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India to be a proactive, generous neighbour to Sri Lanka

The Narendra Modi government has been lauded for being first off the mark with a state visit by new Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. What it shows is that India has learnt from its mistakes of the past. It is possible the Rajapaksa brother...

by Indrani Bagchi

"Sri Lanka will not be party to any activity that could be a security concern to India.… Sri Lanka would not encourage anything that would jeopardise the security of the Indian Ocean.” The new Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke clearly and with conviction at the presidential banquet in Delhi on Friday evening. It is an assurance India will monitor carefully, as the two neighbours turn a new chapter in their often chequered relationship.



The return of the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka comes with bad memories, a deeply polarised polity and the inevitable China shadow. But with a bit of luck and some good strategy by India, things could be different. The Narendra Modi government has been lauded for being first off the mark with a state visit by Gotabaya, but frankly, it would have been a surprise if they hadn’t done it. What it does show is that India has learnt from its mistakes of the past. It is possible the Rajapaksa brothers may have as well.

Unpacking the Sri Lankan presidential elections shows the fraught nature of the polity. Gotabaya won the Sinhala areas convincingly, while north and eastern Sri Lanka, with their Tamil and Muslim majorities, voted largely for his opponent Sajith Premadasa.

The fact that Gotabaya took his oath in the iconic Ruwanwelisaya Buddhist temple in Anuradhapura comes with its own symbolism, which is troubling for the Tamils.

Gotabaya, however, started out with the right noises, which he repeated to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar when he visited.

Answering a question in Parliament earlier this week, Jaishankar said, “I visited Sri Lanka a day after he was sworn in as president. The president assured us that he is today the president of all Sri Lankans. We need to look at that assurance and obviously whatever discussions happen during his visit would demonstrate where that assurance holds.”


At joint press interaction by Gotabaya and Modi, the latter put the Tamil reconciliation question on the table, including calling for implementation of the 13th amendment, which proposes the establishment of a provincial council system and devolution of power to nine provinces. With the BJP wooing Tamil Nadu, this is not likely to leave the list of India’s talking points.

The Rajapaksa brothers are confronting several realities after the elections. One, a recognition that India now has the political appetite to play a tougher game if necessary. It was not for nothing that Gotabaya and Modi spent an hour in a one-on-one discussion focusing on security, counter-terrorism and maritime security, where India will inevitably be Sri Lanka’s biggest partner, and where India’s security interests are most impacted.

Jaishankar assured Parliament that there were no Chinese submarines in Lankan waters currently, and Gotabaya is believed to have committed to being more sensitive to Indian concerns.

Gotabaya has also inherited an economy in an unholy mess. As Arvind Subramanian, former chief economic adviser to the government of India, has observed, Sri Lanka is prone to macroeconomic instability which, he says, is a function of deep-seated social and political conflicts.

FDI inflows into Sri Lanka have been declining steadily in the past few years, leaving Sri Lanka as the worst performing economy in South Asia, barring Pakistan.

Economist Amitendu Palit has observed that Sri Lanka’s external debt is a whopping 66% of its GDP.

While this is not directly attributable to Chinese loans, he says high debt has much to do with the liberal policy of allowing corporates to borrow directly from overseas credit markets, often backed by government guarantees. It was to defray some of that debt that the previous Maithripala Sirisena government leased Hambantota port to China for 99 years, making Sri Lanka the poster child of all that’s wrong with the Belt and Road Initiative. The Rajapaksas are acutely aware of their role in bringing Chinese debt into Sri Lanka in the first place.

India, for its part, watched the Sirisena government unravel under the weight its own contradictions in the past four years. Sirisena started out by promising to “review” Chinese infrastructure projects, but ended up placing Sri Lanka deeper in hock with China. This is an economic and security threat to Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksas know this.

In his election manifesto, Gotabaya devoted some attention to Hambantota port: it is “a national asset and was defined as a strategic asset by us previously, and the intention was never to sell or lease the port for 99 years. We will make it a priority to revisit the already signed agreement with the Chinese government….” How he plans to do it will be watched closely by India.

Counter-terrorism will be a big area of cooperation between Colombo and New Delhi. India had shared detailed intelligence of the Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka; Colombo’s inability to act on that is a blot on their security services.

This weekend’s NIA raids in Tiruchirapalli is a sample of how seriously India is taking the ISIS threat, and will expect Sri Lanka to do its bit. India will be a more proactive neighbour to Sri Lanka, more generous, and a facilitator in the international arena, particularly with the US, with whom Gotabaya has a testy relationship.

In return, the Rajapaksas will be expected to bridge some of the social cleavages that have become more fraught in that country, and take all sections of population along. Gotabaya will receive assistance from New Delhi to fix its economy as well. Sri Lanka has the potential to emerge as a global shipping hub, even displacing Singapore. But, as India has already emphasised, there will be no quarter given on security questions, particularly in the Indian Ocean.

The writer is the editor of Economic Times, where this piece first appeared

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