India reciprocated enthusiastically to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s promise that he would strive to elevate Indo – Sri Lanka relations to the highest level possible during his tenure of office.
President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Narendra Modi held discussions at the majestic Hyderabad House, former Palace of Nizam of Hyderabad, now the Prime Minister’s State Guest House. This memorable meeting laid a firm foundation to achieve the objective of taking the ties between India and Sri Lanka to a new high.
It is significant that the two leaders reiterated their absolute commitment to keep the Indian Ocean free and peaceful. They also agreed to enhance security cooperation as both countries are faced with the threat of Islam terrorism. Premier Modi announced a US$ 400 million loan and set apart US$ 50 million for strengthening intelligence and security agencies in Sri Lanka.
Addressing the joint media briefing, President Rajapaksa noted that his meeting with Premier Modi was very cordial and reassuring adding that several important issues were discussed. National security took priority during the discussion according to President Rajapaksa as he revealed that India has pledged to support the enhancement of Sri Lanka’s intelligence and counter-terrorism capabilities through a $50 million line of credit. The President noted that Sri Lanka has had to rethink its national security strategies after the incidents that transpired in April and that India’s assistance would be appreciated.
India analysts pointed out that both Premier Modi and President Rajapaksa would agree fully on the danger to both nations from religious extremism and terrorism. Two leaders share the security-dependent approach to countering terrorism.
President Rajapaksa went onto note that while Sri Lanka’s cooperation with India is multi-faceted, initiatives for cooperation with other countries are “by and large economic and commercial.” The President also pledged to work closely with India to ensure that the Indian Ocean remains a zone of peace.
This is in line with President Rajapaksa’s policy of enhancing regional security though effective cooperation through multilateral bodies such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Earlier he referred to requirements for national and regional security and said he would foster better understanding with India, SAARC and BIMSTEC countries on regional security.
While thanking Premier Modi for his positive responses to many of the initiatives proposed to enhance Sri Lanka’s economy, President Rajapaksa stated that their discussions also involves how the countries could work together on matters of economic importance as well as how Sri Lanka could benefit from certain economic sectors where India is strongly positioned. The President also thanked India for extending a $400 million line of credit to improve infrastructure and economy in Sri Lanka.
‘Neighbourhood First’ policy
Prime Minister Modi, addressing the briefing noted that, “A strong Sri Lanka is not only in the interest of India but that of the entire Indian Ocean region,” adding, “Sri Lanka and India share a strong bond. We give priority to our relations with Sri Lanka under our ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.”
The Indian premier also stated that he believes the Sri Lanka government will take forward the procedure of reconciliation to fulfill ambitions of equality, justice, peace and respect of Tamils.
Commenting on the discussions, the respected Indian Express newspaper stated that both sides have hopefully learnt much from their past mistakes and will find a new balance in the relationship. “The central question is about managing proximity that imposes inextricable interdependence, for both good and bad. For Gotabaya, the challenge is to be mindful of the sensitivities of its larger neighbour. For Modi, it is about respecting the sovereignty of its smaller neighbour,” Indian Express editorial said.
One of the major irritants in bilateral relations is the vexed question of illegal fishing in Sri Lankan waters by South Indian fishermen. President Rajapaksa stated that the matter relating to fishermen was also taken up for discussion and that a decision was reached to release all the Indian boats currently in Sri Lankan custody.
Earlier in the day, President Rajapaksa held discussions with Indian President Ram Nath Kovind. While congratulating the new President of Sri Lanka, the Indian President said this visit marks a milestone in strong friendship between the two countries.
President Kovind commended the new vision of governance introduced by President Rajapaksa and pledged his country’s fullest cooperation towards Sri Lanka.
Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar commended the decision by President Rajapaksa to select India as his first overseas State visit since assuming duties. While expressing his hopes that this visit will further cement the long standing relationship between Sri Lanka and India as neighbouring countries, the Indian Foreign Minister pledged his government’s fullest cooperation to the new Sri Lankan government.
Indo – Lanka relations
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during the media briefing that the two governments expected to take Indo – Lanka relations towards a new era with a rejuvenated approach to enhance economic development for mutual benefits.
Commenting on the business cooperation between the two countries, the Indian Minister Jaishankar said quality governance is a prerequisite for sound collaboration. This will facilitate the influx of foreign investment, he added.
Indian media believe the visit resulted in a personnel rapport between PM Modi and President Rajapaksa. “After all, the new Sri Lanka, the one that has elected Gota, has modelled itself after the new India. In its majoritarian sweep, Gota’s victory is a mirror of the Bharatiya Janatha Party’s victory in India,” one analyst said.
Sri Lanka’s relationship with China was of concern to India. However, President Rajapakasa clarified in his first address itself that, China is a close economic partner.
Of the ten policy facets unleashed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election manifesto, the first is ‘Priority to national security’ and the second is ‘Friendly and non-aligned foreign policy’.
India too reciprocated by stating that the relations with Sri Lanka, or for that matter with any neighbouring country, are independent of India’s 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,” New Delhi assured.
After assurance of close cooperation President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Modi agreed to take the cooperation forward. President Rajapaksa invited PM Modi to visit Sri Lanka. Indian Prime Minister would possibly become the first head of Government to arrive in Sri Lanka after the Presidential election. That visit would be another milestone in a new relationship between India and Sri Lanka.