Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe must have returned to Colombo after a three-day official visit to New Delhi with mixed feelings. Days before his visit, his government had reversed a decision to award a $300 million housing deal to China, and instead opted for a joint venture with an Indian company.
But the goodwill that decision may have bought in Delhi—deeply suspicious of Chinese developmental activity in the region—took an unexpected beating last Tuesday, with reports that President Maithripala Sirisena had told his Cabinet that India’s RAW was plotting to assassinate him. The fact he also reportedly said that PM Narendra Modi “may be unaware of the plot” brought little cheer in Delhi. Wednesday morning saw a flurry of furious activity.
At 7.30 am, Sirisena’s secretary told him that Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu wanted to see him urgently, and had cancelled his departure to New Delhi that day to be on call for the Sri Lankan PM’s arrival. When the two met, Sirisena insisted that some hostile Cabinet members had twisted his words; he then called Modi and they agreed that the friendship between the two countries should not be harmed by any “mala fide elements in the Cabinet”.
Wickremesinghe’s visit was on. But though official, it was low-key at best. His meeting with Congress leaders, including party president Rahul Gandhi, his mother Sonia and former PM Manmohan Singh, was so quietly organised that even some Sri Lankan officials didn’t know about it till later.
During the official meeting with Modi on Saturday, concerns were raised over the slow implementation of Indian-aided projects in Sri Lanka, along with Tamil Nadu’s concerns over the arrest of Indian fishermen who strayed into Sri Lankan waters. But given that Wickremesinghe faces domestic economic and political challenges, instead of putting pressure on him, perhaps New Delhi should give him some breathing space and quietly offer to help when needed.