NEW DELHI: With a congratulatory phone call and a letter by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India moved fast to reach out to Sri Lanka’s new president Maithripala Sirisena, even as New Delhi tempered expectations of any dramatic u-turn in policy on the Tamil issue and relations with the island’s biggest foreign donor, China.
From India’s perspective, there are three major issues with Sri Lanka - ethnic conflict, fishermen and trade. The last one is not an emotive one and the expectation is that economic ties would only increase despite the ruling coalition having disparate ideologies about market economy. However, on the ethnic conflict and fishermen issue, there is realism on Raisina Hill that there may not be much change in substance. Modi specifically wished Sirisena “success in building peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka on foundations of genuine and effective reconciliation”.
Sirisena got unconditional support from the Lankan Tamil parties, posting huge victory margins in north and east. However, a big chunk of his vote is from the Sinhala-majority Southern and Western provinces.
“Remember, the majority has changed sides, not the minorities who were anyway expected to vote for the opposition,” said an official with knowledge of India’s Sri Lanka policy, stating that Sirisena would have to walk carefully on a very thin line.
Even during his campaign, Sirisena had kept mum on the 13th amendment and was against scaling down the huge military encampments in the north. Yet, there is now expectation that TNA might engage in a dialogue with the new government. The TNA leadership stands vindicated and it could claim justifiably that its call for support was heeded by Sri Lankan Tamils.
Sirisena may also get some space with the support from a large section of the Sinhala majority, indicating that people have moved beyond the civil war. “The bogey that was created was that the LTTE will be back..its clear now that nobody bought into that or believes it,” said an official. The Northern Province chief minister CV Wigneswaran would get a bit more breathing space in administration, even as the key powers continuing to remain with Colombo.
Officials point out that the fishermen issue would continue to crop up, as long as our boats cross into richer waters of the neighbour. “Only difference could be that once the Indian fishermen are caught, then there may not be too much fuss in releasing them,” said an official. With US secretary of state John Kerry also reaching out Sirisena, Washington’s role is also expected to get amplified. It might lead to a softening in stance on the human rights front, with observers expecting either no resolution or a very weak one, positively inclined towards Sri lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Council in March-April.
US overture is, of course, linked to the belief that it has now an opening in the Indian ocean island nation. The opposition in its campaign had talked of a balanced foreign policy with all powers, criticiing the Rajapaksa for being too close to China.
Criticism of Rajpaksa’s china policy was also entwined in the popular perception that the projects were enriching his family and cronies. While Sirisena had talked of scrapping the Colombo port city project, there might not be review of all economic projects undertaken by China. But, it might not be as easy as it is to get future projects.