“It is better to elect a known devil,” appealed Mahinda Rajapaksa to the voters in North and East of Sri Lanka. But the people decided to elect an angel instead. And rest, as they say, is history.
The robustness of the democratic system was proved beyond doubt once again when the transition of political parties took place peacefully once the electoral process ended. Given the political acumen of the former President it is difficult to conclude that the election results would have surprised him. But to the world outside the result was unexpected. Having amended the Constitution to his advantage, Rajapaksa called for a surprise election to get a third term of six more years that would allow him to be president of the Island country till 2020.
Many of the factors that influenced the Indian voters in the May 2014 General Election which catapulted a simple ‘man of the masses’ Narendra Modi to Prime Ministership of the largest democracy in the world, played a key role in Sri Lanka too. Corruption free governance, end to crony capitalism and power to people were the catch phrases that brought out the best in an unassuming simple former cabinet member Maitrhripala Sirisena.
Sirisena’s much expected victory can be attributed to two factors. This former cabinet colleague of Rajapaksa and General Secretary of his party, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), quit suddenly only to take on his President and one time mentor whom he accused of authoritarianism and cornering country’s riches for his family. He was not alone. Soon a large section of his party and the rest of the opposition cobbled a new coalition “New Democratic Front”. They had nothing in common except the resolve to defeat Rajapaksa, which they did. Former President Chandrika Kumar-tunga and the main Opposition United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickreme-singhe, were sworn enemies till last November but turned friends to back Sirisena.
Another important factor was the minority votes of the Tamil and Muslim vote bank in the North and East who voted for the Sinhala Sirisena to punish Rajapaksa. Did they shoot themselves in their foot, only time will tell but as of now they have scored a victory over the ‘devil’? In President Sirisena’s victory, a critical role was played by the minorities, particularly the Tamils and Muslims. The minorities accounted for nearly a million votes against Rajapaksa, giving Sirisena a lead of more than 7,00,000 votes thus wiping out his shortfall in the Sinhala areas where Rajapaksa still held firm ground. How far the Tamils trust a Sinhala president is another matter. But the irony is that in the first election that brought Rajapaksa to power it was boycott call by the LTTE that defeated the present Prime Minister Ranil Wikraremesinghe of the UNP. Rajapaksa then went ahead to finish LTTE and sought another term over his victory from the majority this time. Strangely, the Sinhala politics still thinks Tamils and other minorities don’t really matter.
It is important to remember that people needed a strong government in Colombo to win a war over LTTE and keep the nation united. But having secured peace, the need for a peace time government was even more pronounced in the country’s narrative. This should explain the power shift. The new government has to win the vote of confidence which appears to be easy. But a more daunting task is the Parliament Election in April end which will determine the political strength of the government.
SL wants close relation with India
The bilateral talk was mainly focused on enhancing bilateral cooperation and reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka. Issues related to the alleged trespassing of Indian fishermen into Sri Lankan waters were also discussed. Colombo has accused fishermen mainly from Tamil Nadu of fishing in Sri Lankan waters, affecting the earnings of its own fishermen.
Both the countries also agreed to re-engage on the issue of repatriation of Tamil refugees currently in India. According to official figures, more than 1,00,000 Sri Lankan refugees are in
Tamil Nadu, out of which some 68,000 are housed in over 100 government-
According to the external affairs ministry statement, the two ministers had extremely positive and substantive discussion, covering the entire expanse of the 'close and friendly relations'. Samaraweera indicated that his choice of visiting India as his first foreign visit reflects the priority the new Sri Lankan government gives to relations between our two countries.
It is expected that Sirisena will visit India in February and Narendra Modi will visit Colombo in March, which would be the first state visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka since 1987. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will also travel to Sri Lanka ahead of that and also chair the India-Sri Lanka Joint Commission meeting at the time.
The new coalition was cobbled to punish Rajapaksa but there is no unity among the parties. Sooner or later the differences among them will surface with each one of them rushing to secure their respective vote banks. With the kind of voting pattern that has emerged it will not be easy for the present government to get a clear majority in the House. It will be foolish to carry out political vendetta and punish Rajapaksa any further that would give him back his lost political space. To his credit the new President has conducted in a manner befitting a statesman and is likely to win the trust of the people. But a larger question about the legal status of parties and persons could arise soon and muddy the political atmosphere and create unstable political situation.
At the top of President Sirisena’s agenda is the abolition of the Executive Presidency. But it is easier said than done. Constitutional amendments to abolish/amend the Executive Presidency requires two-thirds majority in Parliament, which the combined Opposition does not have. As if to encourage further defections from the outgoing ruling combine, President-elect Sirisena in particular was careful to reiterate that he was still the SLFP General Secretary, which has been contested by Rajapaksa’s lawyers saying that Sirisena had quit the party and contested as a candidate of a new party. Thus he was not the official candidate of the SLFP.
What is there for India in this power shift? There is a larger question of diplomatic, strategic and security parameters wherein pragmatic engagement with a friendly neighbour is far better than snubbing and isolating thereby ceding strategic space in the Indian Ocean Region to forces inimical to our interest. Sri Lanka is in a strategic position in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) architecture. The outgoing Sri Lankan President had time and again reiterated that Colombo has neither any plans nor the capability to play the China card against India. The new dispensation should continue the same policy and assure New Delhi that Colombo will keep in mind Indian sensitivity while dealing with Beijing which is heavily funding large-scale projects there.
It will be difficult for the New Democratic Front (NDF) to keep the Human Right activists away for long especially after having won the election with the votes of minorities. But any extra concession to the pro-West NGOs and outfits supported by a section of the Church would invite criticism from the million strong Buddhist monks and the political parties depending on their support. The new President will have to have a pragmatic approach on social and religious issues and yet be able to do business with the West. Another act of balancing that he will be expected to do would be on the investment and economic development with support from Beijing and New Delhi without ceding strategic space to one to the detriment of the other.
Since the end of the war in 2009, India has played a leading role in Sri Lanka’s reconstruction process by providing homes to IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), building power and railway infrastructure, and nudging the Sri Lankan Government to hold elections in the Northern Province as well as on implementing the 13th Amendment, albeit, with necessary changes in keeping with new ground realities. The Tamil community is practically leaderless but its political aspirations are alive and unfulfilled. Colombo is fully aware and seriously seized of this aspect. The most striking feature is that neither the Tamil population nor the government has been able to put across their views effectively and in an unbiased manner to the world community. But a quick look at the first hundred promises of the new President would reveal that it has nothing for the minorities, especially the overwhelming majority of the Tamils who heavily voted for Sirisena.
In the last five years, Colombo had embarked upon a massive demining and resettlement process in the North. This was done with the support of international agencies and foreign governments. Today, the demining process is nearing completion and almost all internally displaced persons–around 3,00,000 people–have been resettled. Psychosocial programs have been established and vocational training centers opened in each welfare village, to fully reintegrate former combatants, among them 595 child soldiers. Loans and employments were also provided.
These efforts have paved the way for the successful holding of council elections in the Northern Province for the first time since 1987. This historic political event, which took place in September 2013, saw an impressive voter turnout of 67.52 percent, rekindling hope for empowerment of the nation’s minority communities.
Inadequate infrastructure had been a considerable bottleneck in the country’s economic progress over the past several decades, especially in the North. The recent development of infrastructure as a means to improve connectivity and reduce the disparities between the South and the North is thus praiseworthy. Since 2009, the country has seen rapid and widespread development within both rural and urban areas. The new dispensation has a clear mandate to continue this good work and take it further towards its logical conclusion of winning the hearts of the Tamil community and cementing the differences.
In a speech to Indian Foreign Service probationers in June 2008, the then PM Dr Manmohan Singh had said: “The most important aspect of our foreign policy is our management of our relations with our neighbours. We don’t know adequately enough of what goes on in our neighbourhood. And many a times our own thinking about these countries is influenced excessively by western perceptions of what is going on in these countries.” India’s boycott of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and voting against Sri Lanka at the The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) were probably born out of this thought process. Inspite of India’s cold shouldering, Rajapaksa managed to keep New Delhi close to his decision making process keeping his independence intact. The new President is equally astute and experienced and likely to take the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship to greater heights.
New Delhi on its part will have to shed its lethargy and engage with Colombo with renewed vigour and alacrity. The UPA government excelled in its sloppiness and indecision while dealing with neighbours especially with Sri Lanka, the only country between us and the South Pole. PM Narendra Modi reached out to immediate neighbours right from day one in office. His understanding of Sri Lanka, the Tamil issue, Buddhist traditions and the rich cultural linkages is excellent. Hence, he can be expected to visit the Island country at the earliest and regain the strategic elbow space in the region. With the Prime Minister of India assuring the new president of ‘all possible assistance and above all the goodwill and friendship of the people’, nothing can stop peace, progress and prosperity in Sri Lanka.
-Seshadri Chari, (The writer is former Editor of Organiser,
presently Secretary General of FINS)