Rajapaksa Round 2: This Time, Modi Govt Will Need Some New Moves

Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma

India’s ‘parivar politics’ has got nothing on the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka – but the Rajapaksas have got plenty on the Modi government, in a manner of speaking.

The Rajapaksas are famously pro-China in their foreign policy – at least from India’s perspective – which is the big problem the Modi government has tried to address over the past few weeks, despite the bad blood between the two governments.

"Why Does Sri Lanka Matter?" - A stated priority of the Modi government is ‘Neighbourhood First’. For any major power, keeping the neighbourhood on side is important, or it can be used by geopolitical rivals to hem you in. China has been on a mission to draw India’s neighbours into its own sphere of influence over the past few years with a rather high degree of (initial) success, ie: the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, etc.

Also Read: Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Needs India More than Ever Before

The Bad Blood

New Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is the younger brother of ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who Gotabaya swiftly appointed as Lanka’s new Prime Minister as his first order of business. Gotabaya was Mahinda’s secretary of defence during his reign as president, and the brothers are considered heroes in the country for bringing the 26-year civil war against the Tamil Tiger insurgency to an end.

But the Rajapaksas have been credibly accused by international human rights organisations of committing war crimes in the final days of the crackdown on the separatists.

To begin with, it was the Sinhalese Rajapaksas’ heavy-handed treatment of their Tamil minority that led to the friction with India – in 2013, the Manmohan Singh government boycotted the Commonwealth Summit held in Sri Lanka over allegations that Mahinda was cracking down on critics and refusing to investigate the alleged war crimes committed by Lankan forces.

Also Read: Why Delhi Must Act to Align Interests With Sri Lanka Prez’s Vision

The other reason for strained relations was that the Sri Lankan government took on predatory Chinese loans in order to develop the strategically important Hambantota Port, but only after India refused funds due to unfavourable feasibility studies. After that, the Rajapaksa government inflamed matters by allowing Chinese submarines to dock at the port in 2014, over India’s objections.

And the trouble isn’t one-sided either – talking to reporters in 2017, long after Mahinda had been unseated, Gotabaya accused India of affecting regime change in Sri Lanka because it had a “bee in its bonnet” about China, reported The Hindu.

Advantage, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka finds itself in the (arguably) enviable position that India once enjoyed – playing two big powers against each other for maximum benefit, or strategic non-alignment. With Sri Lanka’s location amidst crucial shipping lanes, having the island nation on side would be an asset that both India and China are keen to develop.

To do that, with a government in power that has dallied with China and now commits itself to ‘neutrality’ in this tug-of-war, India will have to be deft.

India will no longer be able to play to the domestic gallery on Sri Lanka’s alleged human rights violations – not least because it stands accused of them itself in Kashmir.

And Gotabaya has been shrewd, saying in an interview to The Hindu that if countries have a problem with Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, well, they’ll have to put their money where their mouth is.

What’s India Got That China Doesn’t?

So the question arises, what does India have to offer than China doesn’t? The Rajapaksas have already gotten wise to China’s debt-trap diplomacy, even if they publicly deny that their nation became embroiled in it because of loans taken under Mahinda’s regime. They do acknowledge, however, that Hambantota should never have been leased to the Chinese, since it is a ‘strategic asset’.

So while China may be refreshingly transactional for rulers who have been battered by international opprobrium, the downsides are equally clear.

The upside for India is that its development assistance usually doesn’t come with major strings attached in the way China’s does, and relationships based on friendliness and fraternity rather than on financial calculations do tend to be more secure – something PM Modi is clearly aware of.

On the other hand, India also has a reputation for delayed developmental projects, slow release of funds and, with history as an indicator, a tendency to moralise.

The Modi government will have to convince Gotabaya that on those metrics, India can change.

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