What does it mean for India now that the Rajapakse family is back in power in Sri Lanka with younger brother Gotabaya elected as the new president and elder brother and former president Mahinda appointed as the new Prime Minister? The family has come back after five years of hibernation and is poised to rule the island nation for the next five years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Gotabaya after his victory. Modi is aware of the strategic importance of Sri Lanka in the region and there are several issues that need the attention of both leaders.
Without wasting time, Modi also despatched his External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar to Colombo and he was the first highlevel foreign dignitary to meet the newly elected President. Signalling that his relationship with India would be warm and friendly, Gotabaya accepted Modi’s invitation to visit Delhi on November 29. It will be his first foreign visit. Pakistan and China too were quick to congratulate Rajapakse on his victory. It must be noted that in the last days of Mahinda’s regime, strains had developed in the Indo-Lankan relationship.
Both Washington and New Delhi had backed the change of regime in 2015 that prevented Mahinda from becoming president again. But things have changed after five years and interestingly New Delhi has warmed up to Mahinda who has visited India twice in the last two years. His meetings with the top leadership ensured that they could build on the cordial relationship. Gotabaya’s people have tried to allay New Delhi’s apprehensions by conveying that while China remains Sri Lanka’s “trading partner”, India remains a “relative”.
With the changed political situation, both sides now have to deal with each other pragmatically as Sri Lanka is an important strategic neighbour. While New Delhi cannot afford to alienate Colombo, India is the big brother in the region for Sri Lanka. The one irritant is the China factor. The Rajapakses are perceived to be China-friendly. During his ten-year rule, Mahinda had played his China card and Beijing, on its part, was liberal in extending loans as well as political support to defend Sri Lanka in its international censure during and after the LTTE War.
Mahinda had awarded China several infrastructure development projects including Hambantota Port and Colombo Port City. A Reuter’s report claimed that China has invested an estimated $11 billion in Sri Lanka, around $8 billion in the form of loans related to Xi’s “Belt and Road Initiative”. New Delhi was concerned when defying Indian sensitivities, Sri Lanka allowed Chinese submarines to dock at Colombo Port. China is also making its inroads in the maritime route along Sri Lanka. In a measured speech at his swearing-in ceremony, Gotabaya declared that Sri Lanka would maintain friendly ties with all nations and remain neutral in matters involving international powers so as to stay out of conflicts.
It is seen as a significant foreign policy statement reassuring New Delhi. Moreover, analysts point out that till recently Gotabaya was a US citizen and has a pro-West outlook. New Delhi, on its part, also has to deliver more as both sides need to adopt a give and take policy for building better relations. Winning over Colombo will require India to invest in greater security and defence cooperation and engage Colombo in view of maintaining mutual interests of ensuring peace and tranquility in the region.
The new president has a big challenge on the economic side. Sri Lanka is facing heavy foreign debt and a quarter of the debt, which stands at 45 per cent of GDP, is owed to China. Gotabaya’s first priority will be to address the sliding economy. This is where New Delhi could help as Sri Lanka needs investment and it will go a long way if India could invest in mutually beneficial projects. Secondly and more importantly, the concerns of the Sri Lankan Tamils require attention. Tamil Nadu has an emotional bonding with the Sri Lankan Tamils. How will Gotabaya deal with the minorities? The Presidential election results have shown that the minorities, particularly the Tamils did not vote for Gotabaya.
The Hindus and Muslims together constitute approximately 20 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population. Some in the Muslim community are also fearful after mob violence in the wake of the April attacks. A new chapter in India-Sri Lanka relations has begun on a good note with both sides showing graceful gestures. It is expected that the forthcoming visit of President Gotabaya might lead to an explicit understanding on various issues of mutual concern. Insiders say that his style would be different from that of his brother Mahinda in dealing with New Delhi.