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Rajapaksas' Lanka

The new regime will have to tread a tightrope, balancing relations between India and China while arresting terror advances that shocked the country on Easter

In a major diplomatic move, which was both swift and intelligent, Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM)

S Jaishankar dashed to Sri Lankan capital Colombo as soon as it was known that the new President of Sri Lanka is now Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Gotabaya, 70, belonging to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party triumphed securing well over 52 per cent votes in the recently held Presidential elections. Indian EAM, who had exposure to the Sri Lankan politics being assigned as a junior diplomat, held talks of substance with the new incumbent and invited him to visit India. Consequent upon this request, Gotabaya is scheduled to pay a visit to New Delhi on November 29 to meet Prime Minister Modi.

These hectic developments provide an excellent opportunity to make up the trust deficit appeared to have emerged after the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former President, who blamed Indian external intelligence agency for his ouster in 2015.

The world, in particular, has watched the earlier Rajapaksa regime for its Human Rights excesses culminating into the complete annihilation of the LTTE in 2009. Other than elder brother Mahinda, who was the President leading the charge in wiping out the LTTE, the present President Gotabaya was the Defence Secretary and contributed substantially in using his military exposure in addressing the LTTE finale.

With a fresh regime in place with a record of handling terror, the majority Sinhala-Buddhist majority are hopeful that team Gotabaya will be able to effectively handle the situation arising out of the perceived Islamic terror which rocked Sri Lanka after a series of church bombings of April 21 this year, infamously described as the Easter bombings.

Gotabaya's election campaigning, aggressive in nature, was conspicuous with the assurance that once at the helm, he would wipe out terror putting an end to any recurrence of Easter bombings. Such promises and stress on guided intelligence to prevent terror attacks in future have augured very well with the Singhala Buddhist population. However, the Tamils and the Muslims, who are in a minority in Sri Lanka, having not voted for Gotabaya, are feeling insecure and uncertain about things likely to unfold under the new regime. On his part, to allay any such apprehensions, Gotabaya has decided to hold his swearing-in ceremony in Anuradhapura – the Tamil heartland. Also, internationally renowned Tamil cricketer, Muttiah Muralitharan has been appointed as the Governor of the Northern province which signals some kind of succour to the bruised Tamil psyche in the wake of the election results.

Meanwhile, a section of Muslims is trying to warm up to the Rajapaksa regime to show their allegiance, distancing themselves from the stigma of complicity in the April terror attacks. North West province Governor, Muzzamil has made a fresh appeal to the Sri Lankan Muslims who constitute less than 10 per cent of the total population, to rally around Gotabaya for a united, secure and prosperous country. Importantly, he called for reconciling to the reality that the minority shouldn't attempt to rule the majority. As Muslims, the minority co-exist in harmony with the Sinhalese. In the same vein, he accused former LTTE leader Prabhakaran of trying to divide the country while Muslims would not do so. In this context, Muslims also need to maintain a close watch on moves of Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) who nurture an acerbic hatred towards Muslims and Christians.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed his elder brother and ex-Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister replacing Ranil Wickramasinghe. A nephew of his is also accommodated as one of the ministers. With 52 per cent votes in his bag, Gotabaya is embarking upon a dynastic politics and his focus will clearly be on terror.

In the light of these developments, his visit to India in the immediate future (November 29) assumes huge significance. Gotabaya has already described India as a relative of Sri Lanka and it is expected that on his visit, India will use dexterous diplomacy to see that the new Gotabaya regime is not catapulted towards China which remains a constant worry. Any strategic cooperation between them shall be detrimental to India's security interests. Similarly, Pakistan needs to be weaned away from Sri Lanka in view of the former's anti-India activities launched by the ISI through the Pakistani diplomatic mission in Colombo. These are real perils threatening Indian security. Gotabaya needs to be sensitised on these in very clear terms.

The most crucial factor between India and Sri Lanka will be increased and proactive intelligence cooperation and this calls for a threadbare discussion. This is more imperative today than before as it is strongly believed that specific actionable intelligence inputs were shared with their Sri Lankan counterparts well ahead of the Easter bombings which were sadly not acted upon by the intelligence apparatus leading to loss of over 200 lives. There should be watertight arrangement formalised at the earliest to prevent terror in any of the two countries. This seems critical as the April 21 terror attack investigations led to some trails in parts of southern India as well. The enemy being common, ranks must be closed to jointly address the terror concerns. Gotabaya has been canvassing to rein terror once he came to power. Now that he has assumed power, he too is expected to seek professional help from India for his concept of 'guided intelligence' to end terror. Here is an opportunity to strike a functional arrangement to take this forward.

Rajapaksas are now the new rulers in Sri Lanka. It's going to be a tightrope walk balancing relations between India and China, between the local Muslims and Tamils on one side and the Buddhists on another. It's now a tall order for the regime to deliver as they are taking on many fronts today unlike their military onslaught a decade ago in finishing off the Tamil Tigers. Gotabaya must have the whole country on his side to achieve his goal to get rid of terror and cooperation from India looks an added help to accomplish.

Shantanu Mukharji is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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