Colombo powershift is Delhi opportunity

Rajapaksa’s active support to the Chinese proposal on the Maritime Silk Road has magnified New Delhi’s concerns about Colombo’s embrace of Beijing.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | New Delhi | Published:January 10, 2015 5:01 am
Sri Lanka’s new president Maithripala Sirisena addresses the nation after taking oath. (Source: AP photo) Sri Lanka’s new president Maithripala Sirisena addresses the nation after taking oath. (Source: AP photo)

As a new government led by Maithripala Sirisena takes charge in Sri Lanka, India has a valuable opportunity to arrest the drift in bilateral relations over the last few years.

The government of Narendra Modi, less constrained internally than the UPA government, is in a good position to rebuild the partnership with a country that occupies a vital position on India’s maritime frontiers to the south.

The reluctance of the outgoing president Mahinda Rajapaksa to address India’s concerns on much needed political reconciliation with the Tamil minority after the 2009 victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE) was a major source of tension between New Delhi nd Colombo.

India also watched warily Rajapaksa’s increasing political warmth towards Beijing. China’s growing presence in the Sri Lankan economy, especially its involvement in the development of strategic infrastructure like the Hambantota port and the frequent appearance of Chinese naval ships at the Colombo port had generated considerable anxiety in India’s national security establishment.

Rajapaksa’s active support to the Chinese proposal on the Maritime Silk Road during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Sri Lanka last September has magnified New Delhi’s concerns about Colombo’s embrace of Beijing.

The UPA government, which was supportive of Rajapaksa’s war against the LTTE, steadily lost goodwill in Colombo amid vacillations in its Sri Lanka policy under pressure from parties in Tamil Nadu.

New Delhi’s flip flops at Geneva in the UN debates on the human rights situation in Lanka were compounded by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision, under pressure from the Congress leadership, to skip visiting Colombo for the Commonwealth Summit in November 2013.

In this situation, Modi sought to restore some flexibility to Indian diplomacy by inviting Rajapaksa to his swearing-in last May over the objections of then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.

With a solid majority of its own in the Lok Sabha, the Modi government must now find a better balance between India’s interest in securing Tamil minority rights in Sri Lanka and the broader imperative of developing a stronger strategic partnership with Colombo.

Although Sirisena has won strong backing from the Tamil minority in the election, he may not necessarily find it easy to address India’s concerns, given his need to maintain support from the majority Sinhala community. India, then, will have to move with considerable political finesse and in taking up the Tamil question afresh with the new government.  New Delhi can’t be seen as either abandoning the issue or trying to impose its will on Colombo.

Dealing with Colombo’s Beijing relationship might be equally tricky. Rajapaksa’s dealings, economic and political, with China have become controversial within Sri Lanka, and Sirisena has promised to evolve a more balanced approach in Colombo’s relations with both Beijing and New Delhi.

It might be unwise for India, however, to expect that Colombo will simply discard the China relationship that has given it a range of new economic and strategic options. For the Modi government, the challenge lies in finding ways to deepen its own economic and military cooperation with Sri Lanka, and accelerate the implementation of a variety of projects with Colombo.

There is no doubt that the issues involved — domestic political order and independent foreign policy — are highly sensitive to Sri Lanka. Yet, the new government in Colombo, and the stronger political dispensation in New Delhi, have the room to explore the prospects for an accommodation of each other’s interests.

An early visit to Colombo by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj as part of India’s “neighbourhood first” diplomacy could indeed be the first step towards that exploration.

For all the latest World News, download Indian Express App now

  1. P
    point
    Jan 11, 2015 at 9:09 am
    India should not worry about who is at the helm in any country. It is good to develop good relations with every country and not meddle in any country's internal affairs.
    Reply
    1. A
      Aslam Sheikh
      Jan 10, 2015 at 5:12 pm
      Modi saheb jio can not only win elections in Bharat but also in Akhand Bharat. Let us see what future he has in mind for Nawaz Sharieff and Kaptan sahib.
      Reply
      1. I
        Indian
        Jan 10, 2015 at 6:32 am
        Few points :1. Tamils in Srilanka are 'Srilankan Tamil' and 'Srilankan Citizen'; settle in Srilanka more than 200 years now. India can't interface in Srilankan Tamil Problems / Region just like no other country can interface in Indian Citizen Concerns in India or Indian territory2. Each country has right to grow and development. For this, it can have healthy bilateral relationship with any other country. India doesn't need to worry about Srilanka's relationship with Chiana but should develop equally healthy or even better relationship with Srilanka. Always positive act would give positive result. Till now India was trying to become big brother and wanted to control neighboring nation under own influence. But in the age of internet & mobile and as country grown on its own, big brother atude is not going to work. In fact it becomes hurdle in bilateral relationship as your enemy country also take advantage of it and people of particular country also doesn't like just we don't like any external interface in our foreign policy / relationship3. If you have good economic relationship and if it is growing, other relationship like strategic and political relationship would automatically grow along with economy. Remember it is money which stronger / weaker two relationship be it either political or personal. Money plays important role here4. Modi is master in foreign policy and has ability to build good relationship. He has proved his skills here - be it USA or Australia or even China. He has done well and sure he would do better with Srilanka too. In fact new government would be advantage to India as for new Srilankan president - leader of either India or China or stan are equally new relations and this would be good for India.
        Reply
        1. M
          manoj mago
          Jan 10, 2015 at 3:50 pm
          MIGHT IS RIGHT IS THE PRINCIPLE , SURVIVAL OF EST IS PRINCIPLE OF NATURE, TODAY OR TOMORROW ALL SOUTH ASEAN COUNTRIES INCLUDING WORLD WILL BE LOOKING TOWARDS CHINA FOR HELP,INDIA HAS FAILED FOREIGN POLICY AND NOTHING TO OFFER OTHER THAN MODI, CHINA FEAR, STAN FEAR AND SO ON ARE ALL EXCUSES ARE REASONS OF CORRUPT POLITICIANS AND ADMINISTARTION TO FOOL THE PUBLIC,
          Reply
          1. G
            Garfield
            Jan 10, 2015 at 6:19 am
            So you mean to say he ditched his dear friend Mahinda?
            Reply
            1. M
              Mrs Malaprop
              Jan 12, 2015 at 9:51 am
              MostSri Lankans always want to help Tamil people. I believe this is the atude amongnew generation. I guess one of the perks for Sri Lankan Tamils was to haveamnesty in good countries. Now that the UNP is back, I wander what would happento this?
              Reply
              1. M
                Mrs Malaprop
                Jan 12, 2015 at 10:09 am
                Sri Lanka is one of the nations with a highest per capita amnestyrates internationally. That means, almost all that ask for it, got it. Most of themare Sri Lankan Tamils.Most Sri Lankans always want to help Tamil people. I believethis is the atude among new generation. This is disregarded by the internationalcommunity where they think we treat Tamils as the Burmese Rohiniyas. Because ofthis misconception of the international community, I guess one of the perks forSri Lankan Tamils was to have amnesty in good countries. Now that the UNP isback, I wonder what would happen to this privilege.We urge all Tamils (Europe, Canada, Australia, etc…) to return back to the county and help us develop this nation ASAP.
                Reply
                1. R
                  ramdas
                  Jan 10, 2015 at 5:48 am
                  String of pearls strategem is countered by neighbourhood first policy of modiji. Congis always had the policy of looting first and supporting porkistan terror activities.
                  Reply
                  1. R
                    Rekha Parmar
                    Jan 10, 2015 at 11:00 am
                    read news in english at :vishwagujarat/en/
                    Reply
                    1. S
                      smartroadster
                      Jan 11, 2015 at 3:14 am
                      Ohh wait. Did Modi told you Raaksa is his dear friend?
                      Reply
                      1. S
                        Sphinx
                        Jan 10, 2015 at 5:04 am
                        It was Modi's effort only which resulted in Colombo's powershift.
                        Reply
                        1. Load More Comments