NATIONAL security was the dominant narrative that propelled Narendra Modi and the BJP to a landslide victory in this year’s Lok Sabha elections. The same plank has worked wonders for Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the Sri Lankan presidential elections. The Pulwama terror attack cast its shadow on India’s parliamentary polls, while the Easter Sunday bombings influenced the election outcome in the island nation. In both cases, it has been a triumph of majoritarian politics and chest-thumping nationalism. Echoing Modi’s words, Rajapaksa has diplomatically stated that he is the leader of not only those who elected him but also of those who voted against him.
The striking similarities, however, are unlikely to translate into better ties between the two subcontinental neighbours. Rajapaksa has promised to strengthen relations with China, Sri Lanka’s top lender. Beijing acquired the Hambantota port as a debt swap in 2017 and gifted a warship in July this year, signalling its intention of enhancing military cooperation. China’s growing clout in the Indian Ocean, in which Sri Lanka is strategically located, threatens to undermine India’s geopolitical interests.
Rajapaksa, who was the defence secretary in the government headed by his brother Mahinda, is credited with ruthlessly supervising the military operations against the LTTE that led to the end of a bloody, protracted civil war. A divisive figure, Rajapaksa predictably swept the poll in the Sinhala Buddhist-majority districts, but was rejected by voters in the Tamil and Muslim-dominated northern and eastern provinces. It will be an uphill task for the ‘strongman’ to walk the talk on taking the minorities along, even as he and his family are struggling to counter the allegations of human rights violations, levelled by the United Nations. Another major challenge would be to ensure that the April 21 terror attacks, which had shattered decade-long peace and exposed lapses on the part of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government, are not repeated. With the parliamentary polls due next year in Sri Lanka and a change of guard inevitable, India needs to tread cautiously while engaging with its neighbour across the Palk Strait.