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Can Modi & Gotabaya build bridges of trust?

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh
Published : Nov 28, 2019, 5:34 am IST
Updated : Nov 28, 2019, 5:34 am IST

The Rajapaksa clan get a fresh opportunity to re-engage India after their 2015 defeat, which they attributed to India’s unseen hand.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Photo: AP)
 Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Photo: AP)

Within days of his election Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will visit New Delhi on Friday, November 29, his first trip abroad. Sri Lankan leaders in the past have often done so to convey the importance they attach to their country’s ties with India. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar also underscored this by making an unscripted visit to Colombo on November 19, the day after the new President was sworn in. Besides his extensive experience in dealing with Sri Lanka as foreign secretary, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term, Mr Jaishankar was the political officer attached to the star-crossed Indian Peace-Keeping Force in 1988-1990, which was an ill-judged foreign intervention by India’s armed forces.

Since the 1980s, at the core of the relationship has been the fate and political future of the island nation’s Tamil minority, constituting 15 per cent of its total population. The rise of Tamil militancy under the LTTE and the civil war that ended in 2009 still casts a shadow over India-Sri Lankan relations, although it has not been a significant factor in the politics of Tamil Nadu in recent times. The vital issues of devolution of power and reconciliation are still up in the air. As civil war swirled and was ended successfully, but brutally, by Sri Lanka, India was under a Congress-led coalition government of which the DMK was a part. This complicated security cooperation between Sri Lanka and India against the LTTE. While intelligence was shared and aid and abetment from Indian soil curbed, there could be no direct military training or supplies. That allowed Pakistan and China to fill the gap, and increase their footprint. In fact, Islamabad appointed a senior Pakistan Air Force officer as high commissioner, apparently to coordinate training of Sri Lankan Air Force pilots, who played an important role in turning the military tide against the LTTE. As the LTTE had the blood of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on their hands, the Congress was quietly satisfied at the cornering and decimation of the LTTE as it could retain the goodwill of their allies in Tamil Nadu and yet witness retribution delivered.

But the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, riding the tiger of chauvinism, began visibly tilting Sri Lanka towards China, allowing it access to the development of infrastructure, including Hambantota port and airport. Traditionally, India had resisted inroads by foreign powers in Sri Lanka. China entrenching itself in the development of a crucially located port was the crossing of a red line. As it turned out later, on being unable to repay loan instalments, China has in lieu obtained a 99-year lease on the port and its abutting land, reminiscent of what the West did to China when seizing control of Hong Kong and Macau. The port is now embedded in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which India has refused to endorse. The Rajapaksa clan, with older brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa installed as Prime Minister, now returns riding another wave of chauvinism, fed not by Tamil defiance but the Easter bombings of April 21 this year, which brought the simmering Sinhalese-Muslim tensions to the fore and the ISIS to Sri Lanka’s shores. While the main targets were Christians, the hotel bombings, although primarily targeting foreigners, also hit the population at large. The resurrection of the Rajapaksas was accelerated by the rising feeling of victimhood among the Sinhalese, fed now by a new monster.

The Rajapaksa clan get a fresh opportunity to re-engage India after their 2015 defeat, which they attributed to India’s unseen hand. Although old hurts will remain, there are some new convergences. First, even the Rajapaksas have campaigned to right the wrong done with the ceding of control over Hambantota port and zone to China. Thus, old pals need to recalibrate China’s terms of engagement. It is possible that in closed rooms fresh terms of a private nature are settled, but still the posture of hyper-nationalism would ill fit public kowtowing on an issue of national prestige and honour. Second, the Modi and Rajapaksa governments would agree fully on the danger to both nations from radical Islam. Unfortunately, they may also share the overly security-dependent approach to countering terror. Thus, unlike in past decades, when the two nations differed on their approach to the Tamil question, Sri Lanka’s new problem has no such dissonance.

The one issue that India will find difficult to brush under the carpet is the war crimes investigations, which would be shut. In fact, a main investigator has already fled to Geneva, fearing reprisals. Not only does the charge of mass murder of civilians in 2009 by the Sri Lankan defence forces hang over President Gotabaya, as he was then the defence secretary, but his appointment of similarly-pilloried Gen. Kamal Gunaratne as his defence minister has invited international condemnation. Western nations and the United States will keep up pressure on the new government on this count. It may not be an issue in Tamil Nadu yet, but the issue’s revival cannot be ruled out as state elections approach and President Gotabaya shelves any move to devolve power to the north, where Tamils are in a majority. Even in the just-concluded presidential election, Opposition candidate Sajith Premadasa obtained 80 per cent of the North’s vote, while in the predominantly Sinhalese South, his share fell to 30 per cent. The old fractures in the Sri Lankan polity have not healed as new ones involving the Muslim minority have emerged.

Crucial to the success of the new government is handling of the economy. The Free Trade Agreement with India has raised the volume of bilateral trade to over $4 billion annually, although the trade deficit is grossly in India’s favour. India’s exports are six to seven times that of Sri Lanka. The outgoing government of President Maithripala Sirisena tried to rebalance relations between India and China, to correct the Mahinda tilt. The third player in the game is the US, which has signed military cooperation agreements with Sri Lanka to enable access to their ports, etc. India will work perforce to balance the China-US race to gain ascendency in obtaining access to crucial berthing and refuelling facilities in ports like Hambantota, Trincomalee on the east coast and Colombo. Therefore, the forthcoming visit of Sri Lanka’s President is crucial to put the past to rest and forge a new partnership that respects each other’s red lines and build new bridges of trust and mutual dependence.

Tags: narendra modi, goatabaya rajapaksa