Hitting the reset button
Rajapaksa’s visit is indicative of the mutual desire to reset relations; writes Shubha Singh
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa's state visit to India takes place just over two months after his newly-elected brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited New Delhi, a visit that took place just weeks after his election as President of Sri Lanka.
The two visits within a short period are indicative of the Rajapaksa brothers' desire to reset their ties with India and give a fresh thrust to India-Sri Lanka ties. India-Sri Lanka ties had been strained during the last couple of years of Mahinda Rajapaksa's decade-long tenure as President of Sri Lanka (2005-2015) as he ignored calls to initiate a reconciliation process with the minority Tamil population after the end of the civil war. After he lost the presidential elections in 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa had accused India of meddling in Sri Lanka's internal politics. But, both sides made efforts to reduce the acrimony in their relations when Mahinda Rajapaksa visited India in September 2018 and had a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With the new Rajapaksa government settling in Colombo, there has been intensive engagement between the two sides with a series of high-level bilateral visits. India was quick to engage with the new leadership; Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first international leader to congratulate Gotabaya Rajapaksa on winning the presidential election. Within a few days of the new government taking charge, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar visited Colombo to invite Gotabaya Rajapaksa to visit India. In a rare gesture, the new President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited India ten days later on a three-day official visit. Despite the short notice, the visit turned out to be a substantive meeting as India offered a credit line of $400 million for development assistance to Sri Lanka.
As a follow-up to the presidential visit, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena visited Delhi in early January 2020. It was followed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval's visit to Colombo on January 18, 2020. India had offered Sri Lanka a special line of credit for $50 million to enhance Colombo's counter-terrorism capacity. In December, navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh visited Sri Lanka to strengthen defence and maritime cooperation. Sri Lanka had moved closer to China during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime as Colombo faced international criticism over its failure to take action on allegations of human rights violations and war crimes during the last days of the civil war. China pressed its advantage as India and western countries remained aloof from Colombo. Beijing invested billions of dollars in a string of large infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. The Hambantota port and Colombo port upgrade, among other projects, made Sri Lanka a key factor in China's maritime Belt and Road Initiative.
During his election campaign, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had promised to review the controversial deal made by the previous government awarding a 99-year lease for the Hambantota port to China. But he has since stated that his government would not renegotiate "the commercial deal" but would ensure that the security of the port would remain with Sri Lanka. Asked about the increasing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan President called upon "other important players" including India, Japan, Singapore, Australia and ASEAN countries to invest in Sri Lanka. The new government is not willing to disturb its relations with China and is looking at new partners for investment and cooperation.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government that succeeded the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime made efforts to restore the balance in ties with India. But as bitter political infighting overtook the ruling alliance in Colombo, there was limited forward movement in the bilateral relationship. Indian proposals had languished in the absence of decision-making in Colombo. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister's visit comes at a time when the Tamil community is disturbed over the Rajapaksa government ending the tradition of singing the national anthem in both the official languages, Sinhala and Tamil at the Independence Day celebrations. The practise of singing the Tamil version was introduced four years ago by the previous government. During Gotabaya Rajapaksa's visit,
New Delhi had urged the Sri Lankan government to ensure "dignity, peace, equality and justice" for the Tamil community. Gotabaya Rajapaksa had said that he was focused on development rather than devolution, indicating that he was not addressing the political demand on devolution of powers to the Tamil dominated Northern Province.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is scheduled to visit Varanasi, Sarnath, Bodhgaya and Tirupati after the conclusion of the official part of the visit. In line with the efforts to enhance people to people contacts, there are plans to increase aviation links to sacred religious sites in India.
The writer is a foreign policy and strategic affairs commentator. Views expressed are strictly personal