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How Does India Counteract China’s Influence In Sri Lanka?

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The controversial Rajapaksa clan is again back in power in Sri Lanka. On 17th Nov 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa made the quick march to the office of the President after winning a sweeping victory in the race for Presidentship of Sri Lanka, winning 52.25 percent votes against Sajith Premadasa, the main contender to power from the United National Party, who managed to secured 41.99 percent of total voted polled. His primary support came from the Sinhalese community who identify him as a man of nationalistic fervor.

Sri Lankan army soldiers get ready to leave for the front line of the war zone from Paranthan in Killinochchi area, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009. Two days after the military seized the rebels’ administrative capital of Kilinochchi, Sri Lankan forces pushed ahead Sunday with an offensive aimed at capturing the Tamil Tigers’ last strongholds and crushing the rebel group. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Rajapaksa acting as the secretary of defense and urban development had been a brutal executioner and instrumental in defeating Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder, and leader of Tamil Tigers, and ending the decade long armed guerilla warfare. The factor of terrorism was greatly exploited by Rajapaksa. Since the April 22 attack, Sinhalese are focused on national security. Therefore they favored Rajapaksa more than other parties as they see him as a capable wartime personality. 

After the announcement of the results, Rajapaksa tweets, “As we usher in a new journey for Sri Lanka, we must remember that all Sri Lankans are part of this journey. Let us rejoice peacefully, with dignity and discipline in the same manner in which we campaigned.” There was an outflow from congratulatory messages to Rajapaksa. Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister called for deepening fraternal lines between the two countries and citizens. Sirisena deemed Rajapaksa’s win as “historic”. 

The Obstacles Ahead

For Rajapaksa, the coming years are going to be a challenging period. Sri Lanka is already in debt of over 11 trillion Sri Lankan rupee. And much to the displeasure of the United States and Western powers, Sri Lanka has made China its main creditor. Sri Lanka says it is out of its options. The Hambantota port in Rajapaksa’s hometown, which was believed to be the next age agglomeration but ended up in absolute failure. Finally, it has been granted to China for 99 years in a $1.2 billion debt for equity swap.

The same is the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa cricket stadium, the Convention Centre, and many such facilities attract near-zero traffic, and residents use them to dry their crop of long beans. Tourism is failing due to the recent attack of April 22. Then he also has to look at his representation on world platforms. His name has come up on multiple occasions regarding the human rights violation during the last phase of the Civil War. The tea plantation industry which forms the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy is dwindling.

Earlier this year, plantation workers protested against the low wages and also poor working standards. There is a continuous tussle between the owners and workers and the government has not yet taken any concrete step in this regard. Minorities are fearful of the policies of Rajapaksa. If the current president wants to create a vibrant Sri Lanka, he must assimilate all sections of the society, forgetting the conflicting past and building a better future. 

India’s Concern

For India, the Presidentship of Rajapaksa poses a challenge in maintaining its position in the Indian Ocean. The last time family of Rajapaksa was president, there was a rapid decline in the India-Sri Lanka relations. In October 2014, during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi in the capacity of Defense Secretary, the India ministry of foreign affairs delivered a stern message stating India’s displeasure of allowing Chinese interference in Sri Lankan waters by allowing naval warships into Colombo. After a while, India was accused of conspiring with the opposition parties in bringing down the Mahipala Rajapaksa regime.

Though Gotabaya has mentioned the maintenance of friendly relations with India in his manifesto, these events of the past will be a factor in India- Sri Lanka relations in the future. As for now, the relations are already in bad shape. The offer made to India of taking Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport on lease is now under fresh consideration. Also, there is a growing influence of China in the area. From the alleged funding for the campaign to the extension of huge loans, China is extending its grip on the island nation. Chinese companies have invested $15 billion in the infrastructure projects of Sri Lanka, while from the Indian side it’s a mere $2.6 billion.

Sri Lanka holds a strategic location in handling trade and severing ties with it would be a major setback to the growing maritime trade of India. With China expanding its horizon in South Asia with Mr. Xi Jinping’s ambitious pet project “Belt and Road Initiative” for which every South Asian nation except India and Bhutan had agreed, poses an increasing chance of India losing its hold in the area. Another major factor for concern for India is the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Since Rajapaksa’s history shows his contempt against the Sri Lankan Tamils, the concern of the Tamil Nadu state government is very much justified. This is a time of urgency for India if it wants to hold its position in South Asia. More focus on the “Neighborhood First” policy and expanding trade relations with the nations can be of great help.

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        A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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