Updated: May 9
The recently concluded elections in Sri Lanka carries prominence to the island nation, as well as for India and the Indian Ocean Region. The outcome of the elections will have a far-reaching effect on the path Sri Lanka will tread on to emerge out of its political and economic challenges. There is a need to understand what these results mean for Sri Lanka, and what is in store for India and the South Asian region with the arrival of Rajapaksa brothers. To answer these questions, we have with us two experts on the subject, Dr. Monish Tourangbam, and Dr. Sriparna Pathak.
Both Dr. Monish Tourangbam and Dr. Sriparna Pathak have extensively written about the geopolitics of South Asia. Here, they present their views on the impact of the recently concluded elections in Sri Lanka on the region, by answering some of our questions pertaining to the matter.
1. Do you think the electoral outcome in Sri Lanka came as a surprise to New Delhi? What could have led to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s win? How significant is this election, and in what ways, from India's point of view?
Dr. Monish: Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s win in the Sri Lankan presidential election did not come as a surprise to India. Rather, India took certain pro-active steps towards building bridges with all political factions. There were visible signs of a Rajapaksa comeback, particularly, after the violent Easter Sunday attacks that pushed national security front and centre for Sri Lankan voters. This electoral result is extremely significant for India. New Delhi was quick to congratulate the new leadership and Colombo was prompt to reciprocate.
Any election or more particularly, any change of guard in a neighbouring country is extremely significant for India, in terms of both the change and the continuity of bilateral dynamics. In its immediate neighbourhood, India can hardly afford to put all its eggs in a single basket and would augur well to diversify its assets across the political aisles. In this context, both sides seem to have made all the right noises and all the right moves. It remains to be seen to what extent these initial signs of political maturity from both sides stand up to the Indian and Sri Lankan versions of realisms in maximising their respective national interests.
Dr. Sriparna: The electoral result in Sri Lanka was not a surprise to Delhi. I was something India was prepared for since February last year when Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) swept local elections in February 2018, thereby indicating a wave of support in his favour. Post that, in September 2018, PM Modi proactively met up with Mahinda Rajapakse when he was in Delhi for a personal visit. The two met again in June 2019 during Modi’s first bilateral visit to Sri Lanka after his re-election in May. PM Modi was among the first leaders to call President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa after his victory to invite him to India at his early convenience. The invitation was followed by the External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar’s visit to Colombo on November 19, during which he formally forwarded Modi’s invitation. The invitation has been accepted and Gotabaya is all set to visit India on November 29 - which in all probability will be his first foreign visit after getting elected to power. All these steps show India’s preparedness for the Rajapaksas coming back to power. India’s posture so far has been well planned.
As far as the question on what led to this outcome is concerned, the answer lies in recent Sri Lankan history- the April 21 st Easter Sunday blasts in particular, which is also a reminder of the fragile peace in a complex ethnic, religious, racial society like Sri Lanka. The slogan used by Gotabaya that came close to the hearts of voters was that of ‘inclusive nationalism’. In fact, during his campaign, Gotabaya did try to assuage fears that segments of the Sri Lankan population had since the attacks definitely were the deadliest since the time of the LTTE.
The SLPP’s election campaign also revolved around Gotabaya’s image of being strong on national security. Gotabaya’s past record of dealing with the LTTE only helped build on this further. The previous government led by Wickremesinghe of the UNP as PM (Maithripala Sirisena as president), was seen as having failed to act on crucial intelligence inputs that could have prevented the blasts. A closer look at the voting patterns reveals that of the 52.25 percent votes that Gotabaya’s SLPP got in the elections, most came from the Sinhalese dominated areas. Also, as per reports, many Christians admitted that Islamic extremism made them vote differently this time.
Sri Lanka, owing to its geostrategic location has always been of importance to India. Thus, this election also is of significance to India. Additionally, the Rajpaksas are seen as being closer to China- something that has been of unease for India even in the past. Nevertheless, Gotabaya has stated that Sri Lanka wants to maintain an equidistant yet cordial relationship with all countries. Thus, India has to take steps to ensure the relationship remains equidistant and does not weight heavily in China’s favour as was the case in the past under Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005-15.
2. New Delhi and Colombo were seen to have undergone a somewhat rough patch with Colombo under the Rajapakshas. So, how will the dynamics of India-Sri Lanka relations shape up with the emergence of the new government in Colombo, with the Rajapakshas coming back to power?
Dr. Sriparna: The Rajapaksa family is seen as leaning towards China, even though Gotabaya Rajapaksa has stated he will follow a neutral foreign policy. The heavy tilt in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy towards China began under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s term as president. This was seen as a thorn in India-Sri Lanka relations and even led to accusations from supporters of Rajapaksa that India meddled in the 2015 election that led to Rajapaksa’s defeat.
Even before the Rajapaksas came back to power, India has upped its development aid to Sri Lanka, which saw a dip in 2015-16. New Delhi allotted a 1.65 billion rupees for 2018-19 and 2.5 billion rupees in 2019-20, according to a report in The Diplomat. Also, the choice of Anuradhapura by Gotabaya for his swearing-in means a conciliatory gesture towards India, given the town’s ancient links. Additionally, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka inked a tripartite agreement in May this year to develop a deep-sea container terminal in Colombo. This is another sign of increased engagement between India and Sri Lanka which will continue in the future.
The Hambantota port, which has been handed over to China owing to Sri Lanka’s debt to China could be used in the future to refuel Chinese warships and submarines traversing across the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is an arena wherein Chinese naval presence is going to increase in the coming years. Keeping all these factors in mind, there is going to be an increased engagement between India and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka will not and cannot be expected to move away from China’s economic diplomatic overtures. However, India needs to ensure that this does not become a bone of contention again between India and Sri Lanka.
Dr. Monish: The political landscape in Sri Lanka has come a full circle with the Rajapaksas back in the helm of power. Colombo’s China tilt during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa had vitiated the atmospherics of the India-Sri Lanka relationship to an extent, where Mahinda Rajapaksa had accused Indian government agencies of interfering in the elections in Sri Lanka that led to his defeat and the coming of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency.
The Sirisena government was presumed to be pro-India, and there was an erroneous perception that the new administration will bring a complete turnaround in Colombo’s dispensation. However, the Sirisena administration was not going to strengthen one bilateral at the expense of another. In fact, given Sri Lanka’s geostrategic location, hedging is in its DNA. Sri Lanka would take what it requires, and go to either China or India, depending on which country can deliver what, at what cost to Sri Lanka’s strategic autonomy.
Therefore, New Delhi should temper expectations and carry out a realist reading of how it can manoeuvre its engagement with Colombo, with the Rajapaksas in power. If there is, anything that recent history has taught India and Sri Lanka, it is that the historical and geographical uniqueness of any relationship is not enough to take it forward. The relationship has to be nurtured and nourished, and not left on autopilot. The clarity of direction and purpose from both sides will be called for, more acutely than ever before, given the new political reality in Sri Lanka.
3. Under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, now the Sri Lanka Prime Minister, Colombo was seen going closer to Beijing, raising concerns in New Delhi. How will the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean shape up with the arrival of the new government? Do you think the presence of China will deepen in Sri Lanka, and concurrently in the Indian Ocean? If yes, how will it impact India's position in the region?
Dr. Sriparna: In his congratulatory message to Gotabaya, President Xi Jinping stated that he is ready to work with him for “greater progress” in bilateral, strategic ties and ensure “high quality” projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is Xi’s pet initiative and the Chinese government will only further its economic, diplomatic and cultural outreach under the aegis of the BRI.
Sri Lanka is a key node given its geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean. Post the coming back to the power of the Rajapaksas, the surety of heightened engagement between Sri Lanka and China exists. India has been affected by this in the past. Nevertheless, as seen in the past, even when the bonhomie between Sri Lanka and China was at its height, India’s aid to Sri Lanka only increased.
Between 2012-13 and 2013-14, New Delhi’s aid assistance witnessed a significant increase from 2.48 billion Indian rupees to 4.20 billion rupees. This was an effort to counter Beijing’s increasing influence in Colombo with cash. New Delhi cannot expect or assume Colombo to reduce its commercial and economic engagements with Beijing. What India needs to ensure in this context is that there is a need to strengthen the ongoing engagements and move into arenas in which the Chinese have a limited presence- something like cooperation in the realm of counter-terrorism or intelligence sharing. Also, timely deliverables will ensure that Sri Lanka actually has an equidistant relationship with both India and China.
Dr. Monish: The centrality of maritime security and strategy in India’s larger foreign policy orientations has been receiving increasing attention. With the discourse on the Indo-Pacific era and India’s role as an Indian Ocean power, this aspect has gained even more salience. Sri Lanka sits astride in some of the busiest and critical sea lanes of communication and hence plays a crucial role in the geopolitical calculations of India. In addition, Sri Lanka’s location makes it an important node in the maritime component of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and in this context, Chinese interest, and investments in the island country are bound to move on an upward trend.
China’s role as a development/economic and security partner of Sri Lanka is undoubted and there is very little that India can do to affect any tangible change in the dynamic between Beijing and Colombo. What India can and should, perhaps, do is to double down on India’s strengths and not compare its activities in Sri Lanka with that of China. Currently, given the glaring gap in China’s and India’s economic size, there is no prudence for India to engage in a catching up game with China in Sri Lanka.
The question is what India can promise and deliver, what is in the convergent interest of Sri Lanka and India. Geographically and historically, India’s links with Sri Lanka is not something that China can hope to replicate. Therefore, it is incumbent on the realisms of both India and Sri Lanka to bend geography and history for good, to leverage the opportunities that they entail for both the countries.
About the experts:
Dr. Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal. He was previously an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He was a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C and a visiting faculty at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A
Dr. Sriparna Pathak is an Adjunct Faculty in the Jindal School of International Affairs. She was formerly a Visiting Faculty at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Gauhati University. She was also an Assistant Professor at Assam Don Bosco University. Prior to this, Dr. Pathak was a Consultant at the Policy Planning and Research Division at the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi. She is also a Fellow at the South Asia Democratic Forum in Brussels, Belgium.
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