Rajapaksa family redux poses challenges for India

Supporters of Sri Lanka's President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa shout slogans as he leaves the election commission office in Colombo on November 17, 2019. AFP

The return of the Rajapaksa family to the all-powerful presidency in Sri Lanka presents a slew of challenges for India, for which the tear-shaped island holds huge diplomatic and strategic importance.

President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the younger brother of the former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, was the powerful defence secretary during the last phase of the civil war that ended with the death of the once-feared Velupillai Prabhakaran and extinction of his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. 

Though the Rajapaksas publicly maintain that relationship with India is their “top priority”, they have never walked the talk – Mahinda had rolled out the red carpet for China by allowing it to construct a massive port in his hometown in Hambantota and granting several infrastructure projects that came up after the war to Chinese companies. 

Beijing has already taken ownership of the Hambantota Port after Sri Lanka failed to pay the loans it secured and its grip on the island would only tighten further with Gotabaya’s ascension to the presidency and the likely election of Mahinda as prime minister in polls due early next year. 

The new dispensation is expected to open several new fields and avenues for the Chinese, who are very interested in expanding their footprint in the Indian Ocean region. Ownership of the brand-new and expansive port located along the world’s busiest shipping lane linking Asia with Europe has already given China a strategic upper hand in the region.  

India has little alternative but to reach out to the new leadership to try and contain the Chinese. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first to congratulate Gotabaya on his victory and assured him of cooperation, it remains to be seen whether the new regime would accede to India’s long-held demand for a “genuine political solution and reconciliation” for the minority Tamils. 

N Sathiya Moorthy, senior fellow and Head of Observer Research Foundation’s (ORF) Chennai initiative, said that any country put its “national interests and aspirations up front.”  “If Mahinda Rajapaksa as President invited China to build Hambantota Port, the outgoing government with which India was identified only ended up handing over a part of Sri Lankan territory to China,” he said, adding that a political solution should be arrived at between the Sri Lankan government and the minority Tamil community.

Another Sri Lanka expert, who wished to remain anonymous, said the Sri Lankan Tamils should also shed their obsession with their demand for probe into war crimes. 

“While they can still demand a probe, they should make efforts to co-exist with the new regime,” he said. 

But dealing with potentially both Rajapaksas, one as President and another as Prime Minister, will pose a major challenge for the diplomats in South Block. This is especially the case as Mahinda feels India was responsible for his upset defeat in 2015 that saw his one-time protégé trumping him at the hustings.

It is an open secret that India, both under UPA and NDA, found it extremely difficult to deal with Rajapaksa as he proved impossible to trust: His government received millions of rupees in aid and loans from New Delhi but ‘gifted’ many lucrative projects to Chinese firms. 

Now the diplomats will have to go back to the drawing room to strategise their Sri Lanka policy given a nationalistic and powerful government has taken over there. 

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