As Delhi receives the new Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, there is considerable optimism about making a fresh start in the bilateral relationship that has endured unprecedented stress in the last few years. During his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made a big effort to normalise the relationship; but the fractures in Colombo’s power structure and its poor governance limited the possibilities.
The return of the Rajapaksas has been widely feared as heralding the renewal of authoritarian rule in Sri Lanka. The election of a strong interlocutor, however, also offers Delhi an opportunity to explore the prospects for a reconstruction of the relationship. Unlike the previous government in Colombo that became dysfunctional due to deep differences between the president and prime minister, the Rajapaksas are now expected to bring political coherence.
In the last few days, Gotabaya has cleared the air on some issues of special interest to India. His visit to Delhi, the first trip abroad since the election, is a good occasion to build mutual trust with the new regime led by Gotabaya and his brother Mahinda, who has been appointed prime minister.
During his visit to Colombo last week, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was signalling that India is ready for a fresh start in the relationship. This message was reinforced in a major speech this week by the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Taranjit Singh. Singh underlined the importance of the two countries putting the past behind them and looking at a more productive relationship.
Both sides have hopefully learnt much from their past mistakes and will find a new balance in the relationship. The central question is about managing proximity that imposes inextricable interdependence, for both good and bad. For Gotabaya, the challenge is to be mindful of the sensitivities of its larger neighbour. For Modi, it is about respecting the sovereignty of its smaller neighbour.
On his part, Gotabaya has publicly affirmed that Colombo will not do anything that might harm Delhi’s interests. But he also expects that Delhi will respect Colombo’s freedom of choice in the conduct of its foreign and domestic policies. Sri Lanka’s ties to other powers has always been of some concern to Delhi and this problem today is focused on the nature of the ties between Colombo and Beijing. On the internal side, it is the prolonged conflict between the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority in Sri Lanka that has severely undermined bilateral ties in recent decades.
The Sri Lankan president said he is acutely conscious of the China factor in the bilateral relations with India. He has affirmed repeatedly that Colombo does not want to be caught in the rivalry among the major powers and that it will follow a policy of “neutrality”. Without having to go into a strict definition of what neutrality might mean here, two important things stand out.
One is that Delhi can live with Colombo’s neutrality — after all India has no need to develop either a military base in Sri Lanka or deploy its forces in an island that is physically so close to peninsular India. But Delhi certainly can’t accept a situation where Sri Lanka lets the Peoples Liberation Army turn the Emerald Island into an aircraft carrier for China, or for any other power.
In affirming neutrality, Gotabaya is saying that he understands India’s redlines and is prepared to respect them. As a realist, Gotabaya recognises that there is no national mileage for Lanka in provoking India. Gotabaya has gone a step further. He said it was a mistake for the previous government to have handed over the Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to China. He added that his government would like to renegotiate the agreement with China. Whether he can persuade Beijing or not is another matter, but his instincts on the question should be welcome in Delhi.
But on economic issues, Gotabaya made it clear that Lanka has every right to follow its national interest in engaging China. Delhi has no basis to object to this; after all, India itself is eager to expand the economic engagement with China despite many political disputes and clearly articulated objections to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Lanka, like all other countries, can’t afford to turn its back to the world’s second-largest economy. In an important addition, Gotabaya said he wants all major countries including India, Japan, Singapore and the US to invest in Sri Lanka. Notwithstanding the deep statist tradition in Lanka, Gotabaya has promised to reform and reorient the economy. In other words, there is considerable room for creative Indian policy for economic engagement with Lanka under Gotabaya.
That brings us to the vexed question of the bitter legacy of the brutal civil war that shattered ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka. India’s own tragic involvement in this conflict saw India become a major collateral casualty in the war. The end of the war did not materially improve India’s position vis a vis Lanka.
Sceptics at home and abroad have been quick to write off Gotabaya as incapable of addressing the deep grievances of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. That the Tamils voted overwhelmingly against Gotabaya, the record of the Rajapaksas in government, and the strong majoritarian sentiment of their support base would seem to justify this scepticism. But Delhi should be prepared to listen with an open mind to what Gotabaya has to say and how he plans to deal with the problem. The most important lesson from the Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka during the late 1980s is that Delhi’s ability to shape its neighbour’s domestic politics is limited. India’s own diplomatic failures in Lanka also reveal that Delhi will be the loser if it makes the entire relationship hostage to the question of Tamil minority rights.
In the past, coalition politics at the Centre saw Delhi cede a veto to Chennai over its Lanka policy. The Modi government is stronger today vis a vis Chennai, but it can’t simply pretend that the issue does not exist. Meanwhile, Gotabaya has affirmed that he will not take dictation from foreign powers on how to deal with the Tamil question. This is not very different from what India says in response to international concerns about the latest developments in Kashmir.
For Modi and Gotabaya, the challenge is to find a way out of this difficult corner. Mutually reinforcing steps along different axes could hopefully expand the possibilities not just for Delhi and Colombo but also Chennai and Jaffna. These steps could include Colombo’s confidence building measures with the Tamils, Delhi’s strong support for practical advances between Colombo and Jaffna, greater cross-border economic cooperation as well as between northern Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, and Delhi’s political investment in resolving the fisheries dispute.
Delhi can’t present itself as a impudent demandeur on Lanka’s internal political arrangements. Such an approach, as we have seen, is counter productive. Instead, Delhi must be seen as a friend of all the communities in Sri Lanka that can offer its good offices to resolve problems between themselves. Colombo too will find that incremental progress on the Tamil question will rapidly widen its space in regional and global affairs and create better conditions for a much-needed economic renewal.
The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express
— This article first appeared in the November 29, 2019 print edition under the title ‘On a new footing’
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