Within a day of his swearing-in as Sri Lanka’s new President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a visit from Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar in Colombo, and accepted an invitation to visit India, as his first trip abroad in office, which commenced on Thursday. The alacrity behind Mr. Jaishankar’s visit, which resulted in Mr. Gotabaya’s decision to make the trip, denotes a welcome proactiveness in India’s relationship with countries in the region, which has come to mark the Modi government’s “Neighbourhood First” policy.
In February 2018, the late External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had made a similarly remarkable trip to Kathmandu, where she met K.P. Sharma Oli two weeks before he had even been sworn in as Prime Minister, to invite him to New Delhi; Mr. Oli made his first visit abroad in his tenure to India around two months later.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also travelled to Bhutan, Maldives, and Sri Lanka at the beginning of his tenure. He had, in 2018, attended the swearing-in ceremony of Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and, later, also invited leaders from the neighbourhood to his own ceremony this year. However, given that the countries in the subcontinent that India engages with now have elected leaders with big political mandates, New Delhi has a new set of challenges to its policy.
Following Mr. Gotabaya’s visit, early and frequent high-level exchanges will become an important pillar on which to base India-Sri Lanka ties. But summitry is no guarantee of a better relationship, unless a number of other pillars are also strengthened.
Putting the past behind
To begin with, despite the clear desire among both sides to move ahead, it remains to be seen whether the Modi government and the Rajapaksa regime, comprising President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, will actually be able to shrug off the deeply bitter history they have shared for the last few years, including following Mr. Rajapaksa’s allegation that Indian intelligence agencies had conspired for their electoral loss in 2015. This may be easier said than done with the new Sri Lankan President, a military man who became the Defence Secretary later.
One area that is likely to help that process and hold New Delhi-Colombo ties in good stead is the rapid improvement in intelligence sharing between the two countries, especially since the Easter Sunday terror attacks; something Mr. Gotabaya made a campaign issue as well. It is important to remember, however, that despite the early outreach to Mr. Oli in Nepal, relations between the two governments never fully recovered from their rough patch during the Nepal trade blockade of 2015, and therefore, the history of ties remains an important factor.
Another pillar of bilateral ties in the region rests on development projects and economic relations. On this, the task before both New Delhi and Colombo should be easier, as they only need to complete projects that have already been announced in the last few years to show a breakthrough. India has already evinced interest in building infrastructure in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, including upgrading the Jaffna-Colombo rail track and other railway lines, providing electricity transmission lines for power imports from India, and rebuilding the Kankesanthurai port. Each of these projects is an opportunity to showcase New Delhi’s delivery ability and Colombo’s desire to cooperate for the benefit of its less-developed areas.
Completion of projects
In the Eastern Province, little progress has been made on projects that former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe had signed through MoUs in New Delhi in April 2017. Completion of these should become a priority, including India’s plan to develop Trincomalee port and oil tank farms, and LNG terminals near Colombo. Finally, India’s plans to counter Chinese investment will be tested by the pace of the joint India-Japan agreement to develop the East Container Terminal at Colombo harbour, and other projects like the offer to operate the Mattala Airport.
Not just in Sri Lanka, but also across the subcontinent, India has lagged behind in investment figures, as data collated from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh Bank and Nepal Rastra Bank showed in a recent study by the Observer Research Foundation (“Looking back, looking ahead: Foreign policy in transition under Modi”). According to the report, while India’s Foreign Direct Investment in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal was more than that by China in 2014-2015, the order was reversed by 2017-2018. This is also true of the Maldives, where despite the ouster of the pro-China regime a year ago, and a four-fold increase in New Delhi’s aid to Male since then, no Chinese project has yet been cancelled (Mr. Solih, during his campaign, had originally promised to cancel some of these projects). In Sri Lanka, while Mr. Gotabaya has suggested that the lease that gave Beijing control of Hambantota port will be renegotiated, there is little indication that any other loan or project will be reversed.
Nepal has, in fact, stepped up its engagement with China after President Xi Jinping’s recent visit, with a number of road, rail, infrastructure projects and dry port access in the works. Bangladesh, arguably India’s closest partner in the region, saw $3.6 billion in FDI from China last year, along with ‘Belt and Road promises’ of $50 billion. As these figures climb, it will be harder for New Delhi to tough-talk leaders in the neighbourhood, as it once did, on investments from China, especially as the government itself seeks to attract the same into India.
Most importantly, Mr. Modi’s government is likely to lead much more by the power of example, than by any wise counsel it gives. India’s internal issues like the dilution of Article 370, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, the National Register for Citizenship and detention centres for illegal residents, and cases of mob lynching are all being discussed intensely in capitals in the neighbourhood, from Male to Dhaka and Naypyitaw, and will impact their conversations with New Delhi.
Mr. Jaishankar’s statement that India “expects” Mr. Gotabaya to keep constitutional promises to bring “equality, justice, peace and dignity” to the minorities in Sri Lanka may, hence, not be taken seriously, amidst concerns over the treatment of India’s own minorities. Similarly, protests that India made in the past with the Maldives over political arrests or efforts pushing for elections in Afghanistan will hold less water in the future, given the Modi government’s failure to hold elections in Jammu and Kashmir and the prolonged incarceration of the Valley’s political leaders. And, it will be hard for New Delhi to lecture Nepal on constitutional rights for Madhesis; Pakistan and Bangladesh on treatment of their Hindu and Sikh minorities; and Myanmar on Rohingya, when the government is not seen upholding those ideals itself.
On most of these issues, strongmen (and women) in the region are likely to do not as New Delhi says, but as New Delhi does.