Sri Lankan President’s visit :The lion meets the tiger

Sri Lanka’s new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in India on his maiden state visit after taking over the reins of the island nation. During the visit, he met the President, the Prime Minister and held delegation-level talks with the latter. After the meeting, Both sides expressed hope to work closely with each other towards regional security, counter-terrorism, and mutual cooperation to ensure sustainable economic progress.

Born in an influential political family of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya is the youngest of the four offsprings of a former Member of Parliament and the younger sibling of the more famous politician Mahinda Rajapaksa who was the President from 2005 to 2015. A technocrat by education and military officer by profession, Gotabaya served in the Sri Lanka Army for twenty years during which he also received advanced training in the Defence Services Staff College, wellington, Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School, Vairengte, Assam and also obtained a Postgraduate Degree in Defence Studies from the University of Madras. But in 1995, he quit the service and moved to the USA for starting his IT business. However, he was recalled by President Maninda in2005 and appointed Defence Secretary with the responsibility to deal with the Tamil insurgency which he very successfully and perhaps brutally carried out. Accused of the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka, he quit the government job when Mahinda stepped down after the maximum two terms permitted by the constitution.

Credited for suppression of LTTE and death of its boss V. Prabhakaran, Gotabaya is loathed by the Tamil population of Sri Lanka and that is why he could garner only 6% votes in the Tamil regions of Jaffna and less than 13% each in Batticaloa and Vanni. But, overall, he defeated his nearest rival by a comfortable margin of over 10%. The swing in favour of Gotabaya is seen as a direct result of the blasts in churches in April by ISIS sleeper cells. Shattered by the loss of more than 250 Sri Lankans, the Sinhala majority wanted someone capable of suppressing terrorism and who could be a better choice than Gotabaya.

Now, what does the election of Gotabaya mean for India? It is believed that Maninda, who is constitutionally barred for a third term but has been appointed interim Prime Minister by the younger brother, will be calling shots. During his reign of ten years, Maninda was known to be very pro-China and, to that extent, anti-India. He even accused India of meddling with Sri Lankan elections through her intelligence agencies. The agreement to build Hambantota Port with a Chinese loan was signed during his time. However, Mahinda seems to have toned down a little. During the last one year, he visited India twice and, correctly realising his importance in the future, the Indian Government treated him friendly. In a marked departure from the earlier stance of the Rajpakshas, Gotabaya assured in his first post-election speech that Sri Lanka will “ be neutral in the regional power play and keep an equal distance from both, China and India”. In order to assuage the Tamil minority’s apprehensions, he even inducted two Tamils in his interim cabinet. Accusing the so-called leaders of the local Muslim community, already suffering from backlash by Sinhalas, of spreading misinformation with mala fide intention to keep their positions intact in the community, the new president assured the latter of his bona fides. India, on her part, has played her cards well so far. PM’s congratulations and invitation to visit India immediately after the swearing-in was accepted by Gotabaya with the same alacrity.

Another angle of the India-Sri Lanka relationship is China’s presence on the island. The Leasing of   Hambantota to China for 99 years and allowing China to use the Colombo port for its Navy by ignoring India’s security concerns shows how deep China has penetrated into Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s heavy dependence on China can be guessed by the fact that currently, about 39% of Sri Lanka’s external debt is from China which also exports ten times more to Sri Lanka that it imports from the island.

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka can hardly afford to completely ignore India much less than antagonising her. During the visit, both sides spoke at length about ways and means to enhance bilateral cooperation including developmental projects, fight against terrorism and regional security. India announced a new Line of Credit of US$ 400 million for infrastructure development projects in Sri Lanka. This is in addition to the Line of Credit of US$ 100 announced earlier which has been agreed to be utilised for the development of solar energy in the island nation. Another US$ 50 has been pledged by India for the training of Sri Lankan Police in counter-terrorism. Thus, both sides have shown apparent eagerness to mend their relations. Reiterating the importance that India gives to Sri Lanka through its “Neighbourhood First” and SAGAR doctrine, PM Modi hoped that the new regime will “fulfill the aspirations of the Tamil community of Sri Lanka”. On his part, the visiting dignitary expressed his resolve to “take India-Sri Lanka relations to a very strong level”. He has also assured India earlier that Sri Lanka would not do anything to harm India’s security.

All said and done, it will be still premature to predict the future direction of our relations with Sri Lanka before some concrete movement is visible.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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