Sirisena comes calling: An opportunity for India

More than a month after the unexpected turn of political events that witnessed the ouster of a seemingly invincible Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, the new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena will be in India starting 15 February. As he makes the first overseas trip, the question uppermost in those watching the island nation’s affair is this: Would the new President be able to make a marked departure from the policies followed by Rajapaksa for over a decade both in domestic and international affairs? 
Rajapaksa, who won a famous if controversial military victory over the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, continued to deny the minority Tamils a fair deal in granting them the much-promised devolution of power after the war ended. A genuine reconciliation between the majority Sinhalas and the Tamils, who mainly inhabit the Northern Province, remained elusive. 
Sirisena’s biggest challenge will therefore be to gain confidence of the Tamils who have voted in huge numbers for him if only to defeat Rajapaksa. That may not be easy though since Sirisena heads a hastily put together anti-Rajapaksa coalition that comprises of chauvinist Sinhala far right parties opposed to any preferential treatment to minorities. 

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena

 Sirisena has begun well. During his Independence Day address, two prominent leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) R Sampanthan and deputy secretary M A Sumanthiran attended the celebrations for the first time in over 40 years! More significantly, the new government has made some symbolic gesture towards reconciliation. A Declaration of Peace read out on Independence Day in early February stated, among others, that “As we commemorate the 67th Independence Day of our nation today, we pay our respects to all the citizens of this country, of all ethnicities and religions, who lost their lives due to the tragic conflict that affected this land for over three decades, and for all the victims of violence since Independence.”  A Columnist in Sri Lanka surmised: “The breadth of this statement included the rebels who died as well, not only in the LTTE led separatist conflict but in the JVP insurrections as well.”

Meeting the internal aspirations of people and parties that have propelled him to an unexpected victory apart, President Sirisena’s major task will be to but re-calibrate Sri Lanka’s relations with India, in the wake of a decade long period of pro-China policies pursued by Rajapaksa. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera made New Delhi his first stop after taking over. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also most likely to visit Colombo in March. Incidentally, Modi will be the first Indian Prime Minister to make a bilateral visit to Sri Lanka in over a quarter century! 
China, because of its large strategic and commercial investments in Sri Lanka over the last decade, is very well entrenched in Sri Lanka. The Sirisena-Wickramasinghe combine, is not supposed to be well-disposed towards Beijing. But China cannot easily be shrugged off. Consider this: Between 2005 and 2012, China provided $ 4.761 billion as assistance to Sri Lanka. Of this only two per cent is outright grant while the remaining 98 per cent is in the form of soft loans. By contrast, a third of India’s 1.6 billion dollars assistance programme to the island comprises of outright grants. 
However, only a change of regime will not automatically witness India’s return to a more active role in Colombo. New Delhi will need to reach out to the new dispensation quickly and assure full and unequivocal support.
​ Sirisena will also have to repair ties with Western nations who had ostracised ​ Colombo over allegations of human rights violations. India must also stand with Colombo in its standoff with the West that seeks to punish the country for alleged human rights violations. New Delhi must push for a just probe not coloured by prejudices of the West or driven by calls for retribution against the Rajapaksa brothers. In his defeat, Rajapaksa’s contribution in ending one of the world’s most brutal insurgencies waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) must not be forgotten or underestimated.​