NEW DELHI: China cultivated a wide array of political parties in Sri Lanka ahead of the general elections there on August 5, a break from its earlier practice of backing one party in each of India’s neighbouring countries.

ET has reliably gathered that Chinese emissaries held closed door behind the scenes meetings with Lankan political leaders across parties ahead of the polls that made Mahinda Rajapaksa the prime minister for the fourth time. In 2015 in Sri Lanka and later in 2018 in the Maldives, Beijing was taken by surprise when its favourites lost polls in both these countries.

China watchers told ET that Beijing has changed its strategy based on the electoral setback faced by its favourites in India’s neighbourhood over the last few years.

But India, on its part, moved swiftly even before poll results were formally announced as PM Narendra Modi became the first leader to congratulate Rajapaksa and reinforce shared Buddhist heritage. Indian envoy to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay became the first foreign diplomat to call on the newly-elected PM to discuss future plans of cooperation. Indian naval base in Goa last week repaired a Sri Lankan air force plane, which had developed a snag in what won huge praises in Colombo.

Ahead of polls Song Tao, minister of the international department of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, hosted a video conference with leaders of major political parties of Lanka under the guise of fighting Covid-19, ET has learnt.

According to Luo Chong, a spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in Colombo, the meeting was a goodwill gesture. "The International Department of the Communist Party of China conducted several joint-video conferences with different parties in Sri Lanka, Nepal, [the] Philippines, Indonesia and Arab countries, which is a common practice, especially under the current Covid-19 situation," Luo told Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review in a recent interview.

Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Gotabaya, have been close to the Chinese leadership but they chose to cultivate ties with Delhi simultaneously ever since Gotabaya became the president last year. The 2019 terror attacks in Lanka has brought the two sides closer in the fight against cross-border terrorism and radical forces, according to Lanka watchers. Mahinda was hosted by India months before elections as part of outreach to the ruling leadership in the Southern neighbour.

Shocked by the 2015 presidential poll results in Lanka that ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa, Beijing decided to cultivate powerful Buddhist clergy in the island nation, ET has learnt. There are reports that Beijing even hired agencies to gauge voter sentiment in the island nation amid growing resentment against foreign powers getting strategic assets in the island. China accounts for 10% of Sri Lanka's external debt of $55 billion.

Simultaneously, a $480 million grant under the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was meant to help upgrade Sri Lanka's transport and logistics infrastructure but it became an election issue. The Rajapaksa brothers have gained electorally from the anti-MCC campaign.

But Delhi’s development assistance to Colombo did not become a poll issue. India’s total development assistance portfolio in Sri Lanka now exceeds $3.45 billion, of which $560 million is in the form of grant assistance. The assistance programmes across Lankan districts focus on capacity building, human resources development, connectivity, as well as infrastructure development. These span a wide range of areas from cultural conservation (restoration of Thiruketheeswaram temple) to construction of iconic landmarks (Jaffna Cultural Centre) to enhancing connectivity (restoration of railway lines). A unique nature of these projects is their people-centric nature, benefiting the common citizens in meaningful ways, according to officials.

Indian Housing Project to construct 50,000 houses in Sri Lanka is India’s flagship and largest grant assistance project in Sri Lanka. Over 48,600 houses have been constructed under the project so far.