Gotabaya Rajapaksa has previously been more inclined towards China. Modi has been quick off his feet to send a positive message to Gotabaya after his election. India needs to consolidate its initial gains with Sri Lanka

New Delhi needs to purse a plethora of initiatives in the fields of security, intelligence sharing and economic cooperation

Sri Lanka has its own interests to serve in deepening relations with India

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the oath to office as the eighth President of Sri Lanka at the 140 BC Ruwanweli Seya Buddhist temple in the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura instead of Independence Square in Colombo, he sent out two strong signals. It was a big thank you to the majority Sinhalese Buddhists, who constitute 70% of the Sri Lankan population, and who voted for him in large numbers; the total turnout was 80% among the 16 million voters of the island nation. He got a humongous 52% of the vote share.Secondly, and subtly, it was a signal of his willingness to warm up to New Delhi; the kingdom of Anuradhapura in north-central Sri Lanka has strong ancient links with India.Rajapaksa is now symbolically making his first foreign trip to India, endorsing once again the view that he is willing to embark on a new era of understanding with us. The new confidence-building symbolisms have not come in isolation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first to tweet out a congratulatory message to him, hours after the results were declared though it was a well-known fact that New Delhi would have been more buoyant if Sajith Premadasa had won. The new president-elect immediately tweeted back his appreciation and thanks.The very next day after his election, foreign minister S Jaishankar dashed to Colombo on a surprise visit to personally hand him Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to visit India.Jaishankar with Rajapaksa

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Foreign Minister S Jaishankar | Pic Credit: Twitter/@DrSJaishankarThe explicit bonhomie on both sides, if nothing else, also exhibits keenness in the two countries to take their ties forward in a more pragmatic fashion; thus tacitly also revealing that there were irritants in their past relations.The President’s visit exactly 5 years ago as the defence secretary in the cabinet of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was everything but pleasant. The Modi government had at that time outlined its discomfort with Sri Lanka allowing China to use it to consolidate its presence in our backyard.The message had clearly not gone down to well with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as just a week later, in a clear snub, Chinese ships docked in Colombo – submarine Changzheng-2 and the warship Chang Xing Dao. It was also during the regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa that cash strapped Sri Lanka bartered away its strategic port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease to China. And signed pacts for large scale investments in infrastructure projects like ports, expressways and power stations.Even strategically, Gotabaya is more aligned and inclined towards China than the United States which has offered to sign a USD 500 million pact with Sri Lanka to forward economic and military cooperation. As of now, the new dispensation has remained cool to the proposal, though its debt situation remains precarious. Gotabaya might still be smarting under bitter criticism that he faced from America for his role in crushing the LTTE in 2009 as the defence secretary to put an end to civil conflict.Modi with Mahinda Rajapaksa

There is a, therefore, a greater chance of Gotabaya getting into a tighter embrace with China. Yet, in his own manifesto, he has pledged neutrality in foreign relations and promised to renegotiate the Chinese lease of the Hambantota port.Sensing the current situation as a window of opportunity, Prime Minister Modi would like to step in and ensure that the tilt towards China does not get too pronounced. Through a deal with the previous regime, India too secured an entry into port and airport projects in cities like Hambantota, Trincomalee and national capital Colombo. It will now be hoping to further build such strategic alliances, along with deepening economic relations. India can also leverage the opportunity to use its good offices to help the Sri Lankan President to reach out to the Tamil population that did not vote for him due to their past bitterness. India has, in fact, been silently working towards cementing its relations with the Sinhalese populace.The Easter Sunday attacks on churches this April had left more than 250 people dead and hardened the stand of the majority of the Sinhalese population against Tamils and Muslims in the north and eastern parts of the country. The attacks are also a case in point on how India could build bridges by extending security cooperation and in intelligence sharing. Sri Lanka remains a vital cog in India’s Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean strategy and it would be imperative for Narendra Modi to continue to pursue a foreign policy that is based on realism rather than perceptions that are hostage to our past experiences with Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Prime Minister has made an excellent start. He should use this visit as an opportunity to fix the sails and gently manoeuvre the Sri Lankan boat towards the Bay of Bengal than the South China Sea.