India’s policy in Sri Lanka faces a challenge

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India’s Neighborhood First Policy is once again facing a challenge given the economic collapse and resulting political turmoil in Sri Lanka. India’s approach to the crisis in the island nation has been calibrated and cautious.

There are two sides to the crisis in Sri Lanka: one on the economic front and the other on the political level. India has been generous in opening its purse strings to bail out Sri Lanka not only with cash, but also in postponing loan repayments and currency exchanges as well as fuel and medicine supplies.

But the real task for India is to tackle the political dimension. It is here that India has been extremely cautious and has chosen not to weigh in on the ongoing political crisis in Sri Lanka. He tried to distance himself from the Sri Lankan government led by the Rajapaksa family, pledging to support the “people of Sri Lanka”.

A glimpse of the challenge facing India is given in two Twitter comments from the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka on May 10 and 11. and said that “these reports and opinions are not in line with the position of the Government of India”. The High Commission’s categorical denial came a day after it dismissed speculation on social media in Sri Lanka that former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family members had fled to India as “false and blatantly untrue “. This phenomenon is not limited to Sri Lanka; it applies to all its other South Asian neighbors where rumours, speculations and bizarre theories relating to India abound as soon as a crisis erupts there. This is a problem that India has faced for decades and will also have to face it in the future, through consistent engagement with South Asian countries at all levels. This is perhaps the “price” that India will always be asked to pay for being the largest country in South Asia.

It was on May 10 that India broke its silence on recent developments with a carefully crafted three-paragraph statement from MEA Spokesman Arindam Bagchi in response to ‘media questions’ from the Ministry of External Affairs. . “India will always be guided by the best interests of the people of Sri Lanka expressed through democratic processes. As a close neighbor of Sri Lanka, with historical ties, India fully supports its democracy, stability and economic recovery.”

Bagchi also took the opportunity to recall India’s economic aid to Sri Lanka to help the island nation overcome its worst financial crisis, and placed the aid in the context of India’s neighborhood policy. on board. This year alone, India has extended support worth over $3.5 billion to the people of Sri Lanka to help them overcome their current difficulties. In addition, the people of India have provided assistance to alleviate shortages of essential items such as food and medicine, he pointed out. India’s economic support to Sri Lanka also includes a $1 billion line of credit for essential imports, a $500 million line of credit for fuel, debt payment deferral and an exchange of currencies of $400 million which has been extended until mid-July.

The MEA spokesperson’s remarks were widely interpreted as India’s desire to see the democratic process continue in Sri Lanka and a soft nudge against anything, including military intervention, that goes against that process. The mention of the words “democratic processes” refers to India’s desire to see peaceful protests and eventual elections and discomfiture at the Sri Lankan government’s handling of the political crisis.

New Delhi’s ties with Mahinda Rajapaksa during his decade as president from 2005 have had their ups and downs. When Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil separatist group LTTE, India supported the Rajapaksas because the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. Mahinda also promised to address a key Indian concern by implementing the 13th amendment to the constitution which was part of the India-Sri Lanka agreement of 1987, as it promised greater autonomy for all provinces, including Sri Lankan Tamils. But Mahinda Rajapaksa did not implement it.

There was a time when Mahinda was friends with the Chinese and entrusted the strategic port of Hambantota to a Chinese company to take care of it. However, upon his return as prime minister in 2019, with his brother Gotabaya as president, India quickly reached out to Colombo to restore bilateral relations.

With the Rajapaksas now at rock bottom amid Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis, India has measured its actions with extreme caution. New Delhi did not want to give the impression that its generous aid to Colombo at the time of an economic crisis reflected support for the Rajapaksas or their management of the economy. Instead, India has made it clear that its cash and in-kind aid is for the people of Sri Lanka. Caution will be the buzzword in India’s strategy in Sri Lanka until political stability returns to the island nation.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.

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