Engaging with Colombo’s new regime
Do business with Gotabaya, but don’t sacrifice key interestsUpdated: Nov 19, 2019 20:01 IST
The Sri Lankan presidential election has seen the return of the Rajapaksa family to power. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who handled defence when his brother Mahinda was the president during the last lap of the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is the new president. With the widespread support of the country’s Sinhalese majority in the south, Gotabaya was able to offset the opposition he faced from the Tamil and Muslim minorities in the north and the east. His return will mark not just the arrival of a new regime in Colombo, but also the shrinking of space for an inclusive Sri Lanka.
India is in a difficult spot. It quite actively sought to encourage the formation of an opposition alliance — led by Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe — to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa five years ago. Delhi was motivated by two concerns. The Rajapaksas had engineered a geopolitical tilt towards China. And their staunchly anti-Tamil outlook also went against India’s attempts to have a more politically inclusive Sri Lanka. But Delhi was aware that the arrangement was fragile. Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe did not get along; the economy was not doing well; and the Easter Sunday terror attacks eroded the government’s credibility on security. The return of the Rajapaksas was a matter of time. Delhi engaged with them, and assured that India would not interfere in the elections.
India has no choice but to do business with Gotabaya Rajapaksa. That is why it was wise of external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, to pay a visit to Colombo and reach out to the new president on Tuesday. Gotabaya is also expected to visit New Delhi at the end of the month. But India must draw clear redlines on two issues. The first is China. Colombo is free to engage with Beijing as a sovereign entity, but if the engagement affects Indian security interests, Delhi should make it clear that it will exercise its leverage. And the second is the question of an accommodation with Tamils. The Rajapaksas must be told that a return to an exclusivist ethnic State could potentially lead to a revival of the Tamil insurgency, which will harm both countries. India should draw lessons from its mistake in Nepal, where, in its effort to accommodate the ultra nationalist majoritarian government of KP Oli, it has dropped its support for an inclusive constitution and lost leverage even as China is making substantive inroads. Delhi must respect the political dispensation in Colombo, but be firm when necessary.