Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar was in Colombo to meet with the newly appointed seventh executive Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He extended the invitation of Indian Prime Minister to visit India. The newly elected President accepted the invitation to visit India on 29th November 2019. It will be his first official overseas visit. By sending the External Affairs Minister to meet Mr. Rajapaksa, India has quickly driven home the point that New Delhi is ready to work with the new government and strengthen the bilateral relations for mutual benefit. Apart from India, the US, Pakistan, Iran and China also had congratulated Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The EU was cautious about the verdict and urged the newly elected President to honour the island-nation’s human rights commitments.
The decisive victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa will consolidate the Sri Lanka Podujana Perumuna’s (SLPP) power even in the country’s Parliament in future. The former President of Sri Lanka and Gotabaya’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to be the Prime Minister of the country. In that case, India will have to deal with the government which was considered, not quite sensitive to India’s concerns in the Indian Ocean Region as well as to domestic ethnic reconciliation in post-war years. However, it should be noted that in the past, during the Eelam War IV, Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Defence Secretary, worked closely with Indian officials. This mechanism worked for Sri Lanka to defeat the LTTE. Sri Lanka considers the mechanism a success and will look forward to work with India, to strengthen Colombo’s national security through similar mechanisms, in the wake of new non-traditional threats in the Indian Ocean Region.
The SLPP manifesto reflected this view and it mentioned that Sri Lanka would work closely with India, to ensure regional security and engage with SAARC and BIMSTEC nations. The SLPP made it clear before the elections that it will not honour the UN resolution on reconciliation and accountability issues. In the last five years, India had supported the government of Sri Lanka at the UN. In this context, both the countries need to work out a formula on this complex issue.
India expects the new Sri Lankan government to be sensitive to New Delhi’s security concerns in the Indian Ocean Region, in developing port infrastructure as well as in monitoring port call. Sri Lanka is an important partner in implementing China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The leasing of the Hambantota Port for 99 years to China in 2017 by the Sirisena government was opposed by the SLPP and it had promised to revisit the signed agreements if voted to power.
The SLPP has also promised to develop a “national economic revival” that includes development of Galle, Kankesanthurai and Trincomalee ports as well as airports at Mattala and Katunayake. Sri Lanka will look towards Asian neighbours in realising this vision. This could provide opportunities for India to work with the new government.
China while congratulating President-elect Gotabaya has said it is ready to work with him ‘for greater progress in bilateral issues and high-quality projects under the BRI’. Therefore, the new government might continue with earlier the decisions taken on projects developed by China, because, despite the debt burden, China is Sri Lanka’s significant development and strategic partner. India has not shown interest on China’s BRI in the neighbourhood and has consistently opposed the project on factual issues.
The Sri Lankan presidential election verdict is an indication that policy decisions taken in the last five years by the Unity Government since 2015, had not gone down well with the people. There are bound to be changes in political, economic, security and foreign policy realms. India will have to seize new opportunities and challenges that might arise due to the formation of the new government in Sri Lanka. A lot will also depend on the new Sri Lankan leadership. The forthcoming visit of the President of Sri Lanka to India next week is expected to throw light on future bilateral and regional cooperation between the two close neighbours.
Script: Dr. M. Samatha, Strategic Analyst on Sri Lanka