Time to build bridges

PM Modi personally congratulated Gotabaya Rajapaksa as soon as his victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential polls was announced, on November 17. Sri Lanka’s politics, like politics in India, has dynastic dimensions, marked by the continuing role of influential families.

Time to build bridges

GOOD START: In what is a positive development, President Gotabaya has taken up External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s offer to visit India on November 29.

G Parthasarathy

G Parthasarathy
Chancellor, Jammu central university & former high commissioner to pakistan

PM Modi personally congratulated Gotabaya Rajapaksa as soon as his victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential polls was announced, on November 17. Sri Lanka’s politics, like politics in India, has dynastic dimensions, marked by the continuing role of influential families. After a lifelong membership in the leftist-oriented Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Rajapaksa family established their own political outfit — Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana — recently. This happened after Rajapaksa was defeated in his bid for re-election in 2015 by an unprecedented coalition of the SLFP and its principal rival, the right-wing United National Party (UNP). Both parties backed SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena.

Rajapaksa accused India of being responsible for unifying two ideologically opposing parties to inflict a humiliating defeat on him. This occurred, despite his being widely regarded as the national hero for decimating the LTTE and ending the ethnic conflict. Rajapaksa was held responsible internationally for the carnage that accompanied the end of the conflict, when over 70,000 Tamil civilians were killed. But, the reality is that the conflict was marked by brutal rights abuses on both sides. LTTE’s Prabhakaran had little respect for lives, whether of Sinhalas, or his own Tamil brethren. Sri Lanka will hopefully now embark on a path of national reconciliation.

Gotabaya’s election has predictably caused serious misgivings amongst Tamil and Muslim minorities in the island state. The Rajapaksa brothers made full use of the fact that the Sirisena government ignored intelligence reports provided by India, warning that terror strikes by ISIS-motivated Islamic radicals were imminent. The Sirisena government was repeatedly pilloried during the election campaign for being negligent in dealing with terror strikes on Easter Sunday this year, when 170 Sri Lankans lost their lives. India should, however, now also take note of the activities of ISIS-backed radicals in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

The Rajapaksa clan is widely regarded as being pro-China. The Rajapaksa government had even permitted Chinese submarines to berth in Colombo. Moreover, anyone visiting Colombo will notice the huge Chinese involvement in construction projects. Sri Lanka has, however, also faced the impact of China’s ‘debt diplomacy’. It was compelled to hand over the management of the strategically located Hambantota port to China after it was unable to repay Chinese loans. Using the inability of recipient countries to repay loans for Chinese construction of roads, bridges, ports, mines, dams and other projects, to take over control of them, has now become a standard Chinese practice across Asia and Africa. Isolated from the western world, which is determined to impose sanctions for alleged excesses during the ethnic conflict, many Sri Lankan leaders have naturally looked at China as a trusted friend.

New Delhi responded to the success of a combined opposition to defeat President Rajapaksa in 2014 very carefully. It was evident that a political alliance of the UNP and SLFP could not last. India quietly started building bridges to the Rajapaksa clan and supporters. India made massive investments in the rehabilitation, resettlement and welfare of ‘Jaffna Tamils’, and also sought to ensure that there was a reasonable devolution of powers to the provinces in Sri Lanka.

The devastating blasts, which targeted churches and the Christian community across Sri Lanka in April, set the stage for the return of the Rajapaksa family to power. Sri Lankan citizens, all members of a radical Islamic group, executed the attacks. They all had links to the ISIS. Interestingly, India had provided advance intelligence inputs to Sri Lanka about the impending terrorist attacks. This mishandling of terrorist threats sealed the fate of the Sirisena government, which was voted out by an enraged electorate.

The well-thought-out manner in which New Delhi has handled emerging developments in Sri Lanka is evident from the visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to Colombo, immediately after Gotabaya’s victory. Jaishankar knows Sri Lanka well, having served in Colombo at the height of the ethnic conflict. He conveyed a formal invitation to Gotabaya to visit India, which was accepted. The date of the visit has been set for November 29. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (now the country’s PM) had earlier been invited to visit India by PM Modi last year, when he met Modi in New Delhi. He again visited India in February this year as the lead speaker in a media event in Bengaluru. He also met Modi when he visited Sri Lanka in June, after the General Election.

With Sri Lanka’s economy in the doldrums, India needs to seriously move ahead in implementing a number of important projects in Sri Lanka. Particular attention has to be paid to the recently signed agreement for joint development of a new container terminal at Colombo Port by India and Japan. India needs to shed its image of being high on promises, but low on implementation by the expeditious implementation of mutually agreed projects like the development of the Mattala airport near the Chinese-built Hambantota Port, and the Trincomalee Port on Sri Lanka’s eastern shores. We should not have to witness the return to an era of Chinese submarines berthing regularly in ports located on our doorstep. Sri Lanka has a crucial role in the security of the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.


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