Rajapaksa's return presents Modi with a fresh headache

Sri Lanka's newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa waves at the staff after participating in the ceremony to assume his duties as the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs at the Finance Ministry in Colombo, October 31, 2018. Reuters

Just when India heaved a sigh of relief at the Maldives ousting the China-obsessed President Abdulla Yameen, dramatic political developments in Sri Lanka have returned hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa to power, landing the Modi government with its latest headache.
India has huge strategic interests in Sri Lanka, geographically close to Tamil Nadu, and has invested heavily in the island, especially in Tamil-dominated areas ravaged during the bloody war between the armed forces and the once-dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that devoured more than 70,000 lives.
From building housing units for Tamils in northern Lanka and rebuilding railway lines to providing bicycles and restoring temples and the historic Jaffna library, India’s work has been widely noticed by Sri Lankans.
Rajapaksa is not just a hardliner, but pro-Chinese who has the immense potential to whip up anti-India sentiments in the tiny island, which is slowly limping back to normalcy after the three-decade-long civil war. With Rajapaksa at the helm, this time as prime minister, there is every chance that Chinese influence would reappear, much to the discomfiture of India.
Rajapaksa’s China fixation has already resulted in the Dragon gaining control of some territory in India’s backyard – Beijing has taken ownership of the Hambantota Port in south Sri Lanka after Colombo failed to make loan repayments. The brand-new port is located along the world’s busiest shipping lane linking Asia with Europe, giving China a strategic upper hand in the region.
India will have plenty to lose if Rajapaksa unfurls the red carpet again for China and its firms. And with his re-entry into power politics, China would have much to gain – in fact it was the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka who was the first diplomat to meet Rajapaksa after he was sworn-in as prime minister. Rajapaksa had accused India of conspiring with Wickremesinghe and Sirisena to oust him from power in 2015.
This time round, Wickremesinghe and his aides suspect China’s role in the coup that ousted them from power.

India, both under the UPA and NDA, has found it very difficult to deal with Rajapaksa as the leadership never felt it could trust him. His government received millions of rupees in aid and loans from New Delhi but ‘gifted’ many lucrative projects to Chinese firms.
And India had reasons to be upset since the country committed itself to helping Sri Lanka rebuild but Rajapaksa kept dodging the question of a political solution to the Tamils that would make them feel that they were genuinely part of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka.
Though India hoped President Maithripala Sirisena would work on his predecessors’ commitments for achieving “genuine reconciliation” with minority Tamils, it did not take much time to realise that he was not even a shade better than Rajapaksa when it came to political solution and containing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka.
That a political solution still eludes Tamils can be seen from the frequent statements by C V Vigneswaran, who was chief minister of the northern province till last week, that Colombo reneged on all its promises to the minority community.
The unceremonious sacking of the moderate Wickremesinghe, who was very close to India and favoured excellent relations with the neighbouring country, shows which way President Maithripala Sirisena wanted the country to tilt. Sirisena had also dragged India into domestic politics by claiming that the neighbour was hatching an assassination plot against him.
And the fact that the political coup was engineered within a week after Wickremesinghe’s visit to New Delhi has intrigued many in diplomatic and political circles.
Though India has decided to wait and watch for now, it should not go into hibernation mode, like it did when allowed the Maldives to slip into Chinese hands, but activate its diplomatic channels to limit the presence of China in Sri Lanka. It’s not just for the economic interests which it has built but also for the moral obligation to the islands beleaguered Tamils.

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Rajapaksa's return presents Modi with a fresh headache


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