The Pulse | Diplomacy | Politics | South Asia

India’s Approach to the Sri Lankan Election: Proactive and Pre-emptive?

Rather than a reactionary response to the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, India appeared prepared for the political developments in Sri Lanka.

By Ashutosh Nagda for
India’s Approach to the Sri Lankan Election: Proactive and Pre-emptive?

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, front right, and his brother and the country’s new Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stand for the national anthem at the presidential secretariat in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

On November 18, Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the oath to become the eighth president of Sri Lanka. Well-known as the brother of former Sri Lankan President (and newly appointed Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya also earned a reputation as the man who crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during his terms as defense secretary under his brother’s presidency (2005-2015).

According to several reports, the return of the Rajapaksas to the helm of power in Sri Lanka is bound to interest the Indian government, which was accused of orchestrating the Rajapaksas’ defeat in the 2015 elections. But India has showcased a combination of pre-emptive and proactive approaches rather than a reactionary approach toward the new Sri Lankan government.

A Proactive Strategy?

Going against reactionary expectations, New Delhi’s pro-active approach — primarily stemming from its preparedness for Rajapaksa’s victory — has surprised many. New Delhi’s preparedness can be seen in the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first leaders to call the president-elect after his victory on November 17 and invite him to visit India “at his early convenience.” The invitation-by-phone was then followed by a not-so-publicized visit by India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on November 19, during which he formally forwarded Modi’s invitation to President Gotabaya. Gotabaya accepted and is set to visit India on November 29 , which in all probability will be his first foreign visit after the election.

Glimpses of this proactive Indian approach were first seen all the way back in September 2018, when Modi met Mahinda Rajapaksa while the latter was on a personal visit to Delhi. The meeting came after Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Pdujana Peramuna (SLPP) swept local elections in February 2018, thus indicating a wave of support in his favor. The two again met in June 2019 during Modi’s first bilateral visit to Sri Lanka following his re-election in May. 

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A Pre-emptive Economic Approach?

An ongoing narrative running parallel to the return of the Rajapaksas is the island country’s further tilt toward China. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s term as president — from 2005 to 2015 — coincided with Colombo tilting heavily toward Beijing, at least when viewed from India’s perspective. This was deemed to be one of the core reasons for sourness in the relationship between India and Sri Lanka and led to the accusation from Rajapaksa that India meddled in the 2015 election, turning it against him.

But even as New Delhi witnessed increasing bonhomie between Colombo and Beijing, it did not stop the Indian government from upping its foreign aid assistance to the island country. Between 2012-13 and 2013-14, New Delhi’s aid assistance witnessed a significant increase from 2.48 billion Indian rupees to 4.20 billion rupees. This trend continued under the Modi government as well: 4.99 billion rupees were spent in 2014–15 and 4.03 billion rupees in 2015–16. It was around this time that there was also much chatter about how the Indian government might increase foreign aid to the Rajapaksa government in Colombo, despite the latter’s pro-China tilt. This suggests an attempt on the part of New Delhi to counter Beijing’s increasing influence in Colombo with cash. 

India’s foreign aid spending in Sri Lanka started dropping from 2015-16 onward. The numbers witnessed a sudden drop in 2016-2017, when India spent a meager 990 million rupees, followed by an even lower figure of 770 million rupees in 2017–18. This shift began about right around the time of Sri Lanka’s 2015 national election, which saw the election of President Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena came to power critical of the sitting government’s pro-Beijing policies. What could explain the rapid dip in aid? Maybe India believed that it was no longer necessary to spend large sums of money on the island country as a geopolitical incentive, now that a more pro-India leader was in power? Or, was it for pragmatic reasons, such as land acquisition hurdles? Or was it simply that the Indian projects in Sri Lanka witnessed completion during this period, hence the dip?

Subsequently, the figures have climbed back up modestly, with New Delhi allotting 1.65 billion rupees ($30.56 million) for 2018–19 and 2.5 billion rupees in 2019–20. The actual figures are yet to be published. Interestingly, the upward climb in aid allocations from FY 2017–18 came after Sirisena signed the $1.1 billion debt-for-equity deal on Hambantota Port with China in July 2017, permitting the latter to operate the strategic port on a 70 percent stake for a 99-year lease period. This was certainly a cause of concern for India, which probably wanted to regain lost ground in bilateral ties with higher aid allocations.

The modest upward trend also coincides with the victory of Rajapaksa’s SLPP in the local elections and Modi’s subsequent meetings with Mahinda. Modi’s outreach to Mahinda and subsequent climb back in New Delhi’s foreign aid to Colombo together form a solid argument for India’s preparedness and proactive approach toward Sri Lanka.

The Future

Sri Lanka’s geopolitical and geostrategic importance to India is clear: It is a critical node in the Indian Ocean and a time-tested partner in the regional neighborhood. Thus, the island-nation fits perfectly with the Modi government’s “Neighborhood First” policy. New Delhi’s current proactive approach has given the picture that its neighborhood policy is flexible and diplomatic.

It will be important for New Delhi to back its proactive approach with solid practical engagements with Colombo in order to not replicate the 2015 scenario. Luckily for India, Gotabaya, who has been assumed to be pro-China, recognizes the benefits of balancing between India and China. In his election manifesto, Gotabaya promised to renegotiate the Chinese lease of the Hambantota port. A report in The Indian Express quoted sources close to the Rajapaksas as saying that “Gotabaya will have a special interest in strengthening a healthy relationship with India while exploring more trade partnerships with China and potential investors.” This along with Gotabaya’s acceptance of Modi’s invitation to visit India showcases the new Sri Lankan leadership’s eagerness to signal goodwill toward India and strike a balance between the two Asian powerhouses.

India’s proactive approach seems to be well appreciated by the Sri Lankan regime, and this can reap benefits for the relationship between the two nations. New Delhi cannot expect Colombo to reduce its economic and commercial engagement with and dependence on Beijing. What it can do in Sri Lanka is to strengthen its ongoing engagements, become punctual with its deliverables, and try to engage further into spheres in which the Chinese have a limited presence and India has the capacity to deliver. This will help New Delhi to strengthen its political capital in Colombo thus helping it reap gains for its current proactive overture. 

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Ashutosh Nagda is a researcher with the South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP) at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS).