of the island nation turning into a colony of China.
Mahinda Rajapaksa had also led a brutal war against the separatist Tamil LTTE that ended the 25-year-long civil war that had wracked the country. Under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was the defence minister, the country’s armed forces crushed the LTTE and was accused of large-scale human rights violations, killings of unarmed Tamil civilians and bombing of hospitals, schools and civilian homes.
The Rajapaksas had to face international censure and sanctions for allowing and even encouraging the country’s defence forces to allegedly commit large-scale atrocities against Tamils to defeat the LTTE. The USA and western countries, as well as lenders like Japan, stopped their engagements with Sri Lanka.
India, too, followed suit. That was primarily to placate the domestic constituency of Tamils who were outraged over the mistreatment of their brethren in Sri Lanka. Lakhs of Tamils had either perished or been forced to flee the island nation due to the brutal crackdown by the Lankan defence forces.
It was at this stage that China not only supported and shielded Sri Lanka from global sanctions and censure, but also offered a crucial financial lifeline to the economically-distressed country. A grateful Mahinda Rajapaksa, in turn, allowed Beijing to merrily increase its footprint in his country.
But there was the inevitable backlash against this and coupled with the deep resentment of the Tamils against Rajapaksa, Sirisena won the presidential polls. He immediately initiated measures to check China’s influence. Mahinda Rajapaksa had angrily accused India of engineering his defeat in the polls at that time.
But Sirisena, within a couple of years, softened his stance against China and even handed over the controversial Hambantota port to the Chinese (also read this and this). He fell out with his prime minister Ranil Wichkremesinghe and tried to remove him (and install Mahinda Rajapaksa) in a failed constitutional coup last year.
The acute differences between president Sirisena and prime minister Wickremesinghe over the past two years led to a total administrative paralysis in Sri Lanka and badly affected the country. Sri Lankans, especially the majority Sinhalese, started turning against Sirisena.
The final nail in Sirisena’s political coffin was the devastating Easter bombings that left 259 dead and over 500 injured. The fact that Sirisena and the country’s intelligence agencies had received advance information from India about the impending attacks but chose to ignore the tip-off turned the tide against Sirisena.
In contrast to the indecisive and floundering Siriesena constantly at loggerheads with his prime minister (Wickremesinghe), Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to be widely viewed as a strong and decisive leader. His earlier role in crushing Tamil separatism and ending the festering civil war, and his new promise of preventing any more terror attacks, won him robust support.
New Delhi saw the writing on the wall (Rajapaksa’s victory) as early as last year and started courting the Rajapaksas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted Mahinda Rajapaksa in New Delhi in September last year and the two discussed security issues affecting both the nations.
Top officials in India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told Swarajya that Modi established strong bonds with Mahinda Rajapaksa when he met the former Lankan President during his visit to the island nation in the aftermath of the Easter bombings. The two discussed terror threats and Modi shared a lot of vital information on the subject with Rajapaksa.
Much before Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature (for President) was announced, New Delhi had reached out to the Rajapaksa family and firmed up ties with the brothers. It is significant that Gotabaya, during his campaign, spoke of establishing close ties with India. He had said that while China would be a “friend”, India is a “close relative”.
MEA officials are confident that the new Lankan president will follow a pragmatic policy of maintaining close links with India. His elder brother has already said that forging close security cooperation with India would be his top priority.
A major reason for optimism among MEA mandarins is the similarity in personas of Modi and the Rajapaksas. Modi, like the Rajapaksa brothers, is a strong leader and believes in establishing warm personal bonds with leaders of other countries.
There is a close convergence of interests as well. Modi and the Rajapaksas want to put their respective countries on a firm growth trajectory and believe in building military muscle. They see merit in close cooperation to meet threats like terror.
And there is a realisation in Colombo now that India’s cooperation is imperative for the island to prosper. For instance, the success of Colombo International Financial City hinges on investment by Indian businesses there. India, Gotabaya told top bureaucrats in Colombo a few days ago, has to be actively courted now.
Prime Minister Modi was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his electoral victory. That call was followed up by a two-day visit to Colombo by Foreign Minister S Jaishankar a day after Rajapaksa’s victory. The two had “very fruitful meeting”.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is slated to visit India on 29 November; his first overseas visit coming so close on the heels of his assuming office is of immense significance. There are many other encouraging signs of a desire to forge close ties with India emanating from the island nation. The coming to power of the Rajapaksa brothers in Sri Lanka is a huge opportunity, and not a threat, for India, say MEA mandarins and foreign policy experts.
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