What does SL with Rajapaksa out of power mean for India?

  • Sutirtho Patranobis, Hindustan Times, Colombo
  • Updated: Aug 18, 2015 18:12 IST
Parliamentary candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa makes the victory sign after casting his vote in Medamulana village, southern Sri Lanka, Monday, Aug. 17, 2015 (AP Photo)

The final results in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary polls are yet to be announced but the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appears set to be the dominant force in Parliament when it reconvenes in a couple of weeks.

For Sri Lanka, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in the polls means its voters preferred to continue voting for change. This was also the trend in the Presidential race in January.

This was a change from the perceived rule by a single family that not only controlled multiple ministries and departments but exerted influence over other government institutions.

But what does Rajapaksa’s defeat mean for India?

For one, New Delhi will be cautiously optimistic about Colombo being more sensitive to its strategic concerns: Chinese nuclear submarines probably might not be docking at the Colombo port again anytime soon.

A politically stable government in Colombo will mean there is potential for progress on the twin issues of political reconciliation and devolution of power within Sri Lanka.

On both issues, Sri Lanka and India will need to work together, analysts say. Over the next few months, there is also likely to be a boost in bilateral trade and commerce between the two countries.

Traditionally, a UNP government has been keener to develop trade ties with India. Wickeremesinghe had once talked about strengthening trade between Sri Lanka and the five southern Indian states.

It is still on his mind. “Yeah. We have always been having (ties with the southern Indian states) if not formally, informally. So it is a question of how you regularise it. That’s all,” Wickremesinghe told Hindustan Times in an interview last week.

He mentioned that bilateral deliberations on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) will have to be looked into “anew”.

“We know what exactly we want from trade agreements with all countries. We have got our own mode,” he said about the status of the CEPA.

The differences of opinion over the CEPA aside, relations between the two sides are expected to get a “positive” boost. All this, of course, depends on what India can offer Sri Lanka.

New Delhi can hardly match Beijing’s financial clout and the grand projects that China is implementing in Sri Lanka. But India could work on other projects for Sri Lanka that are reasonable and do not come with the sort of riders attached to Chinese projects like heavier interest rates.

Politically, especially in the context of the ethnic issue, Colombo will need New Delhi’s help.

Analysts feel Sri Lanka will try to follow a foreign policy that is in the country’s interest and is pragmatic yet sensible. This will not be easy.

Especially with Rajapaksa expected to retain some of his clout as an opposition leader, it will be a challenge to balance the opposition’s usually hardline Sinhala nationalistic politics with the UNP’s more moderate policies.

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