Even as Gotabaya Rajapaksa was slowly inching towards a historic victory in the Sri Lankan Presidential elections, it was being widely propagated that a pro-China regime is going to come back into power in the island country. This opinion was strongly based on the experience of the Mahinda Rajapaksa era, particularly the Hambantota project, which has become the living example of the Chinese “debt-trap” diplomacy.
Financed by the Chinese despite adverse feasibility reports and refusal by India for such a project, the port turned out to be a miserable failure. While tens of thousands of ships pass through the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the Hambantota port drew only 34 ships in 2012. The Rajapaksa regime was ousted in 2015, but the Hambantota project continued to haunt the succeeding regime.
What is important to mention here is the fact that China made inroads into Sri Lanka during Mahina Rajapaksa’s ten-year rule at a time when the island country was still trying to get rid of the LTTE issue. The US had withdrawn military aid to Sri Lanka in 2007.
The Sri Lankan government was then mired in controversy surrounding allegations of human rights violations, which reached its zenith after UNHRC adopted a US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka. UPA government which was in power at that time in India voted in favour of the resolution. Gotabaya Rajapaksa had also said in 2013 that India cannot absolve itself of having had ‘created’ Tamil terror in Sri Lanka in the 1980s.
With the entire world leading a charge against the island country on reports of gross human rights violations, and India too remained hesitant, China saw an opportunity and Rajapaksa a compulsion in China-Sri Lanka relations. It was in such circumstances that the Dragon became the biggest donor to the island country, and also pushed the Hambantota project after which Sri Lanka defaulted and leased the port to China, leading to bells ringing in New Delhi.
India therefore, made it’s displeasure known, and what further soured the relationship between Sri Lanka (Rajapaksa) and India was Rajapaksa’s allegation that India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) was behind his poll defeat. He had alleged that a RAW official was instrumental in uniting his rival political outfits- the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). The deterioration in the relations between Rajapaksa and India was therefore based on a perceived pro-China stance of Sri Lanka under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and the insecurities harboured by Mahinda Rajapaksa against India.
As stated earlier, the popular opinion both within and outside India was that the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the younger brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa who is now all set to be sworn in as the next President, would pivot Sri Lanka towards Beijing once again, and prove antagonistic to India’s interests. However, both in the run-up to the elections and in the discourse after the election results, the perceived antagonism against India is not visible. In fact, if one gauges the conduct of the Rajapaksa brothers and the President-elect in the right context, it would become clear that there is at least a sense of ease in relations between the upcoming Rajapaksa regime and the Modi government.
As per an Indian Express report, the President-elect, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been quick to reach out to India after his election as the next President of the island country. His camp has conveyed that while China will be a “trading partner”, India will remain Sri Lanka’s “relative”. This comes amidst reports of the President-elect choosing Anuradhapura, the World Heritage City known for its ancient links with India, for his swearing-in ceremony. This can be seen as a soft signal towards potentially closer relations between the two countries.
What further makes it clear that there is a somewhat pro-India tilt when it comes to Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the fact that sources close to the Indian Express have said that he will be a “healthy partner” for India. The sources also said, “With the current (Wickremesinghe) government, India imagined that its interests will be protected. But it failed to protect Sri Lanka’s interests and did nothing for India. A strong president in Sri Lanka will make sure that India is the closest friend while protecting the independence and autonomy of his own country.”
As far as Delhi is concerned, Rajapaksa no longer seems to be viewed with suspicion. After Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election, PM Modi is also said to have invited the President-elect, Rajapaksa to visit India at a time of his convenience. The invitation has also been by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It must be noted that the Indian government has had its own apprehensions with respect to the Rajapaksa brothers, as Mahinda Rajapaksa had earlier driven Sri Lanka closer to China and eventually led to the lease of Hambantota port to China. However, in the recent past, New Delhi seems to have laid the ground for re-testing the strongman’s commitment to better relations with India.
Earlier this year, Mahinda Rajapaksa met PM Modi and the two discussed the need for close collaboration between India and Sri Lanka in the fields of security, economic development and counter-terrorism. It is therefore clear that the animosity between the Rajapaksa brothers and the Indian government has been gradually disappearing. What also makes a Rajapaksa regime amenable to India’s interests is the kind of authority that the Rajapaksa brothers enjoy within Sri Lanka. They are credited with having ended the three decades-long civil war within the island country. As opposed to the current government, which faced widespread criticism as it failed to tackle Islamic extremism and the Easter Sunday terror attacks despite intelligence inputs from India, the Rajapaksa regime is expected to be in complete control of Sri Lanka’s affairs.
It is true that the outgoing President Sirisena and Wickremesinghe government were seen as tilted towards India. However, nothing substantial really happened in India’s favour. As Rajya Sabha Subramanian Swamy also expressed faith in Gotabaya’s leadership, tweeting, “Gotabhaya Rajapaksha has won the Presidential election in Sri Lanka. He is a decisive and clear-sighted person. Good for India,” it is imperative that the Modi government forges closer ties with the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka.
What also makes the idea of Indo-Sri Lanka co-operation on security and counter-terrorism that much more probable is the meeting between Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Sri Lanka President and elder brother of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and PM Modi earlier this year. PM Modi had then tweeted, “We discussed the need for close collaboration between India and Sri Lanka in the fields of counter-terrorism, security and economic development.”
It is also clear that with Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the helm of affairs, Sri Lanka is going to combat Islamic extremism. India has already proven how it can be of immense help to Sri Lanka and had Sri Lanka not ignored India’s intelligence warnings, Easter terror attacks could have been prevented. Now, with a stronger nationalist regime at the helm of affairs, the two countries that share traditionally close relations have an opportunity to come together on the issues of security and counter-terrorism.