Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

[oped of the day] On a new footing

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : India - Sri Lanka future of ties

Context

India receives the new Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. During his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made a big effort to normalise the relationship; but the fractures in Sri Lanka’s power structure and its poor governance limited the possibilities.

Rajapaksas

  • It is feared as heralding the renewal of authoritarian rule in Sri Lanka.
  • The previous government in Colombo became dysfunctional due to deep differences between the president and prime minister.
  • The Rajapaksas are expected to bring political coherence.

With respect to India

  • The first trip to India – Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit to Delhi, the first trip abroad since the election, is an occasion to build mutual trust.
  • Moving ahead – Both sides have learnt much from their past mistakes and will have to find a new balance in the relationship. 
  • Managing proximity – For Gotabaya, the challenge is to be mindful of the sensitivities of its larger neighbour. For Modi, it is about respecting the sovereignty of its smaller neighbour.
  • Sri Lanka’s affirmation – Gotabaya has affirmed that Colombo will not do anything that might harm Delhi’s interests. He also expects that Delhi will respect Colombo’s freedom of choice in the conduct of its foreign and domestic policies. 

Indo – Sri Lankan issues

  • SL’s foreign relations – Sri Lanka’s ties to other powers have been of some concern to Delhi. This is focused on the nature of the ties between Colombo and Beijing. 
  • Tamil minorities – the prolonged conflict between the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority in Sri Lanka has undermined bilateral ties in recent decades.
  • No power game – Sri Lanka has affirmed that it does not want to be caught in the rivalry among the major powers and that it will follow a policy of “neutrality”. 
  • Red lines – India can’t accept a situation where Sri Lanka lets the People’s Liberation Army turn the Emerald Island into an aircraft carrier for China.

New regime

  • On Hambantota – Gotabaya said that it was a mistake for the previous government to have handed over the Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to China. He said that his government would like to renegotiate the agreement with China. 
  • On national interest – on economic issues, Lanka made it clear that it has every right to follow its national interest in engaging China. It wants all major countries including India, Japan, Singapore and the US to invest in Sri Lanka. The government has promised to reform and reorient the economy.

Legacy of the civil war

  • India’s involvement in the conflict saw India become a major collateral casualty in the war. 
  • The end of the war did not materially improve India’s position vis a vis Lanka.
  • There is scepticism that the grievances of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and the strong majoritarian sentiment of their support base may complicate the peace process. 
  • The intervention in the 1980s proves that Delhi’s ability to shape its neighbour’s domestic politics is limited. India may be the loser if it makes the entire relationship hostage to the question of Tamil minority rights.
  • In the past, coalition politics saw Delhi cede a veto to Chennai over its Lanka policy. The present government is stronger vis a vis Chennai.

Way ahead for both nations

  • Colombo’s confidence-building measures with the Tamils.
  • India’s strong support for practical advances between Colombo and Jaffna.
  • Greater cross-border economic cooperation as well as between northern Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.
  • Delhi’s political investment in resolving the fisheries dispute.

Conclusion

India must be seen as a friend of all the communities in Sri Lanka that can offer its good offices to resolve problems between themselves. Sri Lanka has to find that incremental progress on the Tamil question will widen its space in regional and global affairs and create better conditions for a much-needed economic renewal.

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