Sri Lanka’s election of strongman Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president on November 16 will prove consequential for India as it contemplates an appropriate strategy to deal with Chinese economic and military ingress in its backyard. Gotabaya Rajapaksa comes with sizeable baggage as he settles into his high office in Colombo.
The military architect of the final and brutal push to end a decades long civil war in the idyllic island state, the Sinhalese-majoritarian Gotabaya had campaigned over the summer on a plank of national security, which assumed a major electoral salience following the massive Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka leading to more than 250 deaths.
Brother and confidante of ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa – and like him – Gotabaya is widely seen as relatively friendlier to Chinese interests than the former president, Maithripala Sirisena. With Mahinda’s appointment as prime minister, Beijing will likely assess that its prospects for building inroads in Sri Lanka are now brighter.
While many have already commented on the implications of Gotabaya’s election for India, what is equally interesting is what his election suggests in terms of New Delhi’s choice of tools of statecraft when it comes to shaping the game of political musical chairs in countries in its traditional sphere of influence.
Every country has creation myths that it perpetuates even when on-ground evidence runs contrary to them. For India, one such myth has been that it maintains a position of non-inference in the domestic affairs of its neighbors – a line apparently in tune with its own colonial experience and post-colonial rhetoric. In practice, nothing could be further from the truth.
Scholars of India’s neighborhood policy note how even as far back as India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s tenure, the country effectively sought veto power over the domestic affairs of states it considered in its orbit, lest choices made by India’s smaller neighbors compromised Delhi’s enduring regional interests.
In the 1980s, India intervened militarily or covertly on four occasions in its neighborhood: Mauritius (1983), Seychelles (1986), Maldives (1988), and Sri Lanka (1987-1990). The last experience, of a massive military intervention to end Sri Lanka’s civil war, which led to a bloodbath for the Indian forces, continues to be a damper when it comes to Delhi’s appetite for overt military involvement in the Indian Ocean region and beyond.
There are more less-publicized instances. For example, a 2012 news report about the military-backed coup in the Maldives that year – that saw then-president Mohammed Nasheed deposed by his vice-president with backing from opposition parties – pointed to a possible role played by the Indian High Commission in Male in facilitating the power transition.
On that occasion, Nasheed’s party chief Reeko Moosa Mani had accused High Commissioner D. M. Mulay of consolidating the opposition against his boss. Mani had directly accused Mulay of meeting with then-opposition leader Abdulla Yameen while the 2012 coup was on in the islands. Ironically enough, Yameen was to become a splitting headache for India as Maldives’ president (2013-2018) due to his pro-China stance and habit of flagrantly flouting Delhi’s diktats.
When it comes to Sri Lanka, it is by now common knowledge that India’s external intelligence service – the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) – had a major role to play in deposing Mahinda Rajapaksa from office in the 2015 election, again by rallying and consolidating the opposition led by Sirisena against him.
The ensuing outrage in Sri Lanka allegedly led to R&AW’s Colombo station chief K. Illango being recalled back, a claim India has strongly disputed. That said, sources have noted that Ilango’s tenure in Colombo had indeed proven to be a cause of concern in New Delhi, conjecturally leading to him being passed over for the top job in the R&AW last year.
Whether it was due to the 2015 Lankan snafu or India’s disastrous experience with coercive diplomacy with Nepal that year by early 2018 New Delhi seemed to have lost its appetite when it came to hard statecraft in its neighborhood.
This became visible when India refused to militarily intervene in the Maldives in face of Yameen’s provocations – which included first imposing, and then extending, emergency provisions in that island nation – despite vocal calls by a section of its strategic community to this effect last year and, irony of ironies, by Nasheed whose party had decried India’s alleged plot against him six years before.
In any event, Yameen went on to lose the elections in the Maldives, which he was forced to allow in September 2018 as a result of growing international approbation. (Whether India had a covert role to play in ensuing this outcome remains unknown, though veteran Indian national security journalist Parveen Swami has pointed to R&AW’s Illango as an architect of the outcome of the 2018 Maldives election.)
Mugged by the realization that direct Indian interference in internal affairs of its neighbors comes with a cost, Delhi began a smart play in the run-up to the Sri Lankan elections last week. From as early as 2017, western diplomats were warning Indian analysts (and therefore, it is reasonable to infer, the Indian government) of the possibility that the Rajapaksa brothers could indeed come back to power. Unfazed by this, India embarked on a prudent path of engaging the Rajapaksas despite the bad blood between Mahinda and New Delhi.
Notably, BJP ally and Tamil politician Subramanian Swamy welcomed Mahinda Rajapaksa to New Delhi in September last year. This very public overture – the streets of Delhi’s political nerve-centre were festooned with banners welcoming a man who had a few years before expressed great hostility towards India – was almost certainly engineered by the Narendra Modi government and served as a lost-cost hedge: no matter who came to power in Colombo, New Delhi could claim him as a friend.
As Gotabaya settles into office and visits India end of this week, on the 29th, the Modi government would hope that its hands-off approach in the 2019 Sri Lankan elections pays off. Whether India’s gambit is misplaced or not will take four more years to assess.