The return of Mahinda Rajapaksa to power in Sri Lanka has been the subject of speculation for some time. The question was when and how.
In 2015, India lent its influence to broker a coalition between Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe to remove Rajapaksa from office. This came after Rajapaksa had given China strategic entry into Sri Lanka, by leasing out Hambantota port to them, allowing them to build Colombo port, allowing China to dock its submarines in Sri Lanka and generally allowing Sri Lanka to become a poster child for China’s famed “debt trap diplomacy”.
In the past three months as trouble grew within Sri Lanka’s ruling alliance, all three major players have stopped by Delhi to lobby for Indian support. The latest was Ranil Wickremesinghe who arrived to meet Modi last week, days after Sirisena had dramatically accused RAW of trying to assassinate him.
Sirisena himself met Modi for a long chat on the sidelines of the BIMSTEC summit in Nepal. In September, Rajapaksa himself came to India on an invitation by BJP MP Subramanian Swamy, who, on Friday, just stopped short of claiming credit for Rajapaksa’s return. Rajapaksa’s meeting with Modi was not his first after losing power though. During both his visits to Sri Lanka, Modi has made time for Rajapaksa, which was surprising given how he turned Sri Lanka into a Chinese asset. But even before his recent visit, Rajapaksa sent G L Peiris, former foreign minister and currently spokesperson for his new political outfit, to India to mend ties.
India has reason to worry about Rajapaksa’s return and China has reason to feel a sense of anticipation. Rajapaksa’s tenure saw China taking a big chunk of South Asia from India’s sphere of influence.
The old anti-India rhetoric has made its way back into Sri Lankan discourse recently. Last week, Mahinda Samarasinghe, ports minister declared they would not hand over Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) to India, in contravention of a 2017 agreement. India is also scheduled to get other important projects like the Trincomalee oil tank farms, Palaly airport in Jaffna, Mattala airport in Hambantota and LNG terminal in Kerawalapitiya outside Colombo. In a rare victory, Indian companies wrested back a housing project in the north from a Chinese private sector entity.
While Sirisena even recently declared he would not hand over Lankan assets to “outsiders”, he has been responsible to allowing China to take a 99-year lease on Hambantota, taking Rajapaksa’s initiative to the new level.
India has strong security interests in Sri Lanka and the Modi government would be loath to see a greater Chinese presence in the island nation, particularly given the difficulties posed by Maldives and its own China-leaning outgoing president. (The Statesmen)