Modi government distances itself from Rajapaksas in latest twist to see-saw relationship

Modi government distances itself from Rajapaksas in latest twist to see-saw relationship

Indian High Commission ‘categorically denies’ reports that India facilitated the Rajapaksas’ recent travel

Distancing itself from the Rajapaksa family that has been pushed out of power by angry protestors in Sri Lanka, the government made it clear that it has not offered outgoing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brother and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, and others who may wish to flee Sri Lanka, any support. New Delhi is watching the situation in Colombo closely, even as efforts get underway for the Sri Lanka Parliament to elect the next President next week.

The Indian High Commission said it “categorically denies baseless and speculative media reports that India facilitated the recent reported travel” of Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mr. Basil Rajapaksa.

“It is reiterated that India will continue to support the people of Sri Lanka as they seek to realize their aspirations for prosperity and progress through democratic means and values , established democratic institutions and constitutional framework,” the High Commission added.

On Sunday, the High Commission had also strongly denied reports suggesting India would send troops in to Sri Lanka, reiterating the statement put out by the Ministry of External Affairs that India would “stand with” the people of Sri Lanka, mirroring a position the government has taken, carefully moving away from past statements that mentioned discussions with former President Gotabaya and former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, ever since the protests in Colombo escalated.

The comments have followed several unconfirmed reports in Colombo that members of the Rajapaksa family, with the exception of former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa who has decided for the moment to remain in Sri Lanka, were in touch with senior Indian officials, including National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar for “safe passage”, as they made their way to destinations in the U.A.E., U.S. and Singapore. However, officials in Delhi have denied any role in helping the ousted Sri Lankan leadership, focusing instead on providing food, fuel, medicines, and other essentials to the country, as it grapples with the economic crisis.

“The Rajapaksas stand totally discredited in the eyes of the Sri Lankan people…To be on the wrong side of history by facilitating their escape from Sri Lanka could not be on option and I believe India has done well in respecting the voice of Sri Lankan democratic opinion in this regard,” former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Sri Lanka Nirupama Rao said.

Senior officials also pointed out that any hint of support to the outgoing leadership could also “complicate” New Delhi’s position with a new government in Colombo. At present, Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has the support of the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party in Parliament, will go up against Sajith Premadasa and possibly other contenders from the opposition. With many members of the SLPP turning Independent in the last few months, New Delhi would rather not be seen as taking sides and await the outcome of the election due on July 20.

The Modi government’s disavowal of the Rajapaksas is yet another twist in what has been a see-saw relationship since 2014. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and PM Modi hit it off at the start when the Sri Lankan President attended Mr. Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. At the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014, Mr. Modi even wished President Mahinda Rajapaksa success in the upcoming elections, which raised many eyebrows.

However, some months later, the relationship soured, as Mr. Rajapaksa was defeated by a united opposition, something he blamed Indian intelligence officials for “engineering”. In 2019, as Mr. Modi’s second tenure began, the Rajapaksas returned to power, with massive mandates that elected President Gotabaya first, and Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister next, and New Delhi and Colombo decided to forge a new relationship, getting off on a fresh footing. Soon after he was sworn-in, President Gotabaya visited Delhi, telling The Hindu that he would avoid the “misunderstandings of the past”, especially over China’s presence, by keeping the lines of communication open. That determination helped when Mr. Gotabaya suddenly cancelled a joint Memorandum of Understanding with India and Japan to develop the East Coast Terminal in favour of a Chinese company in February 2021. New Delhi was reportedly assuaged after the West Coast Terminal was awarded to Adani Ports, after a direct request from the Modi government to the Sri Lankan President’s office, according to officials.

As Sri Lanka’s economic crisis spiralled out of control last November, the Modi government moved quickly to fulfil requests made by the Rajapaksas — opening credit lines for food and fuel, donating medicines, allowing debt repayment delays and enabling currency swaps to the tune of $3.8 billion. However, as the chants of “Gota Go Gama” (Go home Gotabaya) grew louder at Colombo’s Galle Face, New Delhi decided its first duty as a neighbour was to the people, and made it clear its assistance was meant for them, not as a way of helping the leadership tide over the crisis.

“India’s focus and concern has rightly been the plight of the people of Sri Lanka at this juncture. They are in want, they suffer because of the dire economic situation in the country. They are the constituency in need of help,” Ms. Rao told The Hindu.

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