COLOMBO, July 26 Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sent a congratulatory message to Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Ranil Wickremesinghe, nearly a week after his rise to the island nation’s helm amid political upheaval triggered by a severe economic meltdown.  

PM Modi’s outreach to Wickremesinghe follows messages from the Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Sri Lankan leader, who is counting on urgent international support to cope with the deepening crisis. The Indian High Commission in Colombo, which put out a tweet on July 20 — the day of Wickremesinghe’s election in Parliament — noted the development but stopped short of congratulating him. This was hours after the Indian mission “categorically denied” media reports of India attempting to “influence” the key parliament vote.  

“You have assumed the high office at a critical time for Sri Lanka,” Modi said in the letter dated July 25. Expressing hope that Wickremesinghe’s tenure would “nurture” economic stability and “fulfill the aspirations of all citizens”, the Indian Prime Minister said: “As a close friend and neighbour of Sri Lanka, India will continue to be supportive of the quest of the people of Sri Lanka for stability and economic recovery, through established democratic means, institutions and constitutional framework.” The message reiterated India’s emphasis on assisting the “people of Sri Lanka”. “I look forward to working closely with you for the mutual benefit of our people,” Modi said in the letter.  

On Tuesday, Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay paid “a courtesy call” on newly appointed Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry.  

Indian assistance

  

As Sri Lanka’s economic crisis aggravated from the beginning of this year, India emerged its top creditor, stepping in with crucial assistance of $3.8 billion so far, by way of currency swaps, loan deferments and credit lines for essential imports.  On Tuesday, a large consignment of rice, milk powder and medicines arrived as part of donations from the Tamil Nadu government. This was the third consignment from the southern state, which has extended nearly 40,000 MT of rice, 500 MT of milk powder and more than 100 MT of medicines totalling some $ 22 million.   

After pre-emptively defaulting on its $ 51 billion-foreign debt in April, Colombo has been holding talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), hoping for a package that would enable its recovery. However, with the IMF indicating that its support would depend on Sri Lanka’s creditors expressing confidence over the government’s debt restructure strategy, the Wickremesinghe government is in urgent need for bridge financing to meet the requirements of the next few months. 

Growing concern

 

Meanwhile, the economic downturn is not Sri Lanka’s only challenge, while the world closely tracks the prospects for political stability in the island. Although elected with an impressive majority in Parliament, Wickremesinghe faces considerable criticism from Sri Lankans who see him as an ally of the discredited Rajapaksas, who were ousted by stunning citizens’ protests.  More recently, the military’s ruthless pre-dawn raid at Colombo’s main agitation site, just after he assumed charge, drew wide condemnation by the international community, including the UN. Protests against Wickremesinghe and the military assault on protesters continue in different parts of the country.  

On Tuesday, over 150 academics and South Asia scholars from world over released a statement urging President Wickremesinghe to protect citizens’ right to dissent. “Wickremasinghe was elected by parliament to take on the presidency, which was vacated due to the non-violent pro-democracy movement against authoritarianism and failed governance. His decision to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors is deeply alarming and does not offer the prospect of Sri Lanka progressing beyond the current crisis it is in,” the scholars said in a statement. Pointing to the Sri Lankan President’s reference to protestors as “fascists”, the academics noted it was “totally inaccurate, inappropriate and damaging” and that it “weaponizes the term to provide an excuse for the use of extreme force.” 

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