India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar with
Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajpaksa
In the changing political scenario in the Island nation Sri Lanka, pro-China Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s election as President has raised alarm bells in India’s power corridors of international geo-politics
In keeping with the trend world over Sri Lankans have also chosen a hard-liner as their next President though the voting pattern is divided with the minorities voting overwhelmingly against him and the majority Sinhalese voting in his favour. Rajapaksa is the latest nationalist leader to have swept to power across the world, tapping into anger and fears of majority communities. His victory margin showed huge support in the Sinhalese-dominated southern part of the island as well as through postal ballots.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was the commander of the Sri Lankan forces that defeated the Tamil separatist forces led by LTTE and brought a semblance of peace to the war torn island which is of huge strategic significance because of its location in Indian Ocean and proximity to the mainland of Indian peninsula. He along with his brother, the then President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa was accused of human right violations and war crimes. The allegations are denied by both the brothers. His candidature was therefore opposed strongly by the Tamil political parties and the Muslims, other minority, who also felt unsafe and threatened after the horrifying Easter Day attacks in April this year by the Islamic State (IS). Yet he won by a majority of 52.25% votes fuelling a speculation of an ‘ethnic divide.’
Sri Lanka is undergoing the worst economic crisis of the last fifteen years with tourism having declined considerably. The April attacks not only contributed to the economic slowdown due to reduced footfall of tourists, it also created panic among the majority Sinhalese, who were concerned about the security of the island nation. They were unhappy with the performance of the incumbent President and so were the Tamils and Muslims. It would be unfair to term the verdict as ‘ethnic divide’ because the minorities have not voted for the Tamil candidate but for one of the two main Sinhala- Buddhist candidates. It is the past reputation of Gota Rajapaksa that haunts the minorities and rightly so.
Why should his election ring an alarm bell in India? Sri Lanka because of its location and size can ill afford to annoy India. After all, Prime Minister Modi was among the first international leaders to congratulate him on his victory and invited him to visit India which he has reportedly accepted. Prime Minister in his tweet had emphasised on peace, prosperity and security in the region. Obviously India visualises a common threat to regional security with China’s growing over reach and influence in the Indian Ocean, the area of mutual concern.
Though in his swearing in speech Rajapaksa said, “his country will maintain friendly ties with all nations and remain neutral in matters involving international powers so as to stay out of conflicts,” India is rightly concerned about his known pro-China leanings. China is actively pursuing its “String of Pearls” policy with relation to its regional adversary India. It plans to encircle India through its Belt Road Initiative which has not made much headway so far. It continues with its policy of acquiring military bases and transit facilities in the Indian Ocean thus challenging the dominance India enjoys in the region. China is also using its soft power as well as economic muscle to influence India’s neighbour. It already has a strong ally in Pakistan on our Northern & Western borders, has a friendly government in place in Nepal on our Eastern Border, and is getting cosier to Bhutan and luring Bangladesh through economic assistance. It will now have another friendly government to our south and in all important Indian Ocean Region. It definitely raises concern for India.
China has also not lost any opportunity of wooing Rajapaksa by reminding him of his old association and assuring him of its readiness to work with him “for “greater progress” in bilateral strategic ties and ensure “high quality” projects under the Belt Road Initiative.” Thus, the new government in Sri Lanka will further test the efficacy of our diplomatic corps to ensure that the strategic balance in the region is maintained in our favour.
Rajapaksa’s top most focus is going to be on national security as he promised the nation during his election campaign. There was hardly any difference in the economic policy pronounced by him and his rival candidate Sajith Premadasa. It is his uncompromising hard line approach on national security that has won him the huge mandate. While addressing the nation he said, “We will rebuild the state security machineries to secure the country from terrorism, underworld activities, robbery, and extortionists.” There appears to be a common thread between the two neighbours as far as the threat perception is concerned and mutual interdependence is but natural. India scores over China because of its location.
It remains to be seen as to how much the incumbent President is influenced by his ex-President brother Mahinda Rajapaksa who was known for his anti-West and anti-India approach to the extent that he blamed India’s premier intelligence agency RAW for engineering his defeat in the last presidential election in Sri Lanka. But seeing the numerous challenges he now faces, it is likely that he would tread the middle path and keep a balanced relationship as far as India and China are concerned. Gota Rajapaksa’s anti-India stance during the war against Tamil rebels was somewhat justified at that stage but now the circumstances are different and he would have to rely on India for political security and count on China for economic development. But China is known to leverage its economic clout for its political and strategic benefits. Thus, the new challenge adds to India’s woes in its neighbourhood.
India’s domestic political compulsion to placate the Tamils should not overshadow its strategic interests. India’s hold in Sri Lanka is also largely due to the affinity that the minority Tamils have towards it. India will have to tread carefully to allay the fears of minorities, especially Tamils due to the fact that they had voted against him and Rajapaksa has been voted to power by the majority Sinhalese. Nothing much has been done as far as the promised constitutional reforms to safeguard the interests of minorities are concerned and the Tamils will be looking up to India to convince the new President to undertake the same.
With his known reputation of a hardliner, Rajapaksa is very unlikely to concede to it. India will have to carefully analyse its fallout and the ripple effect it may have in neighbouring Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Yet, there is a silver lining for India. Fearful of re-emergence of home grown terror, which would severely hamper his fight against the challenges posed by global radical Islamic terror organisations, Rajapaksa may soften his approach towards the minorities to win over them.
(The writer is a Jammu-based veteran, political commentator, security and strategic analyst)