Lanka polls to decide who is winner – India or China?

The two main players in the Sri Lanka's presidential elections are Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Of these two, Premadasa is reportedly pro-India while Rajapaksa is expected to veer towards China.

For India, there is more to it than just a change at the helm in Sri Lanka when it goes to polls for a new president on Saturday. While the presidential elections are obviously important for Lankans, given the new China-centric power equation in Asia, the outcome is crucial to India too which is struggling to regain its once-powerful influence over its island neighbour.

Of the several contenders for the top position, the two main players are former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former prime minister, the late Ranasinghe Premadasa’s son Sajith Premadasa. Of these two, Premadasa is reportedly pro-India while Rajapaksa is expected to veer towards China.

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Over the last 10 years, since the end of the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka, China gradually replaced India as the dominant player there. It filled the space left behind by New Delhi which adopted a hands-off approach after the IPKF fiasco in the late ‘80s and the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Seething with anger at the killing of Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur in May 1991, the Indian government turned against the LTTE and the larger Tamil separatist movement which it had supported (both openly and tacitly) through the 70s and 80s. The Sri Lankan army which had found it difficult to take on the LTTE found the opening it was looking for and prised open the advantage.

Mahinda Rajapaksa who was elected president in 2005 junked an ongoing peace process at the time between Colombo and the LTTE and launched an all-out attack on the Tamil separatists in the north and east of the country. India’s Manmohan Singh government, despite requests from sections of the Tamil population in Tamil Nadu including the then Karunanidhi government, remained aloof.

China came to the aid of Rajapaksa, sent the latest weapons and helped him win the conflict. Gotabaya was his military strategist. A weakened and isolated LTTE was finally defeated in 2009 ending for now the fight for a separate Tamil homeland.

A delighted Rajapaksa rolled out the red carpet for Beijing, opened up the country for Chinese investments and generally allowed his newfound friend a free run of the island. By doing so, Rajapaksa changed the political balance of power in the region by sidelining India which was caught in a diplomatic tangle, unable to decide how to move forward in its relationship with Sri Lanka.

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The Chinese $1 billion-project at Hambantota to develop it as an economic zone including a port turned out to be the most talked about for its ambitious vision. Cash-strapped Lanka was unable to repay the debt and handed over the entire project to China on lease for 99 years. This alarmed not just India but western powers like the United States who perceive it as a Chinese expansion into a strategic sea lane that is one of the busiest in the world.

Though both sides claimed the port was to facilitate freight traffic, reports of Chinese submarines docking there have all but confirmed Indian fears that it may eventually serve Beijing’s military purposes.

Besides Hambantota, China has poured in billions of dollars in developing Sri Lanka’s infrastructure including roads, ports and power stations as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

The honeymoon period in Sri Lanka’s ties with China somewhat soured with the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential elections. The new president Maithripala Sirisena almost overnight swung Sri Lanka away from the Chinese by questioning several projects signed with that country.

Sirisena alleged corruption, opacity in deals and flouting of established procedures in the Chinese-projects. He followed it up by suspending several of them… Though most were re-started after a year there was a clear strain in relations between Sirisena and China.

The elections of 2015 were perceived as that between Chinese-backed Rajapaksa and Sirisena supported by India. When Sirisena won the elections, there was widespread resentment in the Rajapaksa camp over perceived Indian involvement. As for China’s involvement, a New York Times investigation alleged that Beijing donated $7.6 million to Rajapaksa’s election campaign. Though all sides denied the report, it served to confirm the closeness of the Chinese with Rajapaksa.

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Meanwhile, it was not as if India had got totally pushed out of Sri Lanka. Since 2009, according to reports, India had been involved in reconstruction of infrastructure in the civil war-ravaged north and east. It spent almost $300 million in this project which included restoring the Jaffna-Colombo rail line and modernising the Kankesanthurai harbour besides scores of aid programmes involving small businesses and various other minor but crucial basic needs of the population like housing.

Ironically, though Sirisena initially seemed set against Chinese investment in Sri Lanka he seemed to have diluted his hostility mid-way through his governance. In fact, the October 2018 fallout between Sirisena and his colleague, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been variously attributed to Sirisena moving closer to China while Wickremesinghe continued to be pro-India. Sirisena, for instance, in the ongoing election campaign, has supported the candidature of the pro-China Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Clearly though, the results of Saturday’s elections if they go Premadasa’s way (which reports say is unlikely)  may only mean pyrrhic relief for India. For, the deeper truth is that China, in the last decade, has already entrenched itself fairly deeply in Sri Lanka and it will take much more than just a change of guard at the top to make any difference to Beijing.

As for India, it has little choice but to permanently joust with China to make itself count in Colombo.  As the saying goes, more things change more they remain the same – this seems to be the situation in the new post-civil war Sri Lanka where India finds itself on the wrong side of the divide, at least for now.