India committed to strengthening ties, Jaishankar tells Sri Lankan counterpart

Prime Minister Modi had earlier called Mahinda Rajapaksa on August 6

Updated - August 19, 2020 11:10 am IST

Published - August 18, 2020 10:23 pm IST - COLOMBO

Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.

Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.

Continuing New Delhi’s high-level outreach with the newly elected government in Colombo, Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar on Tuesday called his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena, and underscored India’s “commitment to taking bilateral ties to greater heights.”

Mr. Gunawardena, who served as Foreign Minister in the caretaker government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was re-appointed to the post following the August 5 parliamentary polls, in which the Rajapaksas’ ruling party secured an impressive two-thirds majority. Congratulating Mr. Gunawardena, Mr. Jaishankar reiterated India’s earlier message that the strong mandate would “play a key role” in strengthening bilateral ties.

Also read |Rajapaksa’s victory a fresh chance to boost ties: envoy

Mr. Jaishankar’s call follows Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s earlier call to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on August 6, when his party’s big win seemed certain, although the Election Commission declared the official, final results only the following day. Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay had called on Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa on the eve of his swearing-in ceremony, and congratulated him on the “emphatic victory.”

New Delhi’s apparent swiftness and consistent messaging from the highest levels follows the Rajapasas’ decisive mandate, and signals India’s intent to strengthen ties with an administration that, in its previous term in office, was accused of a China-tilt.

Further, the outreach comes in the backdrop of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s request in February for a debt moratorium from India that the two countries are discussing. In May, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sought a special $1.1-billion currency swap facility from Prime Minister Modi to boost Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves, badly hit by the pandemic. This is in addition to the $400 million currency swap facility that the Reserve Bank of India recently approved for Sri Lanka.

Apart from ongoing negotiations of Sri Lanka’s debt repayment and currency swap, New Delhi will be keen on reviving talks on the East Container Terminal development project at the Colombo Port that Sri Lanka, India and Japan agreed to jointly develop. A Memorandum of Cooperation was signed with the former government last year, but the proposal is stuck following Port workers’ persisting opposition to Indian involvement at the terminal, located near the China-backed financial city or port city.

Meanwhile, India has also been discussing closer cooperation “in the expansion of Buddhist linkages.” During the call with Mr. Jaishankar, Minister Gunawardena welcomed the Indian Government’s decision to convert the Kushinagar Airport as an International airport for ease of travel for Buddhist pilgrims to India, according to a press release from the Indian High Commission.

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