Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 18, 2019
Sri Lanka elections: The Delhi – Colombo trajectory

Now that Sri Lanka has voted war-time Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as their seventh Executive President, it may be easier for arm-chair analysts in global capitals to brand it as victory for ‘hard-line, majoritarian, Sinhala-Buddhisst’ dynastic leadership. Nothing can be farther from the truth as Sri Lankan voters preferred a stable government that could ensure physical security after the ‘Easter Sunday’ serial-blasts and economic prosperity that translates as ‘money in my pocket’.

The outgoing divided, dual leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has to be blamed as much for the defeat of the latter’s UNP candidate Sajith Premadasa, as the proven 40-percent vote-share that Gotabhaya’s brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had built almost from the scratch. Help also came from the parent SLFP after President Sirisena declared his neutrality, after failing garner support for his candidacy.

Only a detailed analysis of the results would give a better view of the causes for Gotabhaya’s victory but there is no denying the contribution of his other brother and campaign strategist, Basil Rajapaksa, who knew electorates, electoral divisions, caste-composition, et al, as the palm of his hand. The more the war-affected Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community, under the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leadership backed the Premadasa ticket, especially during the last week, greater became the consolidation of urban Sinhala youths who had voted against the Rajapaksas in the previous presidential polls.

The first-time voters, who had only heard about the LTTE days, as also their family elders, did not want the return of the war-time past after being reminded of street-corner security check-points, uncertainty over the safety and well-being of a kin, possibly caught in a blast-site and so on was the motivating factor of the individual. Barring a few, not many seemed to have bothered about power-sharing issues, where however, the two main candidates in a high total of 35 seemed to have shared similar, if not same views.

The governmental circus the outgoing partners to power had enacted for most part of their shared regime, internal squabbles, political differences and personality clashes had denied the Rajapaksas their due news space, but the much-highlighted anti-incumbency factor worked in Gotabhaya’s favour. If the outgoing government had managed to keep their own ‘Central Bank bonds scam’ alive through the past years, the young voter especially was agonised by lack of jobs, rising prices and his own perception of government’s indifference to the nation’s plight, and the rulers’ indulgence to their petty quarrels and never-ending episodes of one-upmanship.

Timing India visit

It is in this background, New Delhi would be awaiting President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s maiden visit to Delhi. Unlike in the case of non-regional powers, barring Pakistan, most neighbourhood leaders have made India their first overseas port-of-call while embarking on their outreach programme. Independent of domestic political differences, Sri Lanka has remained no exception. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi losing no time in personally congratulating President-elect Gotabhaya, and the latter readily accepting the invitation, now the mutually worked-out timing becomes as much important for bilateral-watchers, especially if India would be the first overseas destination for the new Sri Lankan President.

Whenever it happens, it would possibly be the first meeting between the two leaders, and observers would be keen to know how their chemistry worked. Prime Minister Modi had interacted with Gotabhaya’s elder brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his private visit to New Delhi last year, along with his parliamentarian-son Namal R. At a private function that he addressed during the visit, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who as the leader of the SLPP, of which Gotabhaya is a member, declared that if they returned to power they would try to revive the ‘troika-approach’ to problem-solving in India relations, which had worked out well for both. Even while declaring Gotabhaya’s candidacy for the presidency, Mahinda had declared that he would be the Prime Minister, if the other were elected President.

While the Rajapaksa combo remains mostly intact in Sri Lanka, Indian leaders, especially the diplomatic corps, starting with then Foreign Secretary, S Jaishanker, who is now External Affairs Minister, have had occasions to interact with the Rajapaksas during the closing months of their presidency. Even otherwise, there has been a wealth of institutional information, expertise and experts in the MEA and other organs of the Indian government for ensuring a smooth sail forward.

Demanding decision

In all, there are five major and minor irritants to bilateral relations in Sri Lanka’s post-war years. With the Easter blasts, where Sri Lankan agencies failed to act on the early and continuous Indian alerts, there is greater realisation in Colombo on issues of ‘international terrorism’. Yet, from a bilateral perspective there are greater chances for cooperation under a ‘decisive’ and pro-active President in Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, whose mandate includes eradication of terrorism in all forms in and around the island-nation.

On UNHRC-centric war-crime probe, where India voted for the US resolution way back in 2011, there is no movement at Geneva after the outgoing Sri Lankan government co-authored a near-endorsement resolution after coming to power. Given the fact that the Sri Lankan air had become easier to breathe for the common man, and also having a leadership that they had propped up, the West has been going slow on the issue, citing small increments of positive work on the ground to delay the final roll-call till September 2020, the official deadline for Sri Lanka to complete the ongoing poll process, with the parliamentary elections by mid-August.

Owing to the co-authored resolutions of the past years, India did not have to make choices. Ahead of the commencement of the presidential poll campaign, the Rajapaksas declared in no unclear terms that they would not abide by the Geneva commitments (if there were any) given by the outgoing government. While that could become a tough call for the Modi government, India too may end up sailing on the same boat at Geneva over Jammu & Kashmir and Article 370, making stand-alone decision-making even more demanding.

Talking ethnic issue

Then, there is the larger ethnic issue, China factor and trade negotiations, all a legacy inherited by the Rajapaksas during their last tenure, and left behind without a solution by the successor duo. Barring symbolisms, nothing much has moved on any of these issues, and the new Rajapaksa regime can take them up from where the outgoing leadership has left it.

On the specifics, the Rajapaksas can now try revive the aborted talks with the Tamils, who having antagonised the new rulers in Colombo during election time, as much personally as politically, may suddenly remember the existence of India, and come back with the complaints book after five long years.

With the current Parliament dragging on the Constitution-making process even without it reaching the stage where the Rajapaksa-centric polity could stall it, and fresh elections not before next August, there is a need to wait, watch and proceed. If approached, India could begin both sides to break the frosted ice between them during the intervening weeks and months – and let the Sri Lankan stake-holders take it forward.

On China, India’s greater concern in the shared Indian Ocean, is a section of the nation’s strategic community had blamed the Rajapaksas for the Hambantota port construction deal. They did not have any excuse or explanation when the successor regime went in for a ‘debt-to-equity’ deal with Beijing, and handed over Sri Lankan territory to the creditor, supposedly on long lease.

Even while blaming the Rajapaksas for driving the nation into a debt-trap, the outgoing government went ahead and borrowed another $100 million from China for building more expressways, a process set in motion by the former while in office. When President Sirisena expressed reservations on the new Hambantota deal, China gifted him with $300 million projects of his choice, which he used up for housing across the country (competing, incidentally with India-funded housing projects).

Economic cooperation

Bilateral economic cooperation and a new trade agreement to replace the timed-out FTA, which has served well over two decades, is another Rajapaksa inheritance which the successors have left untouched for all practical purposes, even after changing the nomenclature from CEPA to ECTA. The two nations can consider reviving the talks, from wherever they have left them since, but it will take political will at the highest levels to make them work down the line.

In the two leaders, namely, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Modi, the two nations have decisive and unwavering leaders, who could work as well as they could fall out. It is a question of seeing the cup half empty or half full. In the early months, the Rajapaksas are going to be engaged in domestic politics, more elections, including those for the nine Provincial Councils, and reshaping the administration. That would also give the two nations to assess each other under the evolving national, regional and geo-strategic circumstances and take forward further negotiations to mutual satisfaction, even if in phases.

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