“The first visit abroad by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to India has its own symbolic significance, translating into a diplomatic gesture his statement to the External Affairs Minister, Subramanium Jaishankar that while China is a trade partner, India is a relative.”
This was stated by Kanwal Sibal, doyen of Indian diplomats, putting the significance of the President’s visit to New Delhi within two weeks from electing to power.
New Delhi was pleased to take note of President Rajapaksa’s statement after victory reaffirming that he will be the President of all Sri Lankans without creating
a distinction on whether they voted for him or not, and that he is committed to ensuring the development of the Northern and Eastern Provinces in partnership with India.
This was in the backdrop of possible Western pressure on the new Government on human rights issues could place India in a delicate position.
New Delhi has, conveyed to President Rajapaksa India’s expectation that his Government will proceed with national reconciliation, with a solution that meets Tamil aspirations.
India always acknowledged that the Tamil question is a sensitive one in bilateral relations. The Presidential Election pointed to a political polarisation in Sri Lanka,
with the Sinhala community voting in great majority for Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Tamil and Muslim communities in the North and the East voting overwhelmingly for Sajith Premadasa of the New Democratic Front (NDF).
One of India’s major concerns was Sri Lanka’s close ties with China. Indian foreign policy analysts say the competition thrust by China on India in Sri Lanka will not abate in the years ahead.
They feel Sri Lanka is a lynchpin in China’s Indian Ocean maritime strategy. However, they are pragmatic about limitations of influence. “We have seen how much more powerful countries than India,
such as the USA, fail to get their way in their sphere of influence, whether in Cuba in the past and Venezuela today, not to mention the election of a left-leaning
candidate as the President of Mexico earlier this year,” former Foreign Secretary, Kanwal Sibal, First Grand Doctor of Philosophy in India pointed out.
New Delhi agreed that bilateral relations are independent of third country ties. “Our relations with Sri Lanka, or for that matter with any neighbouring country,
are independent of our relations with third countries. Our multifaceted relationship with Sri Lanka stands on its own footing and is rooted in our geographical proximity and historical connections,” India stated.
Strategic bilateral ties
President Rajapaksa held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take effective measures to deepen strategic bilateral ties. He also called on President Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.
Prime Minister Modi pledged that he was looking forward to work closely with the Sri Lankan Government for deepening bilateral relations and for the peace, prosperity and security of the region.
A host of issues including stability in the Indian Ocean region, economic cooperation and the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka figured during the talks.
Indian analysts also expressed appreciation over President Rajapaksa’s statement that Sri Lanka would not engage or allow any activity which will threaten the security of India and that they understand the importance of the Indian concerns.
The President said Sri Lanka will not do anything that will harm India’s security interests and requested the Indian Government to help in investments, education and also the development of technology.
Indian experts accepted that Sri Lanka will continue to need investment to revitalise its economy.
While India will play its part and assist Sri Lanka, India has financial limitations. Hence, Sri Lanka will continue to look to Beijing. India has diplomatic handicaps in Sri Lanka that China does not, Indian analysts said.
The overall development portfolio of India in Sri Lanka currently stands at $3 billion, of which $560 million are in grants. India is also a key investor in Sri Lanka with total investments in sectors like IT, real estate, financial services,
telecommunications, hospitality and tourism, banking, food processing, copper and other metal industries, tyres, cement and others standing at $1.239 billion.
“Yet India’s investment in Sri Lanka pales in comparison to China which has invested an estimated $11 billion, of which about $8 billion is in the form of loans granted under the Belt and Road Initiative,” economic analyst Shankar Kumar said.
He pointed out that with the Rajapaksas at the top of Sri Lanka’s administrative pyramid, there was a fear in India that China will find it easy to increase its influence in political, diplomatic and strategic affairs of the island nation.
“This fear has been scotched by the new Sri Lankan President as he stated that his country’s engagement with China is purely commercial.
President Rajapaksa invited India, Singapore, Japan and Australia to come and invest in Sri Lanka and added that “‘don’t allow only China to invest,” Shankar Kumar concluded his comment.
Indian media hailed the success of the visit, which had taken place following “India’s particularly swift outreach to the region’s newest leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a military man-turned-bureaucrat, who entered politics with a Presidential bid and won with a decisive mandate”.