The Return of Rajapaksas and challenges of India’s diplomacy

Updated: Nov 29, 2019 12:32 PM

Ever since the dawn of mass democracy in world history, it has been repeatedly shown that minority rights can easily be sacrificed at the altar of national security, counter-terrorism and recalibrated citizenry.

gotabaya rajapaksa india, gotabaya rajapaksa, gotabaya rajapaksa in india, gotabaya rajapaksa party name, gotabaya rajapaksa news, gotabaya sri lankaNew Delhi: President Ram Nath Kovind, PM Narendra Modi at the ceremonial reception of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at Rashtrapati Bhawan, in New Delhi, Friday, Nov 29, 2019. (PTI)

By Bappaditya Mukherjee and Rajan Kumar

Liberal democracies across the world are witnessing the rise of authoritarian leaders backed by an open assertion of the ethnic majority proclaiming a set of shared monocultural norms. This majoritarian assertion of a national identity sets itself in opposition to the agenda of inclusive politics in which minority rights and cultural sensibilities are important building blocks. To reclaim the political space, this majoritarian coalition throws up a strong leader who is popular with the mainstream media and the major corporate houses and can frame the dominant political discourse around cultural nationalism and national security. This coalition suppresses dissent and represents the coalescing of nativist sentiments. It demonises minority groups and magnifies the perceived threat from across the border. These trends are making democracies susceptible to illiberal tendencies. The democratic scaffolding of free and fair elections exists within an intolerant political milieu in which liberal norms such as individual freedoms and rule of law are routinely violated.

Sri Lanka can be cited as another example of a perfectly functioning democratic polity that is backsliding towards illiberalism. Recent events in democratic nations such as the United States, India, Turkey, England, Hungary, Brazil have revealed that this danger to liberal values is more than a figment of the imagination. Ever since the dawn of mass democracy in world history, it has been repeatedly shown that minority rights can easily be sacrificed at the altar of national security, counter-terrorism and recalibrated citizenry. This is particularly the case in countries that have a very tortuous legacy of an ethnic and irredentist conflict that posed a risk of territorial disintegration.

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Although the bloody civil war that tore Sri Lanka apart for several decades has concluded, ethnic fault-lines remain a very consequential factor in its domestic politics. Recently, Gotabaya Rajapaksa won a landslide victory in the Sri Lankan presidential elections. The heavy spectre of ethnic fragmentation of the Sri Lankan electorate was revealed by the contours of Rajapaksa’s victory. He won comfortably in all the electoral districts where the majority Sinhala Buddhist population was dominant, whereas his rival Sajith Premadasa fared better in the districts dominated by the Tamil and Muslim minority population.

Implications for India

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rise to power has created some apprehensions in the Indian policy-making circles due to the legacy of decisions involving Mahinda Rajapaksa, the earlier president, and the brother of the current incumbent. He developed close economic and strategic ties with China.

Indian diplomatic support was significant for Mahindra Rajapaksha in his offensive against the LTTE separatists that ended the Sri Lankan civil war, but came in for severe international opprobrium, including allegations of war crimes. However, India-Sri Lanka ties soured precipitously when Mahindra Rajapaksha leased the strategically significant port of Hambantota to China. India is highly sensitive to such bilateral agreements between China and its other neighbours. The fear of Chinese encirclement predominates Indian grand strategy given the legacy of territorial disputes and awareness of the widening gulf of military and economic power vis-a-vis its northern neighbour. The Hambantota lease to China for 99 years exacerbated Indian concerns and it did not accept Sri Lankan claims that the lease was driven by the need to get relief for its $1 billion debt.

Sri Lanka has also endorsed China’s flagship connectivity project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Sri Lanka is one of the important nodes for China’s maritime strategy. As a relatively small-sized state that is recovering from a very destructive civil war, Sri Lanka cannot resist the temptation of unconditional economic investment. Even under a supposedly pro-India Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, these concerns continued. India-Sri Lanka ties have to contend with the dual realities of China’s overwhelming power and Sri-Lanka’s genuine vulnerabilities. However, the situation can be addressed if both sides adopt greater transparency and information sharing prior to undertaking major policy decisions.

The bilateral ties between Sri Lanka and India seem to have recovered from earlier setbacks as both sides are eager to learn the lessons from past mistakes. Unlike in the previous election, Rajapaksa has not accused India of interfering in its electoral process. Rajapksa and his associates seem to recognize that Sri Lanka’s national interest would not be well-served by a policy of confrontation with India. On the other side, India has recognized that it must maintain a policy of regime neutrality given the volatility of regional politics in South Asia.

India was prompt to congratulate and invite Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar visited Colombo immediately after the election and invited the President to visit India. Gotabaya’s decision to make his first foreign visit as President to Delhi on 29 November is a significant signal of rapprochement. Due to his earlier stint as defence secretary, Gotabaya is familiar with the Indian security establishment. Sri Lanka could not have ventured into a ruthless suppression of Tamil rebels without tacit approval from New Delhi.

In his first speech after assuming office, Gotabaya stated that Sri Lanka would pursue an “equidistant foreign policy” and it will not become a part of the geopolitical power struggle between global players. This neutrality may not please Indian establishment, but there are indications that Sri Lanka is willing to cooperate with India on security and developmental issues. It is keen to keen to participate in the anti-terror exercises with India. In an interview with Strategic News International, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa admitted that the decision to lease the Hambantota Port was a mistake and he would renegotiate with China for a better commercial deal. This should please the Indian establishment which is already trying to develop pragmatic and non-partisan ties with its sole southern neighbour.

(Dr Mukherjee has previously taught at the State University of New York, Genesco, US. Prof Kumar teaches at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)

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