Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa Strikes Back: Implications For India – OpEd


By Vandana Mishra*

the August 5, 2020 elections in Sri Lanka has been a turning point: first, it was organised amidst opposition and fear of COVID-19 pandemic in which over 71 percent of electorates voted; second, it set an example before the countries where elections are scheduled in near future; the success of election must have motivated USA where Presidential elections are scheduled in coming November; Elections Commission of India too must have been elated as Bihar Assembly Elections too are heating up; last and most important August 7 results led to landslide victory for Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP), with two-third majority in National Parliament. Rajapaksa stands scheduled to take oath as Prime Minster for the fourth term.

SLPP got 59 percent of the total votes polled and won 128 seats out of 225 seats in unicameral National Parliament and with its share of 17 National Seats its total tally of 145 is well near the two third majority. Since, it has support of other smaller parties it will manage the five short seats needed to make it 2/3rd majority. Newly formed Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) secured nearly 24 percent of total votes with 40 seats and 7 National Seats, which is a break-away group of erstwhile UNP which got only 1 seat. Jathika Jana Belawegaya(JJB) with 3 percent of total votes got 2 seats and 1 National Seat, and Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) got 9 seats and 1 National Seat in the election. Thus, SLPP will have free hand to bring any major constitutional change in consonance with its aspirations. Predictions in media are rampant of likely change in the constitution and strengthen the dynastic rule by ending the Presidential term limits. Credit goes to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who led SLPP to such massive victory after 9 months into his office and facilitating his elder brother Mahinda to be the PM.

19th Amendment that limits the Presidential powers is at stake. Mahinda Rajapaksa is famous for crushing LTTE and infamous for his pro-China leanings, especially in India. Several factors contributed to his win in spite of accusations of being authoritarian and harsh on minorities: the failure of previous government ensured his victory. Mahinda is the most popular leader of majority Sinhala Buddhist community. Subsequent victory of both the brothers with substantial vote share has further established that Sri Lanka is fast turning into a majoritarian country.

Implications for India:

India’s pro-active approach stems from the fact of extending congratulatory note to the newly elected leader. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first leaders to do so. Both the leaders resolved to strengthen bilateral relations. Modi’s signal of India’s commitment and concerns to strengthen bilateral relations with the incumbent government should be taken as diplomatic courtesy. Mahinda’s win means another pro-Chinese government in the neighbourhood and hence a cause of concern for India.

Secondly, Growing presence of China in Sri Lanka has strategic dimensions and serious security concerns for India as Sri Lanka is India’s closest maritime neighbour. Sri Lanka has already fallen in Chinese debt trap as it has leased out its Hambantota port to China undermining security concerns of India.

Thirdly, Modi informed Rajapaksa about the international airport being constructed in Buddhist pilgrimage city of Kushinagar in India and expressed willingness to welcome Sri Lankan pilgrimage tourists. The invitation extended to the Buddhist pilgrims of Sri Lanka is also an important dimension of cultural connectivity that is being used to strengthen the bilateral relations. Even in 2019, S. Jaishankar invited Gotabaya Rajapaksa for his first official visit to India. Jaishankar also said that the reconciliation process between both the countries required a dignified treatment of Tamils. As a diplomatic move, Prime Minister also showed solidarity to Sri Lanka by vising Saint Anthony Shrine. Cultural diplomacy does play a role in bilateral relations, but how far it will smoothen the strategic and economic relations is difficult to predict. Both China and India will try to contain each other to wean away the loyalty of Sri Lanka’s new dispensation..

Fourthly, even though Modi’s most important foreign policy choice was “Neighbourhood First”; yet India under his leadership has been struggling to strengthen bilateral ties with most of its neighbours. Recent spate of tensions between India and China reveals the fact that China will further broaden its monetary and political influence over Sri Lanka, under Mahinda.. Chinese investments in Sri Lanka increased during Rajapaksa, with both entering into several infrastructural deals. This had alarmed India as well as the West. China thus has been looming all over India’s backyard one-by-one.

Fifthly, 11 Percent of Sri Lanka’s Population consist of Tamils, who have been in conflict with Mahinda’s government after LTTE was decimated in 2009. The

 Tamil factor is one of the important reasons of conflict with this Government. India’s Sri Lanka policy has been held hostage by domestic politics on this count as Indian state of Tamil Nadu has soft corner for Sri Lankan Tamils. India cannot afford to abandon Tamil cause in Sri Lanka owing to domestic political compulsions. Hence, how India is going to manage this issue in the interest of bilateral convergence remains tricky.

Sixthly, Indo-Sri Lankan relations entered into rough weather ever since Mahinda lost the 2015 elections. He blamed India for orchestrating his defeat through the espionage agency and extending support to his opposition. Maithripala Sirisena who had defeated Mahinda was splinter from his party only. India thus has been accused of interference in internal affairs of neighbour.

Seventhly, growing Sino-Sri Lankan defence ties is another potential  cause of concern for India. The defence cooperation has intensified with transfer of arms, ammunition, landmines and aircraft to Sri Lanka..

Last but most important, China’s silent rise in the Indian Ocean and the cooperation provided by the Sri Lanka government has also been an important reason of conflict between both the nations. Mahinda’s win will further facilitate China, hence a major concern for India. India aspires for an Indian Ocean to be its major maritime region of influence. China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean region will not only undermine India’s influence but would also pose military threat on the maritime border.   

Imperatives for India:

India has no choice but to learn to live with its neighbours and keep creating space for itself alongside China. Annual Defence Dialogue between India and Sri Lanka that was inaugurated in 2012 and envisaged cooperation even with the military of both the countries must be strengthened and geared-up. India should also take-up trilateral maritime security cooperation with Sri Lanka and Maldives.

During the visit of Goabaya Rajapkasa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced $50 million line of credit for security and counter terrorism and another $400 million for the infrastructural development. This was done to strengthen cooperation against terrorism and the other side promised that India Sri Lanka relations would not be affected by the third country. India need to capitalise on such cooperation and take it to logical end.

India and Sri Lanka have strong cultural linkages as Sri Lanka is largely a Buddhist country with more than 70% of its population following Buddhism. India has strong leverages as it is the country of origin of Buddhism. Hence, there are tremendous scope of building and enhancing close cultural ties. People-to-people links could also be strengthened through institutions of Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding. There was a proposal to establish air link between Sanchi in MP and Sri Lanka for the Buddhist pilgrims. More such linkages could be explored to strengthen the cultural relations between both the countries.

Strategically Sri Lanka can be an important game changer in the rising Chinese influence in the India Ocean region. India aspires to prevail in the Indian Ocean region. Hence, India must mobilise its diplomatic resources to cultivate greater ties with the new political dispensation in Sri Lanka. China by now is looming all over South Asia; it must be contained by India on the maritime turf.   

*The writer is a Research Scholar and can be reached at [email protected]


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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