NEW DELHI :
India on Tuesday dispatched External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to Colombo for establishing early contacts with the new administration headed by former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who won the 16 November polls and has assumed office as the new president of Sri Lanka.
“A warm meeting with Sri Lanka President @GotabayaR. Conveyed PM @narendramodi’s message of a partnership for shared peace, progress, prosperity & security. Confident that under his leadership, #IndiaSriLanka relations would reach greater heights," Jaishankar said in a Twitter post on Tuesday evening.
“President @GotabayaR has accepted PM @narendramodi’s invitation to visit India on 29th November" Jaishankar said in a second post.
Jaishankar will be the first foriegn visitor to visit Colombo after the new administration assumed office on Monday.
India previously shared prickly ties with the Mahinda Rajapaksa government mainly due up its pro-China tilt as well as its seeming hesitation to speed up the process of reconciliation between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese after the end of the civil war in 2009. In recent years though, both sides have taken steps to mend relations.
The visit assumes significance given that Gotabaya and his brother, former president Mahinda, are seen as pro-China and New Delhi would be keeping a close watch to see whether the new administration in Colombo walks a balance between New Delhi and Beijing.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate Gotabaya, 70, on Sunday when it became clear that he was heading for a win, trouncing opposition United National Party’s Sajith Premadasa.
Modi had followed this message up with a phone call to Gotabaya, inviting him to India. New Delhi is keen to see that the new Colombo administration is sensitive to Indian security concerns while engaging with China. It would not like to see a repeat of instances where the Mahinda Rajapaksa government allowed Chinese nuclear powered submarines to dock in the Colombo port twice in 2014 resulting in a shutdown of the Colombo harbor which resulted in trans-shipment facilities for India becoming the casualty. According to Indian officials, the Colombo port handled some 40% of the India’s trans-shipment cargo in 2014.
Besides this, India has also been worried about Colombo signing up for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure venture. Some of Beijing’s previous investments in ports and expressways has been seen as responsible for high debts in Sri Lanka. With Rajapaksa in power once again, New Delhi would be wary about an increase in Chinese investments into the island nation that will increase Beijing’s sway over a country that is seen as lying within India’s sphere of influence.
New Delhi also has concerns that Rajapaksa’s election could mean an upsurge of Sinhalese nationalism that could impact Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa is credited with crushing a three-decade old Tamil separatist rebellion in May 2009. The return of Gotabaya, who was accused of human rights violations when his brother was president, could mean trouble for New Delhi diplomatically, given that Tamils in southern India share cultural and familial ties with the Tamils of Sri Lanka.