When Mahinda Rajapaksa won the Sri Lankan civil war, New Delhi quietly cheered him on. By the time the Lankan president was defeated in the polls this week, India was privately relieved. Behind this shift lies a cat-and-mouse game between the two that merged ethnic and great power politics.
When Rajapaksa defeated Tamil secessionist guerrillas in 2009, India worked hard to give him the political space to make a final political settlement of Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide. In 2011, at Rajapaksa’s personal request, New Delhi allowed the remains of the Buddha to be transported to the island nation. It also launched one of India’s largest aid programmes to rehabilitate the Tamil war victims.
Rajapaksa did reciprocate. He paved the way for a tripartite naval agreement that included the Maldives that enhanced India’s surveillance of the central Indian Ocean. And he held back his navy when Indian Tamil fishermen illegally intruded into Lankan waters, causing havoc with destructive bottom trawling nets.
India was initially thrilled. As senior officials in the Manmohan Singh government noted, India was for the first time in good standing with all the major political players in Sri Lanka. But the sheen was gone after a few years as Rajapaksa showed increasingly dictatorial tendencies at home. More tellingly, he showed no interest in a Tamil political settlement. In 2012, his brother, and defence minister, called for a national referendum to abolish the 13th amendment to the constitution – an act that would have killed Tamil provincial devolution, the heart of any political settlement.
Rajapaksa felt he could afford to be defiant. India’s own Lankan policy, effectively under the control of Tamil cabinet ministers rather than the foreign ministry, zigzagged under the Singh government.
Things were different under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While inviting Rajapaksa for his inauguration, Modi in private warned the Lankan president he would hold him to his promises to “win the peace” with a political settlement.
Rajapaksa, Lankan sources say, was livid. His response was to try and play a geopolitical card and twice invite nuclear-powered Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo.
This has been a common ploy of Colombo’s: it flirted with Pakistan during the civil war to fend off Indian attention and has encouraged Chinese investment in the Hambantota port with the same idea. New Delhi has not been overly alarmed. During the Singh government, officials concluded Lanka would not allow real Chinese ownership or management of Hambantota, so there was no real threat to Indian security.
While privately the Modi government accepted that the China card is the sort of gambit that India’s small neighbours like to play, the Indian prime minister is known to have been less than pleased with the submarine invitation. His National Security Advisor Ajit Doval warned Rajapaksa that he was in danger of crossing a red line. The Lankan president had done worse: he had signalled that New Delhi had a choice between solving the Tamil problem or limiting China’s military influence in India’s ocean. Both were essential to Indian interests, which is why few tears will be shed in New Delhi for Rajapaksa.