Analysis | Will Gotabaya Rajapaksa make peace with India?

Analysis | Will Gotabaya Rajapaksa make peace with India?

Given his polarised mandate, Sri Lanka president-elect may need New Delhi’s help in Tamil regions.

For many in South Block, the election in Sri Lanka will bring relations around full circle from five years ago. In October 2014, during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi, when he was Defence Secretary to his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, both the Ministry of External Affairs and the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval delivered him a tough message: that the Modi government took a stern view of Sri Lanka allowing Chinese naval warships into Colombo harbour.

The message clearly didn’t go down well with Mr. Gotabaya, and a week later, the PLA-Navy’s submarine Changzheng-2 and the warship Chang Xing Dao arrived at Colombo on a five-day visit anyway. Sri Lanka insisted it had informed Indian officials about the plan in advance, and that the docking was routine, but the event put the Rajapaksa regime and the Modi government on collision course. Matters came to a head shortly after, when an Indian diplomat based in Colombo was accused of conspiring with the opposition leaders to defeat President Rajapaksa, and subsequently returned to Delhi. In the elections that followed, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost to Maithripala Sirisena, who was warmly welcomed by the Modi government.

A lot has changed between the government and the Rajapaksas since that fraught period five years ago. The Rajapaksas are now back in power, although it is Mr. Gotabaya who is President, not Mr. Mahinda, because of two-term limits on the presidency. For its part, New Delhi has worked on building ties on both sides of the political aisles, and carefully sidestepped situations where it was expected to take sides, including during the short period last year when Mahinda was sworn in as Prime Minister. In September 2018, Mr. Mahinda told The Hindu in an interview during a visit to Delhi that it was “time to move on” from the misunderstandings of the past. Nonetheless, with Mr. Gotabaya now in charge, New Delhi will have several apprehensions.

Past tensions

While his brother, a life-long politician has been able to make his peace with New Delhi, the question remains about whether Gotabaya, a more stentorian military man, has done the same. Speaking to journalists in 2017, Gothabaya accused the Indian government of having effected “regime change” because it had a “bee in its bonnet” about China. In an interview in 2018, he repeated that charge, and also said that the Indian government had shunned his party, and had refused to engage with the Sri Lankan opposition.

China card

At a rally last month, Gotabaya said that his government’s foreign policy would be “neutral” and stay out of “regional power struggles”. However, many worry that a tilt towards China will be inevitable, given the Rajapaksa’s past preferences as well as Gotabaya’s acrimonious relationship with the United States, which has often raised Gotabaya’s role as defence chief during the war against the LTTE in 2009 amidst allegations of human rights violations. Sri Lanka’s debt situation will also mean a greater role for China, which is the island’s biggest investor and creditor. “Even the Sirisena government was unable to keep Chinese influence at bay, despite some efforts. Under Gotabaya, that influence is expected to be much more evident,” says former diplomat in the Indian High Commission in Colombo and now Executive Director of the South Asian Institute of Strategic Affairs (SISA) Prabha Rao.

Minority report

The most sensitive issue for New Delhi in dealing with Gotabaya will be dealing with the Tamil-speaking areas of Sri Lanka’s North and Muslim-dominated East, that Tamil Nadu has the closest links with. Gotabaya, who is unpopular for his role in the war against LTTE in these areas, was defeated in all of the Northern Province’s five districts and in three districts in the Eastern Province in Sunday’s election. “Given his polarised mandate, Gotabaya should actually want India’s friendship in resolving tensions with the North and East region, and India should move in quickly to ensure more development projects in those areas,” advised Ms. Rao.

Government officials say that contrary to public perception, however, local diplomats have been meeting with both Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the recent past, and they expect to build on traditional ties between New Delhi and Colombo and bonhomie between Narendra Modi-Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A first step was made with PM Modi’s early tweet congratulating President-elect Rajapaksa, and Mr. Rajapaksa’s quick reply thanking him, they add.

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