Well Begun But Miles To Go As Gotabaya Meets Modi

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A NEW BEGINNING: Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (left)held one-on-one talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Friday.

NEW DELHI: What happens when two strongmen meet? In the case of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lanka’s newly minted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, their bilateral in New Delhi on Friday lasted over an hour. This was followed by a restricted meeting of around half hour with just a few officials from both sides present.

Modi’s comments immediately after were reassuring and friendly:“A stable, secure and prosperous Sri Lanka is not only in India’s interest but also in the interest of the entire Indian Ocean Region.”

But with a nod to the elephant in the room, China, he went on to add: “In line with my government’s ‘Neighborhood First’ policy and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All In the Region) doctrine, we prioritise our relations with Sri Lanka. The security and development of our two countries are inseparable. Therefore, it is natural that we should be aware of each other’s safety and sensibilities.”

Modi sweetened his message, announcing a $400 million line of credit that Colombo could utilize for infrastructure development. Compared to the billions that China can offer, India’s could be considered small but it gives President Gotabaya the assurance that he need not rely entirely on Beijing for infra-financing.

Modi also announced $50 million to help Colombo’s counter-terrorism efforts and this could include training. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval called on the Sri Lankan President where the two are learnt to have broadly discussed security issues including Colombo’s requirements.

President Rajapaksa responded warmly to India’s offer: “India is our closest neighbor and trusted friend,” and “the security of our two nations took priority.” In an interview to SNI earlier, the President had described relations with China as “purely commercial”.

In a reference to the Easter Sunday attacks in April, he said: “We have had to rethink our national security strategy…” Despite warnings from India, the earlier government failed to respond leading to the tragic loss of lives.

Later he tweeted: “I am grateful to HE @narendramodi for the assurances given & support extended to #LKA on national security, infrastructure development, commercial and trade opportunities. I look forward to welcoming him soon, as the first head of state to visit SL under my presidency.”

Modi may have felt comfortable enough to raise the matter of ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka, meaning the Tamil minority. It was first raised by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar when he travelled to Colombo as the PM’s special envoy soon after President Rajapaksa’s electoral victory.

Modi underscored India’s concern, saying “President Rajapaksa told me about his inclusive political outlook on ethnic harmony. I am confident that the government of Sri Lanka will carry forward the process of reconciliation, to fulfill the aspirations of the Tamils for equality, justice, peace and respect. It also includes the implementation of the 13th amendment. India will become a trusted partner for development throughout Sri Lanka including North and East.”

It’s been a long time since New Delhi uttered words like reconciliation and the 13th amendment, which proposed provincial councils and greater autonomy for the provinces. The Sri Lankan president was non-committal. In fact, no Sri Lankan government has implemented the 13th amendment, seen as an “Indian imposition”, dating back to India’s 1987 intervention in the island.

There appeared to be some movement on the Indian fishermen detained for illegally fishing in Lankan waters, with President Rajapaksa indicating those in custody would be released.

The meeting with Gotabaya Rajapaksa may have gone some way towards assuaging Delhi’s anxieties. But there is a hard slog ahead and South Block cannot afford to take its eye off the ball.

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