Why Modi Travels: How India turned Sri Lanka away from China within months of Modi’s swearing in

To understand what Narendra Modi government has done in terms of foreign policy, one needs to go into the story of complex relations between Sri Lanka, China and India and how India has very smartly changed the entire direction and nuance of the relationship.

Ex President Mahinda Rajapaksa was a major figure to wean Sri Lanka towards China and away from India and the West (specifically US).  In the last decade, it seemed very clear that China had check-mated India’s role in Sri Lanka and become the major stakeholder in foreign relations.  Besides this, Rajapaksa, the wily and shrewd politician, was also involved in War Crimes against the Tamilians.

Both India and the U.S. had a stormy relationship with Rajapaksa, who crushed a decades-long rebellion by the Tamil minority in 2009. India, which has a large Tamil population, and the U.S. supported a campaign to have the United Nations Human Rights Council investigate alleged war crimes by the Rajapaksa regime. The Chinese offered Rajapaksa military and diplomatic assistance during the war.

With his bloody hands, Rajapaksa had changed the constitution and was getting ready for a third term, when his own former Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena revolted.  Sirisena launched a successful campaign against the authoritarian Rajapaksa.  And won!  This was despite Rajapaksa’s attempt to use Indian Bollywood actor Salman Khan to campaign for him in elections.

Days before the vote, Bollywood megastar Salman Khan showed up to campaign for Rajapaksa in a move reportedly orchestrated by the president’s son.

It was only last year that Rajapaksa had snubbed India in a big way by inviting Chinese nuclear submarines to dock at a Lankan port.  Twice!  This was in the face of the Indian protests against this intervention of China in the Indian Ocean waters.

Despite India’s strong reservations about a Chinese nuclear submarine at the Colombo port in September, the government has learned that Sri Lanka has permitted another Chinese attack submarine to dock at a Lankan port.

According to the information received, the second docking is likely to take place very soon.

The presence of Chinese submarines across Palk Straits has deeply disturbed the government which is making another call to Lankan authorities, this time to convey strong displeasure. The news of a second Chinese submarine docking in Sri Lanka comes days after the visit of Vietnam PM Nguyen Tan Dung to India and in complete disregard of India’s message to Lankan defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa earlier this month.

Quite simply, Manmohan Singh led Congress government in India was but a mute spectator to what was happening between Sri Lanka and China at the expense of India’s interests in the Indian Ocean.

Interestingly, the new incumbent – a reluctant leader of sorts – was brought in by the opposition at the last moment to make the elections a referendum against Rajapaksa.

In a result unthinkable just weeks ago, Rajapaksa lost to his former friend and health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, who defected from the ruling party and turned the election into a referendum on the president and the enormous power he wields over the island nation of 21 million.

So, one thing is clear – the rear guard action against Rajapaksa happened just weeks or a few months before the elections.  It was a very short term action plan that succeeded.  To accomplish this two important things happened:

  1. Ex President Chandrika Kumaratunga not just convinced Sirisena to stand for President, but she also campaigned for his success within her support base.
  2. Former PM Ranil Wickremasinghe was convinced not to stand for the elections in support of Sirisena.

Interestingly, Rajapaksa’s government had expelled R&AW’s Colombo station chief just days before the elections alleging that he was involved in helping the opposition against Rajapaksa.

An Indian official said the RAW agent was recalled after complaints that he had worked with Sri Lanka’s usually fractious opposition parties to agree on a joint contender for the election. Then, he was accused of facilitating meetings to encourage several lawmakers, among them Sirisena, to defect from Rajapaksa’s party, the official said.

The agent was accused of playing a role in convincing the main leader of the opposition and former prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe not to contest against Rajapaksa in the election and stand aside for someone who could be sure of winning, said the officer and a Sri Lankan lawmaker who also maintains close contacts with India.

The agent was also in touch with former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was a key player in convincing Sirisena to stand, said the officer and the lawmaker, who also confirmed that the agent had been asked to leave.

“They actively were involved, talking to Ranil, getting those things organised, talking to Chandrika,” the lawmaker told Reuters.

This was right after India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) chief Ajit Doval – and the right hand man of Narendra Modi in all things international – had visited Sri Lanka to deliver a keynote on meet on Maritime Security.  In that visit, he had had formal meetings with Sirisena and Kumaratunga.

Although the Indian National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval, will be in Sri Lanka on December 1 and 2 primarily to give the keynote address at a meet on maritime security, public attention will be on the talks he is expected to have with the combined opposition’s Presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena and the latter’s principal supporter, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Propped up by the opposition United National Party (UNP), the Sirisena-Kumaratunga duo wants to split incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), capture the Lankan Presidency in the January 8, 2015 election and carry out far reaching constitutional changes to restore democracy.

“Doval will meet Sirisena and Kumaratunga together on Monday. He will be meeting the UNP leaders separately the same evening,” a UNP MP told Express on Saturday.

The NSA will meet the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and possibly the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress also. Talks with President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa will take place on Tuesday before he flies to the Maldives.

The final result of the elections ultimately went against Rajapaksa as the Sirisena-Kumaratunga combine won the elections against all odds.  So did Indian team influence the Lankan elections?  Well, this commenter on Quora puts it best:

My understanding of the 2015 Sri Lankan presidential election results is that they were a predictable result of a mobilized non-Sinhalese electorate in the north and east of the island voting against a presidential candidate closely linked with a strong Sinhalese nationalism. It’s imaginable, I suppose, that Indian support mobilized this electorate and got it to vote, instead of sitting out the election, but it doesn’t seem as if Indian support was actually necessary.

It was something that was ripe to happen.  It was made to happen.

Sirisena becomes the President and Change starts

Just hours after the results were announced on Jan 9, 2015, the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo YK Sinha took a large bouquet of flowers for the Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.  The Chinese ambassador was able to meet Sirisena only 6 days later.  That defined the future for China and India in Sri Lanka.

Why Modi Travels: How India turned Sri Lanka away from China @narendramodi Click To Tweet

Of course, President Sirisena’s first official state visit was to India in February.  That visit underscored two things – Change in the attitude of India towards Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka’s new commitment to their Tamil population.

“Earlier, though it was not displayed openly, there was quite a bit of antipathy from India toward the Rajapaksa regime,” Sahadevan said. “That’s gone.”

Sirisena has also pledged to grant autonomy to the island’s former northern war zone where members of the country’s ethnic Tamil minority predominantly live, part of an agreement with India that the Rajapaksa government failed to fulfill.

Over the past few months, the entire China focused policy of the previous regime of Sri Lanka has been reversed.  What we see now is a new direction of Sri Lankan foreign policy and interlocks.  Some indicators:

  • The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport opened in 2013, with an investment of $200 million by the Chinese is now as good as defunct with only ONE flight daily flight of FlyDubai out of it.  In fact, the state-owned SriLankan Airlines has canceled all its flights out of that airport.
  • In March, when Modi visited Sri Lanka he unveiled plans to fund power plants and rail roads with a huge investment set to counter Chinese funding of the island’s infrastructure.
  • Sri Lanka and India agreed on a $1.5 billion currency swap that would moderate volatility in Sri Lanka’s rupee.

Lesson – Invest wisely!

The tale of how China approached Sri Lanka relations and how Modi’s government approached the whole situation is an interesting one.  China – with its brute financial power and aggression – wanted to simply acquire Sri Lanka as their vassal state.  Something that they have done with Pakistan.  Once China was well entrenched and working with an authoritarian dictator like Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s future was bleak.

India approached the situation completely differently.  First, undeterred by the seemingly hopeless situation of China’s ascendancy in Sri Lanka, India focused on taking out the “Strongest link” of Chinese bulwark in Sri Lanka.  Take out their agent and have another one – more open to the world and more equitable and democratic person – who represents the nation’s voice – lead the country.  India threw their weight behind Sirisena and a whole gamut of opposition parties who had been devastated by Rajapaksa.

What emerged is a complete sidelining of the Chinese and their aggressive policy.  Least effort in the right direction at the right time can completely upset the whole host of strategems based on billions on the back of a malafide cart.

And, for the Indian analysts who love to complain about Modi’s foreign trips – try some other vocation please.  You seem to be either ignorant or sold like Rajapaksa.  You decide.


Featured Image source: Flickr


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