India-Lanka strengthen ties, revive maritime dialogue despite pandemic in 2020

PTI, Dec 30, 2020, 3:33 PM IST

Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa dynasty consolidated its grip over power, with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s elder brother Mahinda becoming the prime minister in 2020 – a year which witnessed the strengthening of Colombo’s ties with New Delhi and revival of a key trilateral maritime dialogue involving India after a gap of six years.

The high hopes of an economic revival that accompanied the Rajapaksas’ return to power turned into despair soon after the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the island in mid-March, plunging it into the worst financial crisis.

President Gotabaya’s administration has emphasised that its ‘India-First’ policy, which resonates well with India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, would be the cornerstone of Colombo’s outreach to New Delhi.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa travelled to India in February on his first official trip abroad after being appointed to the office by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his younger brother.

Weeks ago in November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had travelled to India in his first overseas tour after taking over the reins of Sri Lanka.

During his visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced financial assistance of USD 450 million to Sri Lanka including USD 50 million to fight terrorism.

In September this year, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won the general elections in August, held a “very successful” virtual summit with his Indian counterpart during which he praised Prime Minister Modi for extending help and cooperation to Sri Lanka in several areas, including in combating the pandemic.

“We both agreed to continue the two-way dialogue to further advance the centuries-old, robust relationship between our two countries,” Mahinda tweeted after the talks.

He recalled the joint Indo-Lanka effort in handling the oil tanker fire off Sri Lanka’s east coast and said he was thankful to India for its assistance.

Sri Lanka is not averse to giving India the control of the Colombo harbour’s eastern container terminal operation with a joint venture with Japan. Both the president and the prime minister have told the agitating port trade unionists, who remain opposed to the deal, that the previous Sirisena government’s memorandum of cooperation on the Colombo port’s eastern terminal cannot be reversed. This was perhaps the first wheel in motion on the ‘India-First’ policy.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited Colombo in November for trilateral maritime dialogue among India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

The meeting took place after six years. The last meeting was held in New Delhi in 2014.

It was Doval’s second official visit to Sri Lanka in 2020.

In January, he visited Colombo and discussed a range of bilateral issues with the president.

In 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the Trump administration’s highest-ranking official to visit Lanka. During his visit, Pompeo said that America’s vision on Sri Lanka is “very different” from that of “predator” China.

His visit came in the backdrop of China’s increasing forays in Sri Lanka.

The Chinese military has been flexing its muscles in the strategically vital Indo-Pacific region. Pompeo’s visit was seen by experts here as part of the US effort to have Sri Lanka on its side vis-a-vis China.

His trip to Lanka came two weeks after a high-powered Chinese delegation led by Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi visited Colombo. After Yang’s visit, China announced a USD 90 million grant to Lanka.

Sri Lanka has emphasised that it wants to pursue a “neutral” foreign policy.

Gotabaya was elected as the president late last year with a massive mandate. The enthusiasm was no less when his Sri Lanka People’s Party registered a landslide win in the parliamentary polls eight months later in August, bringing back his elder brother and former president Mahinda as the prime minister.

As many as five members of the Rajapaksa clan got elected to Parliament. With the president sitting outside the legislature now as the supreme leader, the numerical strength of the powerful family in governance has no parallels in the country’s 72-year history.

The Rajapaksa family had criticised the previous government led by President Maithripala Sirisena for failing to handle the economy properly and promised an economical revival. However, the promise did not materialise as the COVID-19-triggered curfews further devastated the country’s fragile economy that had suffered a huge setback last year following the Easter Sunday bombings that killed over 260 people and crippled Sri Lanka’s lucrative tourism industry.

Information Minister Bandula Gunawardena said Sri Lanka was facing the worst financial crisis in its history.

The Reserve Bank of India in July this year extended a USD 400 million currency swap facility to Sri Lanka to boost the nation’s draining foreign exchange reserves due to the pandemic.

In October, the Rajapaksa family introduced a crucial constitutional amendment with a two-thirds majority, consolidating the power in the hands of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and undermining the authority of Parliament.

The 20th Amendment annulled the 19th Amendment which was seen as a pro-democracy, good governance amendment and called for checks and balances in the presidential system while making Parliament more powerful.

The Opposition criticised the move.

Rights activists are alarmed by the actions of the government, saying the diminishing space for dissent and criticism, could lead to ever greater authoritarianism in the island nation.

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