India, Sri Lanka seek to reset ties in the time of polls and pandemic

Better times: A file photo of PM Narendra Modi with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in New Delhi.  

As news of the India-China stand-off at Galwan Valley broke last month, Sri Lanka, like much of the rest of the world, watched closely. Not only because it was the most dramatic escalation between the adversaries in nearly half a century, but also because two of Sri Lanka’s closest partners were on either side of the tension.

Sri Lanka did not comment on the development. However, India soon made headlines in the island for other reasons.

Early July, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told a media conference that there was no final decision on the East Container Terminal (ECT) project at the Colombo Port, which Sri Lanka, India and Japan in 2019 agreed to jointly develop. His remark came while unions and some opposition parties were protesting “giving away national assets” to India, though Sri Lanka’s Port Authority was to retain 100% ownership of the facility, as per the 2019 tripartite Memorandum of Cooperation. They also came a month ahead of the general election, in which the Rajapaksa government is eyeing a two-thirds majority.

Around the same time, India was holding “close and constructive” discussions with Sri Lanka, on Colombo’s pending request for a debt — totalling $960 million — freeze, and for swapping currency under bilateral and SAARC arrangements.

With fast-approaching polls [on August 5], a persisting global pandemic posing enormous economic challenges, and a stand-off between two regional powers, where do Indo-Lanka relations stand at this moment, as seen by experts in Sri Lanka?

Pointing to India’s “difficult relations” with some neighbours over “different aspects”, retired bureaucrat-diplomat Austin Fernando, who was Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India, told The Hindu: “Comparatively speaking, ours has been great as friends, neighbours, and relations.”

Characterising the current phase in ties as one where New Delhi is “patching up with the Rajapaksas”, Mr. Fernando said usually it was Sri Lanka’s newly elected President or Prime Minister who visited India first, to “offer pooja as we call it”. In contrast, Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar’s Colombo visit in November 2019, to meet the newly-elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was a “reversal of the pooja ritual”, he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing a $450 million line of credit to Sri Lanka during President Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi soon after — his maiden state visit after his big election win — “showed a proactive, relations-building” approach. However, a comparison of Indian assistance extended in the neighbourhood shows “discriminatory tendencies”, he said, pointing to India’s varying amounts of developmental assistance in the region.

“After 2015, India would have expected more cooperation from Sri Lanka, but it has not happened, sometimes for good reason. I think the Indian bureaucracy understands these and should cooperate with Sri Lanka seriously.”

On the other hand, “India’s attitude and relationship with her immediate neighbours depend on their appreciation of India’s regional security concerns; they would serve as buffer states in the event of an extra regional threat and not proxies of the outside powers. Colombo should never forget this guidance in dealing with India,” Mr. Fernando cautioned.

India-China prism

South Asia watchers often resort to the India-China geopolitical lens, while analysing Sri Lanka’s international relations in the neighbourhood and beyond. Although the trend is understandable, and even useful as a general measure of the powers’ relative influence in the region, the perspective such a lens offers is limited, according to Dinusha Panditaratne, former executive director of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies.

“Conceptually, it tends to view Sri Lanka as a subject rather than agent of policy decisions. While Sri Lankan policymakers are constrained by economic and geopolitical realities, they nevertheless have choices and decisions to make within the margins of these realities,” she said, adding that those resorting to the India-China prism often tend to overlook or misinterpret key details.

Further, Ms. Panditaratne noted that the bilateral relationship between India and Sri Lanka “will always be an important cornerstone of a peaceful and prosperous South Asia”. “The examples of Singapore-Malaysia and New Zealand-Australia indicate that a smaller country's economic success is tied to having a strong or at least stable relationship with its larger neighbour.” Both India and Sri Lanka should focus on increasing the volume and quality of people-to-people links, without assuming they will naturally result from geographical proximity, she said, underscoring the need for continued high-level engagement on building economic and people-to-people links.

Citing the successful India-assisted ‘Suwa Seriya’ ambulance service, and the pressing needs following COVID-19, she prescribed that India and Sri Lanka enhance links in the health sector, including in telemedicine. “The fact that several Indian companies are involved in the race to develop a vaccine presents India with a potentially huge, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to cement its goodwill with the neighbourhood by securing regional access to these vaccines,” Ms. Panditaratne notes.

India and the Tamil question

The close but complex bilateral ties between the countries have both history and baggage. Even today, popular Tamil leaders in the island are invoking India on their election campaign trail, particularly while speaking of the pending political solution to the Tamil question that lingers after the years of war and the decade of relative peace.

That is because the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, an outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, is the only piece of legislation that speaks of a measure of devolution, said V. Thanabalasingham, senior journalist and foreign policy analyst. “The Tamil leaders may feel helpless and appeal to India but realistically, India is unlikely to take any strong positions on the Tamil question now. With its growing geopolitical concerns in the region, India wouldn’t want to lose what remains of its influence in Sri Lanka by raising the Tamil issue,” he told The Hindu.

Further, the controversy around the ECT shows that the Rajapaksa administration, despite promises made during high-level visits to New Delhi, “invariably succumbs” to Sinhala nationalist groups or xenophobic forces “within the establishment”, he observed. “The opposition to these projects, you may notice, are always greater when India or the US is involved. They don’t see China as a ‘foreign power’ quite the same way, despite knowing Sri Lanka’s dependence on China for infrastructure support or for our economy.”

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 4:41:26 PM |

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