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Mahinda Rajapaksa’s India Policy

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  • February 24, 2012
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Ambassador R Rajagopalan
    Discussants: Maj Gen (Retd) Ashok Mehta and Dr N Manoharan

    The paper focused on Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s policy towards India and on how it has been different from that of his predecessors. In evaluating the above, the scholars posed several questions like in what way his India policy has been different from that of other leaders, how far has he succeeded in counter-balancing Indian influence? What are the reasons for his success or failure? The paper is broadly divided into three parts beginning with broad trends in Sri Lanka’s India Policy from cold war period to 2005, post-cold war period and post-2005 period ever since Rajapaksa took over as the President.

    During the Cold War period, India was perceived as a potential threat and there was an effort in Sri Lanka to balance/offset India’s influence in the island country. Hence, several Sri Lankan leaders sought to engage regional and extra-regional powers like the USA, the UK, Pakistan and China to countervail India through civil-military cooperation. But there was also an attempt to engage India given the perception that India had a decisive influence on the Tamil population. Indian involvement in the Tamil question towards the end of the cold war— sending of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to fight the Tamil militants, its ultimate withdrawal before accomplishment of the mission and assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi— proved counter-productive for India and led to a policy of willful inaction in Sri Lankan affairs ever since. India maintained a distance from the issue and backed a non-military solution— “a negotiated political settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society”. However, even if India adopted a hands-off policy, the perception of India playing a negative role in the ethnic issue continued in Sri Lanka.

    The authors argued that immediately after Mahinda Rajapaksa took over as the President of the country in 2005, he adopted a proactive policy of engagement with India and evolved an innovative way of establishing a line of communication with Indian leadership. A three-member delegation comprising two of his brothers and one of his trusted lieutenants, regularly discussed with India the issues relating to the ethnic situation in Sri Lanka and especially the inflexible and aggressive posture adopted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Thus Rajapaksa ensured that his government’s military campaign would have the blessings of India. It is because of such regular interaction that India understood the compulsions of his government and the campaign ended with complete decimation of the LTTE. Rajapaksa could also obtain Indian consent for the import of military weapons from China and Pakistan which sparked off Indian concerns on some occasions. Through regular and effective communication he sought to dispel the Indian concerns in this regard.

    The authors argued that after the conclusive victory over the LTTE, Rajapaksa’s handling of the ethnic issue has clearly sidestepped Indian concerns. Indian proposals of developing a solution on the basis of the 13th amendment have not been taken seriously by Rajapaksa as he has chosen to deny that he had ever assured India on a 13th amendment-plus solution and instead insisted that he would favour a homegrown solution rather than an imported one. His approach towards Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) also signifies his apathy towards India, even if he continues to emphasise on betterment of relationship with India. Despite all this, India has resigned itself to Sri Lanka’s attempt to strengthen its relationship with India’s traditional rivals, China and Pakistan, and has felt compelled to work with Rajapaksa. All this while, India has hoped to persuade him to evolve a decent solution to the ethnic issue and further strengthen Sri Lanka’s relationship with India. In light of the arguments provided above, the authors concluded by saying that Rajapaksa had succeeded in both engaging and countervailing India.

    The main points of the discussion and suggestions to the authors:

    1. The paper needs more in-depth work regarding the main eight questions it has tried to explore.
    2. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s role in Rajapaksa’s rise needs to be highlighted further.
    3. The question of why military was used although a non military solution has been sought throughout needs to be revaluated.
    4. More emphasis needs to be put on devolution and 13th amendment for better understanding of policies.
    5. The title of the paper needs to be changed, whether it was about Rajapaksa’s policy or Sri Lanka’s policy under Rajapaksa needs to come out better.
    6. A comparative study of the leadership nexus in both countries when studying from personality oriented approach can be undertaken within the paper.
    7. Maritime issues need a mention in the paper as it could be a future irritant in India-Sri Lanka relations. Also economic issues need more mention in the paper.
    8. Rajapaksa’s idea of nation building could be put in the paper for a better overview of his personality.

    Report prepared by Anwesha Ray Chaudhuri, Research Assistant, IDSA