Originally Published 2018-09-25 06:34:41 Published on Sep 25, 2018
Messages from Rajapaksa's New Delhi visit

By visiting neighbouring India’s capital of New Delhi with politician-son Namal Rajapaksa and his SLPP party chief and ex-ministerial colleague G. L. Peiris, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa may have sought to send out a message of sorts, back home. The message was clear: India is no more an adversary. Nor possibly was India adversarial to his return to power, as Mahinda R. in particular had averred after his historic electoral defeat in January 2015.

In a way, the timing of the visit was as much crucial as it was not. ‘Crucial’ because, Sri Lanka for months now has been on election-mode. The reference is to the presidential polls that are not due before January 2020 but about which speculation is rife in Colombo – motivated or otherwise.

‘Not-so-crucial’ because there is no knowing that a Rajapaksa, leave alone Mahinda R, can contest the presidential polls, for legal reasons of their own.

Yet, there is no denying the fact, and possible Indian perception, that the Rajapaksas may still hold the electoral key in their country, at least for the foreseeable future. It may not require a Rajapaksa to win the presidential polls. Instead, it may be enough for a candidate of their choosing to make their political adversaries to lose one.

Hidden horse

In Delhi, Mahinda met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and also the Opposition Congress leadership of Sonia-Gandhi and son Rahul Gandhi. It may have also been an experience in early and direct diplomacy for Namal R, who has political ambitions for the future. If Namal’s ambitions cannot fructify early on, as Mahinda told media interviewers in the Indian capital, it also owes to the incumbent Government’s 19-A, whose main aim was to deny the Rajapaksas an early chance to return to power.

As is known, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution not only reversed the Mahinda era 18-A, which alone facilitated his contesting the presidential polls for a third term after having occupied the seat already twice. By upping the minimum qualifying age from 30 to 35, 19-A also denied Namal R an early entry into the presidential poll race.

With Gota R’s unwillingness to risk losing his American citizenship unless named SLPP-JO presidential candidate, the Rajapaksas may not have a personal run in the polls race just now. The other two qualified Rajapaksas in former Speaker Chamal and ex-Minister Basil, reportedly disinclined to take the plunge, the question remains if the ‘family’ has a ‘hidden horse’ that might offer its services in the cause of the nation.

Already, there is vague media speculation about the nation wanting a woman leader, after Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga and her mother, Sirimavo, who was the world’s first woman Head of Government. If not from within the SLPP-JO, the UNP, according to some party leaders, should experiment, fielding a woman for the presidency. Maybe, more than the UNP, the SLPP-JO may take the message – and take it forward, too.

Extending courtesies

Given that the SLPP-JO presidential candidacy is still in a flux, the Indian reception for the Rajapaksas may not have been as much as expected. If nothing else, the Indian media did not give Mahinda as much coverage as may have been wished for. But there was still a message in it, alright!

On the face of it, India has extended all courtesies to recognized Opposition Leaders and also former Heads of State and/or Government in the neighbourhood whenever they had expressed an interest to visit India – or, had an opportunity to do so. If they were to touch down at Capital Delhi, and if the dates did not clash, the Indian Prime Minister of the day had always found time to meet up with them. So have the main Opposition party leaders of the day – possibly in consultation with the authorities concerned.

From within Sri Lanka, present-day UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wicremesinghe used to be the subject of such Indian courtesies whenever he chose to visit Delhi. It was not a hidden fact that whenever pushed to the wall in the now-forgotten internal crisis within the UNP, when he was the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil W was believed to be taking the immediate escape route, by visiting Delhi, claiming that the ‘Government of India has called me for consultations’.

This time round, Mahinda R did not require such justification or excuses. Nor are there any problems within the party for him to face-off. His internal problems within the country come from outside of his own party, from the Government leadership of the day, to be precise.

Whether Court cases and the ‘surrender of passports’, say in the case of Gota R, for instance, could deny the Rajapaksas their popularity is a question that the Government leadership, both political and otherwise, should be asking itself. You do not call of marriages or weddings for want of a missing comb, or whatever!

Not the official host

True, the Government of India was not the official host of the Rajapaksas in Delhi this time. Nor was any State-run agencies/think-tanks come into the picture. Mahinda R was in Delhi to address a public Interaction organised by ruling BJP Parliamentarian and former Union Minister, Dr Subramanian Swamy.

As is known, Swamy continues to hate the LTTE and Prabakaran than he loves anyone in particular in Sri Lanka. As the only Sri Lankan political leader to stand up to the LTTE and Prabakaran, ram-rod straight and stood his ground under great international pressure, Mahinda has admirers in India. Swamy is the most vocal and visible of them!

Yet, by receiving Mahinda R, PM Modi has sent out a message to the present-day rulers, and possibly the divided Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka, it is for them to decipher the meanings. Definitely, India would want a strong and unwavering leadership in Colombo, which could stand at the vanguard of regional stability and security, where both nations have a lot to share. It should stop there.

If Mahinda claimed that Indian agencies had worked with their western counterparts to have him defeated, he did change his views without much delay. At the same time, if the present-day leadership of the Sri Lankan Government think that they have browbeaten India into helping to defeat Mahinda R in Elections-2015 playing up the ‘China card’, that again was a mirage of the past – even if true, for the sake of argument.

There are no permanent friends or enemies in international diplomacy, but only permanent (national) interests. India is no different in holding on to such perceptions. If nothing else, it would now seem, the present-day rulers have given away to China more than what even Mahinda as President did not imagine.

Mahinda seemed to believe that ‘development’ may be a substitute to ‘devolution’ for post-war Tamils and to ‘democracy’ otherwise. Against this, incumbent UNP Prime Minister Ranil, who actually seems to be in the driving-seat, portrays himself and the party as ‘liberal democrats’.

For PM Ranil in particular to manipulate the Hambantota equity-swap, as necessitated by an inherited ‘debt-trap’ and yet go in for more of Chinese loans of the kind, is just not on. One cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hound, and make the rest of the world believe that it is otherwise.

Less said about the Tamils and the TNA viz India, the better. By deliberately letting the ‘war crimes’ probe to be taken to the UNHRC, they helped ensure that it was out of India’s reach.

Now they too cannot complain that India was ‘not doing enough’. Worse still, their new-found, or re-discovered western friends, too are realising that they did not know Sri Lanka enough, to have meddled in there, out of growing apprehensions for China – or, so it would seem!

This commentary originally appeared in Ceylon Today.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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