The Narendra Modi government has shown exemplary political deftness by inviting Gotabaya Rajapaksa, making India the first foreign destination for the new Sri Lankan President. Rajapaksa’s visit, scheduled for 29 November, will mark the beginning of a new relationship between India and Sri Lanka, the two countries that share many historical events.
The visit itself will provide New Delhi and Colombo with the much-needed opportunity to reset the relationship and move towards sustainable growth that will benefit both the countries.
While it is easy to accuse Sri Lanka of walking into the Chinese debt trap, New Delhi cannot absolve itself of the sins of commission and omission in pushing Colombo further into Beijing’s sphere of influence. From the Hambantota fiasco to the Colombo Port City development project, it was India’s laid-back attitude and sloppy implementation that drove not only Colombo but many other regional economies into the Chinese orbit.
End pro-China spin
While the Modi government will have to seriously rethink its Sri Lanka policy, its first task must be to put an immediate stop on the narrative that the newly elected government in Colombo is a “pro-China regime”. This narrative has harmed and will continue to harm our diplomatic efforts to regain the lost strategic space.
The pro-China spin was most pronounced during the 2015 presidential election when incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa (who was Wednesday named as Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister by his younger brother and President Gotabaya) was accused of cancelling Indian projects and awarding them to China. Mahinda had strongly refuted the claim. He had told me in an interview that he had in fact cancelled projects given to China by his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga and restored them back to India. But the Maithripala Sirisena government that was elected in 2015 went back on its poll promises and awarded many more contracts to China, including the US$ 1.4 billion land reclamation project of China Harbour Engineering Company, which was part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Lanka’s own mismanagement
The Sri Lankan Constitution is probably a document that can be perennially termed as a ‘work in progress’. The Sirisena government, soon after coming to power in January 2015, enacted the highly contentious and complicated 19th Amendment curtailing the president’s powers. Maithripala Sirisena, who was health minister under Mahinda Rajapaksa, had enlisted the support of his arch-rival and then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to clip the wings of the president and strip Mahinda Rajapaksa of powers in the unlikely event of his becoming president again.
Besides corruption charges and war crimes, the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was accused of extreme nepotism. His brother Chamal was the speaker in parliament while Basil was minister for economic development; his son Namal was a member of parliament and accused of being part of many lucrative government contracts.
Strangely though, the same Sirisena who accused Mahinda of corruption and nepotism appointed him as the PM after sacking Ranil Wickremesinghe in October last year. The fate of this government of disunity was sealed. Mahinda, a shrewd politician, convinced his brother Gotabaya, an ace strategist (as I found out after many meetings with him when he was defence secretary and in control of the Sri Lankan Army) to contest the 2019 presidential election.
Much depends on Gotabaya, the ‘strategist’
Due to the 19th Amendment, President Gotabaya has very little power to wield and will have to depend on his prime minister, brother Mahinda, to see through his diktats. But it is unlikely that Gotabaya will remain just a ceremonial president throughout his term or until his presidency lasts.
The new president is fully aware that Sri Lanka’s religious and social divide will be detrimental to its much-needed economic revival. As the person-in-charge of the Sri Lankan Army’s strategy during its last and decisive fight against the dreaded LTTE, Gotabaya was seen as a ruthless no-nonsense leader determined to eradicate terrorism, which he and his brother ultimately did.
The strategist president will have to make effective changes in his strategy, which he will surely make, considering the emerging social dynamics in the predominantly Buddhist island nation. A section of the Buddhist clergy is already worried about the growing radicalisation of the community’s youth in the face of a perceived increase in “Arabised” Islam. The activities of a radical Buddhist outfit, Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force), has become a cause of worry for the establishment in Colombo as well as the deeply religious clergy, which has tremendous clout in politics.
The Easter Sunday attacks, targeting churches and hotels, have led to a deep polarisation among the Sri Lankans, with the minority Muslim population distancing itself from the pro-Sinhalese narrative. This campaign eventually pushed the Buddhist clergy and the Sinhalese voters into the lap of Rajapaksas, with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) securing more than 52 per cent votes.
The new forms of terror are far more dangerous than the LTTE terror, which wrecked Sri Lanka’s economy beyond repair. The Easter Sunday bombings could have links with mercenary groups operating in different parts of the globe. New Delhi and Colombo will have to work closely, exchange intelligence inputs, upgrade technology and manpower mechanism to combat terrorism and sleeper cells.
A sharply divided polity may be good for registering a political victory but will be bad for the cause of economic growth and peaceful coexistence. Any further alienation of the Tamil population, especially in the Tamil-dominated north and east provinces, could aggravate the schism and suspicion among the linguistic minority. This will result in a serious setback to the much-hyped reconstruction project, Vadakkin Vasantham (Northern Spring), meant for the all-round economic development of the two regions devastated by the LTTE and civil strife.
New Delhi will have to do much more than just partnering with Colombo in these projects.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.