Why India Must ‘Win Back’ Sri Lanka Before China Casts Its Spell

Will Sri Lanka follow an ‘India First’ policy with regard to its strategic security?

7 min read

The stunning results of the parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka on 5 August are likely to break the prophecy of President Junius Jayewardene – in whose term, his party United National Party’s (UNP) victory of 5/6ths majority, resulted in the constitution of 1978 – that no mortal will be able to dismantle it.

In the Proportional Representation system, a two-thirds majority is deemed unlikely if not impossible. The newly-minted Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), under two-time former President and three times former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has achieved that feat by winning 18 of 22 districts with nearly three times more votes than its nearest rival Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), a breakaway faction of the UNP.

That SLPP would win the election was never in doubt after it swept local elections in 2018 and the landslide election of President of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s younger brother, in 2019. Another Rajapaksa brother, Basil, who strategised the election, had predicted 130 seats –– but Mahinda was confident of cobbling the two-thirds number to install a strong government to replace the ‘revolving door’ system.

Even the parliamentary success in 2010, after winning the war against the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, was not as astounding as the present achievement.

The election was free and fair and with least violence under the COVID-19 cloud. India can draw some lessons from its conduct for its own elections later this year and next year.


President Gotabaya’s Track Record

It is the margin of victory – 151 seats with allies and two thirds majority – that is surprising. This is the first time that two brothers are president and prime minister after the Kaczynski twins in Poland scored that rarity in 2002. The SLPP slogan – two thirds majority for strong government – was multiplied by UNP absenteeism and dismal performance of the UNP and SLFP unity government which saw rampant corruption, mis-governance and the Easter Sunday terror tragedy. The electorate was attracted to SLPP by the decisive image of two war-winning brothers whose manifesto was couched in Buddhist Sinhala ideology.

The record of President Gotabaya, through his military style of governance during six months of his term, although in a constitutional vacuum – no Parliament and caretaker government – was nothing short of stupendous, though as former Army Colonel he was accused for militarising government institutions.

He established several task forces led by the military and concentrated all intelligence and operational powers under his charge. The president, it was alleged, was running the government with two other Gajaba Regiment mates, the CDS and Army Commander, Lt Gen Shavindra Silva and Defence Secretary Maj Gen (retd) Kamal Gunaratne, whose division bumped off Prabhakaran near Nandikadal lagoon on 19 May 2009. Incidentally, all three officers are under a UN war crimes cloud.

Gotabaya’s trust in the army and the military’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic was the illustration of his belief in military order, discipline and efficiency. This display of effective governance has proved a balm following the Islamic terrorist attacks inspired by ISIS in 2019.

What 19th Amendment to Sri Lankan Constitution Means To The Rajapaksas

The two grand old parties, SLFP and UNP have been wiped out – SLFP winning just one seat and that too from the Tamil stronghold Jaffa and UNP surviving in name by one seat secured on the National List. Another surprise was the change in voting pattern among minority Tamils and Muslims in the northeast, many of whom voted not for the traditional TNA but other Tamil parties linked to government. The main opposition will now be SJB led by Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The cabinet has five Rajapaksas: Gotabaya, Mahinda, Chamal, the eldest brother; his and Mahinda’s siblings Shasheendra and Namal, the last two as junior ministers.

The Rajapaksas sought a two-thirds majority in order to repeal 19A – the 19th Amendment to the Constitution – which, according to the brothers, was meant to victimise their regime, prevent their re-election (a euphemism for a third term for Mahinda as President), and ensure a weak and unstable government.

19A, which was passed in 2015 by 251 lawmakers – with just one dissenting vote – has sought to take away some powers from the president and redistribute them to the prime minister and parliament. It is believed that totally repealing 19A will be difficult.

The Rajapaksas are also considering a new Constitution which was half-heartedly attempted by the previous government.

The worry for India is the effort to erase 13A, a commitment to minority Tamils on power-sharing, that has appeared in most joint statements – though New Delhi is unlikely to press Colombo for its implementation.

The Rajapaksas have always favoured development to devolution.


Plummeting Sri Lanka Economy

The priority for the government is to revive the economy which former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera has described as the “worst situation since independence”. While Sri Lanka was growing for the last decade at around 5.7 percent of the GDP it has declined to negative – 3 percent recession. Remittances and tourism, the life blood of the economy, have plummeted due to COVID-19. Job-creation is another major task for the government. The country’s total debt is USD 55 bn, which is 80 percent of GDP. Of this, the debt to China is around USD 5 bn plus other repayments to China Development Bank. This year, Lanka has to repay USD 2.9 bn. Colombo has requested New Delhi for two currency swaps and debt deferment. A USD 400 mn swap under the aegis of SAARC has been realised, and a USD 1.1 bn swap is being negotiated.

India has provided a line of credit of USD 450 mn of which 50 mn is a grant for counter-terrorism.

Maintaining internal security and social cohesion will be a top concern for the government. Sri Lanka has seen all shades of radicalisation: Sinhalese extremism through two JVP uprisings, Tamil revolt by LTTE, and Islamic fundamentalism during the Easter Sunday attacks. Protecting Muslim, Tamil and Christian minorities against Sinhalese majoritarianism will be paramount.

Clearly, Sri Lanka’s economic requirements will drive its foreign policy for the foreseeable future.


Why India Is Worried About Losing Sri Lanka

India has two strategic neighbours: Nepal in the north, and Sri Lanka in the south. Kathmandu seems to have slipped out of New Delhi’s control for the time being with a Communist government enjoying overwhelming political mandate under Beijing’s patronage. India is worried about losing Sri Lanka – which could return under China’s spell – with the Rajapaksas back in power. Patching up with the Rajapaksas is thus vital for strategic security concerns after Mahinda accused India of ‘involvement’ in his 2015 electoral defeat.

PM Narendra Modi kept some eggs in Mahinda’s basket and met him twice when he was out of power.

So when Gotabaya was elected President, India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar made an air-dash to Colombo to invite him to New Delhi. Now even before election results have been declared, Modi has gone ahead and congratulated Mahinda for successfully conducting the elections, and his victory.

Sri Lanka’s veteran diplomat Austin Fernando observed: “Roles have been reversed. Previously, Sri Lanka’s leaders used to flock to New Delhi to seek its blessings.” Indian ambassador Gopal Bagley became the first foreign envoy to meet Mahinda before his swearing-in, and invited the Rajapaksas to be the first guests to fly to the new Kushinagar (final resting place of Lord Buddha) international airport once an air bubble is created.


Will Sri Lanka Really Follow An ‘India First’ Security Policy?

The Rajapaksas have described relations with India as between relatives, brothers and blood relations, while that with other countries are friends. After the election of President Gotabaya, Basil had said that Sri Lanka would look up to India for security, and China for economic development.

That alignment has been repeated by the crafters of the new regime and confirmed last week by the new Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanth Colombage – who asserted within 24 hours of his appointment last week – that Sri Lanka would follow an ‘India First’ strategic security policy, and would not allow use of its soil or territorial waters for activities inimical to India’.

Although India was not a factor in the elections, it has been at the receiving end of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. This is sometimes attributed to the Chola complex which has diminished after the comprehensive defeat of the LTTE and the reduced strategic relevance of India, but residual anti-India sentiments linger.

India’s inability to provide Sri Lanka with war-fighting stores due to the Tamil Nadu factor during the war, brought in both Pakistan and China who became willing suppliers.

Still, the brothers have acknowledged India’s assistance (Gotabaya calls it ‘managing India’ and Mahinda recognises New Delhi’s moral and material support) in winning the war. The revived Sinhala nationalism is manifest in the resistance to India’s participation in operating Sri Lanka’s national assets like Eastern Colombo Terminal in Colombo port, Mattala airport and Trincomalee oil tank farms, even as these are under G to G agreements with past governments. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 (ISLA) embargoes the use of Trincomalee harbour by a foreign power inimical to India.


The defence and security ties are comprehensive with a multi-layered tri-service interaction and strategic dialogue. Colombo is privileged to be allocated more than half of India’s military training programme vacancies for foreign countries. Along with Maldives, the two countries share a trilateral maritime partnership. India’s red lines cross the use of Trincomalee-Colombo-Hambantota ports as military facilities for its adversaries, given that Sri Lanka sits across vital sea lanes of communication accessing the Malacca Straits – known as China’s ‘dilemma’.

Why China’s Support Is Vital For Sri Lanka

China’s deep pockets have enabled its preponderance in infrastructure activities without attracting Sri Lankan ire, despite its clandestine funding of Buddhist clergy, political parties especially the ruling party and other institutions.

China pledged USD 500 mn loan for fighting COVID-19 and gifted a Type 053 frigate (a class of Chinese ships).

China’s support is vital for Sri Lanka in the UNSC over human rights issues, especially when 10 human rights organisations recently targeted it for authoritarianism and militarising institutions. Pakistan is also a long-standing security partner, and Sri Lanka has always posted a military officer as its High Commissioner in Islamabad.


India Must Enhance Outreach To Buddhist Clergy

The assurances given to India over its security concerns are real, given New Delhi’s record of interventions across the Palk Straits. Still, India needs to create more strategic space by enhancing outreach to the powerful Buddhist clergy and appointing BJP MP Subramaniam Swamy – who is especially close to Mahinda – as special envoy for Sri Lanka.

(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founding member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. He was Commander of Indian Peace-Keeping Forces, Sri Lanka (South). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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