Last year, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval met Sri Lanka’s opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena for a discussion that included rallying support against the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Less than two months later, Sirisena pulled off a shock victory.

Those two sentences are both true separately. Yet together, they seem to imply something different. Something like what the Sri Lankan newspaper the Sunday Times tried to sell with this little gossip item in the December 28 issue, which Reuters called “sketchy”.

“Claims that India’s spy agency RAW’s Colombo station chief K. Ilango had links with the Common Opposition have cost him his job in Colombo,” the paper reported. “Security sources say the man’s term was extended but transfer orders to him were sudden after the Sri Lanka Government urged New Delhi that he be recalled. A security source said the recall order followed the visit to Colombo of India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.”

That little item seemed spicy but relatively innocuous when it was published before the election results were out (at a time when few still were expecting Rajapaksa to lose). It has suddenly become a hot potato. Interest is particularly high because the issue has been brought up at a time when Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister is visiting New Delhi, with the new President also expected to make India his first international visit.

On Sunday, the spokesperson for India’s external affairs ministry vehemently denied that any Research and Analysis Wing officer had been transferred out of turn.

“I do not know from where unnamed sources are willing to say all sorts of things,” Syed Akbaruddin, the MEA spokesperson said. “I am here standing in front of you, willing to be quoted, and saying to all of you that the normal tenure of an Indian diplomat in Sri Lanka is three years, and all officials who have been transferred during the last year have completed that. So, it is a normal transfer. Do not read anything into it.”

Neighbourly attitude

That last line is the most imperative one for India. No matter how vehement the denials might be, New Delhi has to be concerned about rumours that India played a significant role in ensuring the astonishing victory of Sirisena, who defected from Rajapaksa's party two months before the elections. Until now, the heart-warming storyline has involved a conscientious objector gaining the support of the people to take on his own former boss who was becoming increasingly authoritarian.  If that gossip starts to become widespread, that narrative could be replaced by a more cynical one about India picking favourites in the neighbourhood.

India, naturally, has an interest in the outcome of elections in Sri Lanka. In particular, New Delhi was concerned about the growing closeness between Rajapaksa’s government and those in charge in Beijing. The trigger, according to Reuters, was Rajapaksa’s decision last year to allow two Chinese submarines to dock in Sri Lanka without informing New Delhi first, as it is required to per a maritime security pact between the two countries.

Sirisena, on his part, has show signs of being much more friendly towards New Delhi. Aside from featuring senior politicians in his large coalition who were always close to India, the new President also promised to review and redress the extent of Rajapaksa’s tilt towards Beijing across the board.

Talk of the town

The danger, however, lies in whether the Sirisena government and New Delhi are able to stifle any suggestions that India influenced what appeared to be a popular mandate on the island. Reports have emerged that it was the RAW agent who convinced opposition leaders and minority parties to band together to defeat Rajapaksa. On the further reaches of the internet, on the blogs and in the forums, this impression is starting to become commonplace.

India most definitely influences the elections of its neighbours, although rarely to the extent of picking winners. Its diplomatic and intelligence corps exist to protect India’s interests, so this would not be out of their ambit. But the objective is reversed if the world comes to know about this influence.

New Delhi doesn’t have the most benign image in this part of the neighbourhood, considering the disastrous attempt to intervene in the Sri Lankan civil war in the 1980s. Or, to take another example, India for a time became an unmentionable word in Nepal, because it had spent so much time meddling in local politics that the population had turned against any leader who was said to be close to New Delhi.

The new governments, in India and Sri Lanka, can’t afford to see this impression erode the popularity and support Sirisena has managed to gather in a short space of time. It remains to see how they will fight the rumours without falling prey to the Streisand effect, whereby attempting to deny something ends up giving it more credence.