resident of Sri Lanka, Gotabya Rajapaksa
resident of Sri Lanka, Gotabya Rajapaksa

Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted with some satisfaction that the newly-elected President of Sri Lanka, Gotabya Rajapaksa, chose to make his first official visit to India. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar had visited Colombo within days of Gotabya’s election, inviting him to India. The two-day visit of the Sri Lankan leader last week helped in reassuring New Delhi that the new regime in Sri Lanka was keen to adopt a balanced approach in its relations with its immediate neighbour, discarding the clear pro-China tilt of the earlier government headed by Gotabya’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa. In hindsight, the pro-China tilt could be explained by the Rajapaksas, the current President then was Defence Minister in his elder brother’s government, because India could not, would not, be seen helping it with arms and ammunition to prosecute the war against the LTTE. Both China and Pakistan exercised much influence on the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa government because they felt no affinity to the large Tamil minority in the North and East of the island nation. In the process, Sri Lanka granted China several commercial and strategic concessions. Its failure to service the debt eventually led it to give China the control of the strategic Hambanthota port and several other projects. Although the last coalition government did try to correct the pro-China tilt, and there is now a backlash among the educated Sri Lankans against the growing influence of China, there is fear that the return of the Rajapaksas at the helm in Colombo might result in further Chinese intrusion into the country’s affairs. That the newly-elected President made his first official visit to New Delhi, thus, held significance. Of course, Inpdia cannot match China in financial assistance or supply of defence armaments, but it made a conscious effort to extend cooperation to the beleaguered neighbour, hit further by the sharp drop in tourism following Easter terror attacks. India undertook to give $ 50 million in aid and an additional $400 million in development on Gotabaya’s visit. India’s concern about the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka was sought to be addressed by the new President. Though it is true that the Tamilians did not vote for Rajapaksa, given that as Defence Minister in his brother’s government, the Tamilians were subjected untold atrocities at the time of war against LTTE, it is not in Sri Lanka’s interest to neglect a sizeable section of its people and risk a revival of the demand for Tamil Eelam. India sought urgent steps for improving the life of the people in North and East of Sri Lanka who were neglected by successive regimes in Colombo. Also, Sri Lanka has been obstructing implementation of various infrastructure projects undertaken by Indian companies in sharp contrast to the automatic approval for those being executed by China. Hopefully, Gotabya’s talks with Modi would result in better cooperation between the two countries. Given the close affinity between the Tamilians of the two neighbouring counties India has a stake in the peaceful development of Sri Lanka. India also received assurances from the visiting dignitary regarding its security interests vis-à-vis the Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. Having learnt the lessons from past mistakes when India and Sri Lanka for a brief period were on a collision course during the Indira Gandhi Government, the two countries with shared interests and close ties have to put their relationship once on an even keel. The first ever foreign visit by the newly-elected Gotabya Rajapaksa gives reason for optimism on that score.

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