Describe the current state of India-Sri Lanka ties in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa becoming the new Sri Lankan President and how can India repair those ties in order to maximize our interests?

Published: December 3, 2019

Following the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President of Sri Lanka, the Indian foreign establishment in New Delhi has moved quickly and taken certain measures to repair the damages to India-Sri Lanka ties and to get ahead of the Chinese in the race to be Sri Lanka’s preferred partner in the world.  

India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar broke the tradition and took to Colombo to meet with the new president. The tradition before used to be that the newly elected Sri Lankan leader would be the one to make a trip to New Delhi for their first official visit abroad. This tradition was described as “doing puja to Delhi”.

Minister Jaishankar reversed this and paid a visit to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Minister’s visit was seen as New Delhi doing its best to beat the Chinese. 

After the return of the Minister,  New Delhi put out a statement declaring that it’s in Sri Lanka’s interest to ensure a timely, peaceful and amicable solution to the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka. 

Both of these developments clearly signal that India is ready to go all out in order to repair its relations with Sri Lanka and with the Rajapaksa family itself, but New Delhi would not hesitate to utilize the Tamil issue as an instrument to prevent any pivot towards Beijing by Sri Lanka.

However, using the Tamil issue with Gota will be a problem. The president has made it clear that he does not care about those who don’t vote for him and Tamils didn’t vote for him because of their memories of the civil war, Gota was the architect of LTTE’s military defeat. His 51-member cabinet, has 49 Sinhalese, two Tamils and no Muslims.

As China expanded its Belt and Road Infrastructure campaign New Delhi got cold feet and put the Tamil question on the backburner over the past few years. During a 2015 visit to Jaffna, 1st Indian PM to visit Jaffna, advised the Tamil community to be “patient” with the new government. 

However, 2019 is not 2015 the Chinese have gotten engaged in an unwinnable trade war with the Americans, and are experiencing massive economic problems. New Delhi now has plenty of options-

Delhi could appoint a Tamil as the next High Commissioner to Colombo. Such an action has never been done before and it would send a strong signal about Delhi’s resolve in dealing with Sri Lanka.

India’s pockets may not be as deep as China’s but when dealing with a small country like Sri Lanka there isn’t really a lot of capital that can be deployed before it becomes wasteful. India’s LOC of 400 million dollars is a good start and our ability to deploy capital more successfully when compared to China also gives a bigger bang for our buck. The abandoned airport at Hambantota is a good example.

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