An opening for India in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka
Pranay Kumar Shome

The stupendous victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) or people’s party in the recently concluded elections will have ubiquitous ramifications for the future of Sri Lankan polity. This election result will also have significant regional ramifications.

The Sri Lankan voters were very clear in their minds about their choice and the massive victory of the SLPP demonstrates that. The results show that the ordinary Lankan citizen was clearly fed up of the constant infighting, corruption and incompetence, which they witnessed during the Mathirapala Sirisena years.

Erosion of Democracy

While the Sri Lankans have overwhelmingly voted for the SLPP, which has resulted in its winning 145 out the 225 seats in parliament elections, this super majority could actually put democracy and the inclusive culture of Sri Lanka under grave threat. The supporters of the Rajapaksa regime may paint this as mere fear-mongering by domestic and international opponents and critics, but it could soon turn out to be the stark reality staring at every Sri Lankan.

In just about six months into office, the promises made by the Sri Lankan president are slowly being jettisoned. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is clearly issuing orders that have been responsible for gagging the media. This is amply evident from the censorship imposed by the government on the coverage of the issue of seeking accountability for the deaths of 11 innocent Tamil youths, who were shot in cold blood on the orders of the then police chief of Sri Lanka in the concluding stages of the war in 2009. The police chief is currently absconding from Sri Lanka and is now in Switzerland.

Sinhala nationalism is clearly on the rise, which has manifested itself in this resounding victory. The Tamils and the Muslims in the eastern and northern parts of the island nation are wary of the new premier. The future of democracy in Sri Lanka looks gloomy.

An opening for India in Sri Lanka

Tamils and Muslims

The victory of Rajapaksa is making the minority communities in Sri Lanka feel uneasy about their future. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his tenure as defence secretary had eradicated the Tamil militant group, LTTE, with an iron hand, in the process even committing gross human rights violations.

The Tamils, have been for a long time, demanding the implementation of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which envisages reconciliation and decentralised governance in the northern parts of the country. The issue of post-war reconciliation is also raging and needs to be dealt with delicately, especially given India’s concerns as well.

As far as the Muslims are concerned, they been hounded and ostracised following the ghastly Easter suicide bomb attacks last year. Islamist extremists had targeted churches and hotels in the country, claiming the lives of over 300 people and injuring scores of others.

In the immediate aftermath, Muslim shops were vandalised, Islamic businesses were boycotted and in many areas they even faced a threat to their lives. The election victory of the SLPP can further accentuate the sense of alienation and fear among the Tamils and Muslims in the country.

Advantage India?

Though the emerging situation looks tough for the islanders, it appears the victory of the SLPP will lead to an improvement in the Indo-Sri Lankan ties. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate Mahinda Rajapaksa even before the full results of the elections became clear. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the president, he made India his first overseas destination clearly signifying the importance of India in the strategic matrix.

India has also decided to follow suit and has also reached out to Sri Lanka regarding its debt crisis. India is looking at innovative ways to alleviate the woes of Sri Lanka. India must not let go the opportunity.

The Indo-Sri Lanka ties must be based on equity, mutual respect for each other’s internal affairs and should be guided by common goodwill. However, India must push to speed up the reconciliation efforts for the Tamils in Sri Lanka while remaining sensitive to Sri Lanka’s security concerns. It must also try and upgrade its ties with Sri Lanka to the level of “strategic partnership”.

Eye on the Dragon

While continuing its efforts to improve the relationship with its island neighbour, India must also keep a keen eye on China, which has now made huge investments across various sectors in Sri Lanka. A significant way to do this is to create an Indian Ocean Region (IOR) maritime economic and trade alliance to bolster the flow of trade and commerce in this strategic region. This will help keep out China to a very large extent.

India must also undertake ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises in the Indian Ocean Region with Sri Lanka and other littoral navies to preserve The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) — a regional organisation comprising seven member states lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal and a bridge between South and South-East Asia — for dominance in the IOR.

India, therefore, must step up its game in the strategic region vis-à-vis China, and the regime change in Sri Lanka presents a good opportunity. India must play its cards right so that the mammoth mandate the Rajapaksas have got will also help strengthen India-Sri Lanka relations significantly.

(The author is studying Political Science with specialisation in International Relations from Jadavpur University, Kolkata)

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