Sri Lankan President’s India Visit Strengthens Bonds

It is not unusual for a newly elected President or Prime Minister of Sri Lanka to make India the first country to visit after his election to the high office. It has happened in the past. Even so, there was a sense of urgency and expectancy when Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrived in New Delhi on his first foreign tour barely ten days after his assumption of office.

Apart from the usual bonhomie that has marked relations between Sri Lanka and its closest neighbour, there have existed perceptions on both sides that needed to be brought in line with the current realities—and realistic expectations. India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar was the first foreign dignitary to visit Sri Lanka and call upon the new President just a couple of days after his election. Apart from conveying New Delhi’s good wishes on his election, the Indian External Affairs Minister also carried a letter from Prime Minister Modi extending a formal invitation to visit India. Reciprocating the gesture during his India visit, the Sri Lankan President also invited Mr. Modi to visit Sri Lanka. The details of the visit are likely to be worked out soon.

The sense of urgency on both sides was meant to ensure that relations between the two countries are not allowed to become prisoners of past perceptions. These perceptions arose in particular from the time when Sri Lanka was fighting its war against the LTTE. It was during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, when Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary. India had fully supported Sri Lanka in that war while at the same time had been consistently urging Colombo to ensure a fair deal to its Tamil population.

Inevitably, a fair deal to the Tamils in a united Sri Lanka is an issue that came up during the talks in New Delhi as well. In fact, it was part of the unfinished job from the Sri Lankan government’s successful campaign to end the war with the Tamil Tigers. Despite past assurances, a just deal has continued to elude the Tamils. India reiterated its position on the issue. Sri Lankan President sounded positive. It was reassuring that addressing the Tamil concerns, President Rajapaksa had said in a recent statement that even as he was aware that he had won the Presidency mainly on the strength of the majority Sinhalese vote, he will ensure a fair deal to all, including the minority Tamils and Muslims. Observers have described this as a positive sign.Equally cognizant of the Indian concerns, President Rajapaksa affirmed during the visit that he would not allow Sri Lanka’s relations with China or Pakistan impact its ties with India. He also admitted that the controversial Hambantota port project, granted to China, might have been a mistake. This shows that President Rajapaksa may be approaching his job with an open mind.

During the bilateral talks, India also committed a credit line of $ 450 million dollars in project assistance. Though India’s financial commitments in Sri Lanka is nowhere near that of China’s, New Delhi has a better record of actual implementation of infrastructural projects. Besides, there was a growing awareness in Sri Lanka that the mega projects and sumptuous cash loans may not be the best things to happen to the island-nation’s economy. The Hambantota port project or the Matale international airport are classic examples of a mismatch between mega investments and the expectations arising from them.

Once, the genuine concerns are addressed, it could be a win-win situation for Indo-Lankan bilateral discourse. “During my tenure as president,” Mr. Rajapaksa declared, “I want to bring the relationship between India and Sri Lanka to a very high level. We have a long-standing relationship historically as well as politically.” This was an indication that the new Sri Lankan President was likely to bring in a fresh approach to Colombo’s relations with New Delhi. He has started on a positive note.

Script: M.K. Tikku, Political Commentator