India, following the re-election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the family’s consolidation of power, is keeping a close watch on any move by the regime to undermine Delhi’s security and economic interests in the island nation as well as the Indian Ocean Region, the Economic Times (ET) reported.
While the Rajapaksas have traditionally been close to the Chinese, President Gotabaya, younger brother of the PM, has refrained from taking any measure so far to harm Indian interests after being elected as President in 2019. However, all eyes are now on the elder Rajapaksa Mahinda, the current Prime Minster, who as a President had strengthened ties with Beijing, persons familiar with the matter told ET.
China wants to develop Sri Lanka as an anchor for its Indian Ocean outreach but this has security implications for India ranging from Hambantota Port to Chinese submarines in Lankan waters.
“India does not expect Sri Lanka to dilute its ties with China but at the same time hope that no step based on the huge electoral mandate is initiated to undermine Delhi’s security interests,” a watcher of Indo-Lankan ties told ET. New Delhi, on its part, will continue to support development-related and infra projects in the island nation based on local requirements. The government here moved swiftly even before poll results were formally announced with PM Narendra Modi becoming the first leader to congratulate Mahinda Rajapaksa and reinforce shared Buddhist heritage.
Indian envoy to Sri Lanka, Gopal Baglay, became the first foreign diplomat to call on the newly-elected PM to discuss future plans of cooperation. Indian naval base in Goa last week repaired a Sri Lankan air force plane, which had developed a snag, in what won huge praises in Colombo.
The 2019 terror attacks in Lanka have brought the two sides closer in the fight against cross-border terror and radical forces, according to Lanka watchers. Even when he was the lame duck PM, Mahinda was hosted by India as part of outreach to the ruling leadership in the Southern neighbour, recalled one of the persons quoted above. India’s total development assistance portfolio in Sri Lanka now exceeds $3.45 billion, of which $560 million is in the form of grant assistance. The assistance programmes across Sri Lankan districts focus on capacity building, human resources development, connectivity, as well as infrastructure development.
These span a wide range of areas from cultural conservation (restoration of the Thiruketheeswaram temple) to construction of iconic landmarks (Jaffna Cultural Centre) to enhancing connectivity (restoration of railway lines). A unique nature of these projects is their people-centric nature, benefiting the common citizens in meaningful ways, according to officials.
The Indian Housing Project to construct 50,000 houses in Sri Lanka is India’s flagship and largest grant assistance project in Sri Lanka. Over 48,600 houses have been constructed under the project so far. China, unsure of electoral outcome, cultivated a wide array of Sri Lankan political parties ahead of the general elections on August 5, a break from its earlier practice of backing one party in each of India’s neighbouring countries.
ET has reliably gathered that Chinese emissaries held closed door, behind-the-scenes meetings with Lankan political leaders across parties ahead of the polls.
In 2015 in Sri Lanka and later in 2018 in the Maldives, Beijing was taken by surprise when its favourites lost polls in both these countries. Shocked by the 2015 presidential poll results in Lanka, Beijing decided to cultivate powerful Buddhist clergy in the island nation, ET has learnt. China accounts for 10% of Sri Lanka’s external debt of $55 billion.