India to Test the Waters as a New Rajapaksa Comes Calling Today

File photo of Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (AP)

File photo of Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (AP)

As new Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi today, New Delhi hopes to turn the page on its strained relationship with Gotabaya’s brother and ex-president Mahinda.

Maha Siddiqui
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New Delhi: Acting swiftly right after his swearing-in ceremony on Sunday, India extended an invite to new Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a congratulatory call. It it was followed up by an unscheduled, quick visit by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to Colombo within the next two days where he presented the invitation personally and returned a date for President Gotabaya's India visit.

Gotabaya arrived in India on Thursday evening and was received by MoS VK Singh who happens to be his course-mate from Staff College, to add a dash of warmth and camaraderie as well.

All these gestures lead up to what India would like to do in the first official meeting on Friday in Hyderabad House — test waters with another Rajapaksa at the helm of affairs in India's neighbourhood.

This became essential due to the past troubled relationship between New Delhi and Rajapaksa's elder brother Mahindra who was president from 2005-2015 and is now serving as the PM. Not only did he show an obvious tilt to China, creating too much headache for South Block, but his tenure ended with a serious public allegation that India had orchestrated his defeat.

This is Gotabaya's first foreign visit after assuming office as president. The Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, Austin Fernando, told News18 that the new president will work on his own strategy. He will be "meeting friends and making his stance clear to countries in neighbourhood and especially to India”.

Even as India will primarily try to gauge the present mood in Colombo through the visit, there are several issues that will be touched upon on Friday when Modi hold talks with the Lankan President.

With the Easter Sunday bombing in Colombo still haunting the island nation, anti-terror cooperation is certainly on the cards for discussion. It was revealed after the dastardly attack in April that very specific inputs by India regarding the attack were ignored by Lanka. In this regard, establishing better mechanisms of communication will be looked into.

Jaishankar had raised the issue of Tamils when he went to Colombo, expressing hope that the national reconciliation process will be taken forward and the aspirations of the Tamil community will met with. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is expected to reiterate what he told the external affairs minister ; that he is a President for all and will work for the development of north and east Lanka as well.

The fishermen's issue is also expected to be taken up. India will continue to ask Sri Lanka to deal with fishermen who inadvertently enter their waters in a more humane manner. Lanka believes that many fishermen deliberately enter their side for better catch and have a major reservation regarding bottom trawling that some of them indulge in as it can harm marine ecosystem irreversibly.

But the biggest aspect that may decide the fate of the relationship will be how much more India is willing to invest in its southern neighbour. While existing projects will also come up for discussion, matching up to Beijing in development project suggested by Colombo will be crucial in mending bridges with the Rajapaksas.

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