Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is to visit New Delhi in early February at the invitation of the Indian Premier Narendra Modi, will be discussing economic cooperation more than anything else, according to informed sources.
The reason cited for this is that Prime Minister Mahinda is also Minister for Finance, Economy and Policy Development, and India is focused on economic cooperation with Sri Lanka, besides, of course, strategic and defense cooperation.
Mahinda’s visit, precise dates for which are yet to be finalized, is part of an on-going bilateral dialogue which began with the visit of the newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to New Delhi on November 29, 2019, days after he got elected.
Given the critical nature of India-Sri Lanka relations in the context of the growing presence of China in the South Asian region and the Indian Ocean, New Delhi had sought meetings with other top Sri Lankan government leaders too in order to firm up ties with the new Lankan Establishment.
Following President Gotabaya’s visit, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena was in New Delhi from January 8 to 10. After talks with External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar, Gunwardena met the Indian Skills Development and Entrepreneurship Minister Mahendra Nath Pandey and State Labor Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar also. This was because Gunawardena holds the Skills development and Labor portfolios also. Additionally, both Sri Lanka and India are keen on cooperation in skills development, a field in which India can fill gaps that exist in Sri Lanka.
Gunawardena’s concentration on skills and entrepreneurship development could be explained also by the fact that the main foreign affairs issues had already been discussed with the Indian leaders by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his visit in November last. Parameters for cooperation in foreign affairs, security and defense had already been agreed upon. Being a directly elected Executive President, Gotabaya has the supreme and over-riding authority to speak and take decisions on these matters. Therefore, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s discussions in New Delhi were substantively over cooperation in skills and entrepreneurial development rather than foreign affairs per se.
Gotabaya had also discussed with Modi the question of devolving power to the provinces to meet a long standing demand of the minority Tamils. Modi had raised the issue keeping Tamil Nadu in mind, but Gotabaya made it clear to him that he proposed to bring about ethnic reconciliation through equitable development rather than through devolution of power as the latter is anathema to the majority Sinhalese.
Since Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa agrees with his younger brother and President Gotabaya in toto on these issues, these are not expected to be taken up in the February talks. What will be taken up are the fate of India’s development projects in Sri Lanka, many of which were initiated in April 2017 but had not been followed up by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime.
The Indian projects in question were in a variety of fields including energy (LNG and renewable), industrial economic zones, ports and airports development and natural gas supply for domestic use.
There is an understanding that the Colombo port’s Eastern Terminal will be completed and run by a consortium comprising the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Japan and India. But Ports Minister Johnston Fernando recently threw a spanner in the works by saying that the government is trying to get the terminal back. Modi would certainly want to know from Mahinda, the Lankan government’s actual position on the terminal, which Indian wants to keep an eye on the Chinese who already have a terminal in the port.
The other ticklish issue is the development of the giant oil storage tanks in Trincomalee. During Mahinda’s earlier regime and also during the last regime headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, issues which put India on the mat were raised. The Lankan complaint was that India had taken the 99 tanks in 1987 but had refurbished, and was using, only a few of them. The Sri Lankan government wanted to use some of the tanks but India said that the tanks were handed over to it by a bilateral agreement and cannot be surrendered just like that. During the last government, an agreement was worked out, but further development of the tanks is yet to take place.
Given the plan to develop the Trincomalee harbor and its hinterland, further development of the oil storage facility would be in order and India would certainly want to participate in it in cooperation with Japan, which is the other interested party.
India has been trying to get the Chinese-built but still unused Mattala airport in South Sri Lanka, but President Gotabaya said that his government is not talking to India on this matter. However, it appears that India might be allowed to develop Palaly airport in Jaffna as an international airport, especially to link Jaffna with towns in Tamil Nadu.
India is very much interested in reinforcing cultural and Hindu and Buddhist ties with Sri Lanka, and fortunately for it, Mahinda Rajapaksa is also Minister of Buddhasasana, Cultural and Religious Affairs. He is also Housing Minister, and India has been involved in Sri Lanka’s housing sector since the end of the war in 2009 and would like to do more. It had built 50,000 houses for the war displaced people in the Northern and Eastern provinces and has been building houses for the plantation Tamils of Indian origin. Under the model villages program of the Wickremesinghe government, India had built houses in South Sri Lanka also. India would certainly want Mahinda to continue cooperation in this grassroots-level project.
India and Mahinda Rajapaksa had fallen out in 2014 when the latter, as President, allegedly allowed a Chinese “nuclear” submarine to dock at Colombo harbor around the time the Chinese President Xi Jinping was on a visit. Rajapaksa blamed India for his defeat in the January 2015 Presidential election and kept aloof from India and Indians. However, there was a thaw in relations in 2017 due to a change of guard in the Indian High Commission in Colombo.
Mahinda and his brother Gotabaya sought a meeting with Modi when the latter was on an official visit to Sri Lanka. The meeting proved to be cordial but it was not sufficient to convince the Indian Establishment that the Rajapaksas were trust worthy. However New Delhi’s attitude underwent a swift change when Gotabaya won the November 16 Presidential election convincingly.
India’s Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar was the first foreign dignitary to visit the newly elected President, congratulate him personally, and invite him to visit India. Gotabaya’s visit to India on November 29 was also his very first official overseas visit as President.
In the Gotabaya-Modi talks in Delhi, a wide measure of agreement was reached which led to the visit of the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister. An invitation was extended to the Lankan Prime Minister also. According to reports, during his February visit to Delhi, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will personally extend an invitation to Modi to visit Sri Lanka to further strengthen Indo-Lankan ties.