Sri Lanka, India and changing political dynamics | Daily News

Sri Lanka, India and changing political dynamics

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Zooming out and looking at South Asian geopolitics, India appears to be reaching out, repairing and resetting relations with several of its smaller neighbours with some urgency.

The results of Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary election held recently in August surprised no one. Ever since the Easter Sunday bombings last year, there has been an implicit acknowledgment across the media, policy making and strategic community, academics and scholars, both inside Sri Lanka as well as outside it, that the Rajapaksa brothers would return to power. However, that their party the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) succeeded in winning 145 seats and gaining five more, giving them the two-thirds majority that they campaigned for, was in fact quite impressive, even unique compared to the post-war electoral win in 2010.

What does this thumping victory tell us about the changing context of Sri Lankan politics, India-Sri Lanka relations amidst wider South Asian geopolitics along with the larger shifts, trends and realignments of power in international relations?

While concerns within Sri Lanka’s civil society, particularly from the minority communities have been voiced over the return of the Rajapaksas and its implications for democracy, pluralism, accountability and reconciliation, in the aftermath of the Easter bombings the singular fear of terrorism returning to the island nation proved to be a much more powerful one. The political wrangling and dysfunctionality of the predecessor Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition culminating in a visible lack of coordination even during a time of emergency and crisis led to an overwhelming sense that this duo couldn’t guarantee security, ultimately securing a huge win for the SLPP.

For an island nation ravaged by a 30-year long civil war and for its people who have only just begun to recover from it, particularly the Sinhala majority, the fear of terrorism cannot be underestimated. The vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not necessarily a Sinhala Buddhist hardliner vote; while “they are Sinhala and Buddhist for most parts, they can also be classified as hardcore anti-LTTE, anti-terror voters.” If the Rajapaksas lost the 2015 election due to a crisis of accountability and democratic governance, it is clear that following the Easter bombings and COVID-19 this time around security and economic development trumped democracy concerns.

Zooming out and looking at South Asian geopolitics, India appears to be reaching out, repairing and resetting relations with several of its smaller neighbours with some urgency. External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar’s immediate visit to Sri Lanka after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory, New Delhi extending $400 million currency swap facility and Prime Minister Modi’s phone call to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the pandemic are among these. India’s outreach towards the Rajapaksas however began in earnest way back in 2018, when the SLPP swept the nation-wide local elections in February that year, it looks as though India read the writing on the wall.

Election victory

Following his party’s massive win in the local election, when Mahinda Rajapaksa (at the time Leader of the Opposition) was on a personal visit to India to deliver a public lecture Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met both him and his parliamentarian son Namal Rajapaksa (in addition to have met them during his own visit to Sri Lanka in 2017). Since then, there have been sustained and proactive overtures on India’s part to engage the Rajapaksas.

India’s approach appears to reiterate the sentiment that for India too, its own security concerns, override democracy and humanitarian issues in Sri Lanka’s internal politics. These concerns include China’s overpowering presence and growing influence in Sri Lanka. While speaking to the media following his meeting with Mahinda Rajapaksa at New Delhi in February 2020, Prime Minister Modi had said, “I am confident that the government of Sri Lanka will fulfil the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and respect within a United Sri Lanka” adding that the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which safeguards the rights of the Tamil community, was necessary to take the reconciliation process forward. However, following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Parliamentary election victory, and his return as Prime Minister, this issue has not been mentioned officially by India.

As for Sri Lanka, there seems to be a perceptible and distinctive understanding of India’s red lines that India could take comfort in. During his visit to New Delhi, President Gotabaya stated, “Sri Lanka would not encourage anything that would jeopardise the security of the Indian Ocean.” In a more recent interview Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage had reiterated the same sentiment, stating explicitly, “We cannot be, we should not be, we can’t afford to be a strategic security threat for India.”

However, there is no denying that in the light of the border skirmishes in Galwan Valley trying to balance Chinese influence in South Asia, has become an important foreign policy goal for not only India but also the US and its allies. The stark reality of China’s growing and steady presence in South Asia will likely shape international attitudes towards Sri Lanka and its internal politics. This can be seen to some extent in the statements put out by these countries responding to the election results, both in November 2019 and August 2020.

Following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in 2019 US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo issued a statement saying the US is ready to work with the new government. Similarly, Japan welcomed the peaceful and successful holding of the presidential election. Both these countries referred to the issue of Tamil Reconciliation. Pompeo’s statement asked: “President Rajapaksa to uphold Sri Lanka’s commitments to security sector reform, accountability, respect for human rights, and non-recurrence of violence.”

Humanitarian issues

Though the US has continued to bring attention to humanitarian issues and “urge progress on reconciliation” in its conversations with members of Sri Lanka’s new government, the emphasis of its equation with Sri Lanka has shifted to the Indo-Pacific, crucially ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific.’ In this respect they see Sri Lanka as a valuable partner, one that “will contribute to regional stability and prosperity as a hub of the Indo-Pacific region.” This is reflective of the changed reality of a current and post-pandemic world. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread unabated in many parts of the world all nation states are expected to turn more and more inwards, and their foreign policy goals will be dictated by political pragmatism and their own self-interest. The immediate and urgent focus of most of the states will be internal domestic concerns, economic recovery and national security. Foreign policy goals will be motivated by realism rather than ideals such as democracy promotion.

As the US is becoming more involved in South Asia, the question of its impact on India-Sri Lanka relations is one worth considering. Maldives and the US recently signed a Defence Agreement “to deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean.” Though there has so far been no official statement by India, some reporting seems to suggest that India welcomes this agreement. Further, as reported in The Hindu, US National Security Council Director for South and Central Asia Lisa Curtis said, “When it comes to the South Asia region, we have seen India reluctant, I think, for the U.S. to become more involved, but I think you will see that changing because of the situation that we are finding ourselves in” referring to China’s involvement in South Asia.

Admittedly, Sri Lanka is not the Maldives. Both Rajapaksas (as well as senior members of their administration) have consistently emphasised the importance of neutrality in foreign policy evidenced by their review of SOFA and the Millennium Challenge Compact. President Gotabaya seems to be at the end of the day, a realist, and in international relations, realists are easy to understand. In an interview, when asked about the Indian Ocean region, Gotabaya Rajapaksa underscored its strategic importance. He explains in a manner quite matter of fact, “The minerals of the world are largely in Africa and they have to come to this side by passing through the Indian Ocean, similarly, energy is in the Middle East, it needs to come this side. Therefore, the Indian Ocean has to be a zone of peace and it is not in Sri Lanka’s interest to bandwagon.” As a realist, he understands that it is not in Sri Lanka’s interest to have one dominant power in the neighbourhood, instead to have a balance of power.

Looking ahead, India-Sri Lanka relations will no doubt be shaped by the dynamic nature of international relations and great power rivalry. Some of the anti-China rhetoric coming from the US will die down post US elections in November 2020, though current tensions are not all cyclical. Certain structural challenges are likely to persist regardless of the US election results and these will have a long-term impact on US-China bilateral relations but importantly on the political dynamics in the Indian Ocean region. In the meantime, India should take cautious comfort in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s acknowledgment that Indian Ocean is of strategic importance and must remain a zone of peace.

- Observer Research Foundation