The defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in both the presidential and prime ministerial polls has sown the seeds of a new political order, which will be in India’s interest
By Shastri Ramachandaran
Even as Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesin-ghe’s call for a “new political culture” resonates in Sri Lanka, to embrace this future, the island republic needs to bury the ghosts that haunt it from its past.
Given the resounding mandate of the two elections held eight months apart—the presidential election on January 8 and the parliamentary election on August 17 this year—this task of breaking from the past may appear easy. However, that would be a serious
misreading of the diverse challenges facing President Maithripala Sirisena and Wickremesinghe.
It is best to begin where the break with the past has to begin, i.e. Mahinda Rajapaksa. Much like in the aftermath of the 1977 Lok Sabha elections in India, where Indira Gandhi continued to haunt the Janata Party government after her authoritarian regime, including the Emergency, was overturned, in Sri Lanka too, Rajapaksa is down but far from out.
Unlike in India though, where Indira Gandhi was trounced in the parliamentary and subsequent state elections, in Sri Lanka, Wickremesinghe did not win the elections (either in January or August). It is Rajapaksa who was defeated. And, on both occasions, Rajapaksa conceded defeat even before the full results were out, thereby proving wrong those who had spread rumors of a palace coup in January and a party split in August.
Rajapaksa’s vote share is not only sizable, but big enough to cause trouble within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is now led by Sirisena. In the August elections, the Rajapaksa-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) recorded a vote share of 42.4 percent—a few notches below the 45.7 per cent secured by Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP).
The vote share is of more than academic interest because central to the ushering in of Wickremesinghe’s “new political culture” is dismantling of the Rajapaksa regime’s corrupt and authoritarian order, which thrived on patronage and nepotism. Investigations and prosecutions are bound to implicate Rajapaksa and his family members.
Therefore, whether Rajapaksa withdraws from the political arena (and lets down the party members who look up to him), or stays as the elephant in the room, would be decided by the option that provides him better protection from the actions of the new
government. There is also the matter of wartime accountability, which could put Rajapaksa in the dock.
Thus, Rajapaksa’s politics now would be guided by how best to avoid being made acc-ountable for his actions when he was president. This could be problematic for the new government as Rajapaksa has to be dealt with in a way that deprives him political mileage of the kind Indira Gandhi squeezed out of the actions initiated against her for Emergency excesses.
The other challenges facing the UNP-led coalition also entail dealing with Raja-paksa and the vestiges of his legacy, such as the polarization of politics as well as of Tamils and Sinhalas. In office and during the elections, he did everything, including spreading fear of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) making a comeback in the event of a UNP victory. Thus, he ensured total polarization of the Tamils and Sinhalas and sustained the ethnic divide to keep himself entrenched in office. As elections approached, he succeeded in splitting the Tamil parties and groups (after all, he had held 18 rounds of talks with these sections) and polarizing the Sinhala majority between him and Sirisena.
As a result, resolving the “national question” has bec-ome more complicated for the UNP. It is no more a matter of engaging Tamil parties in credible pro-cesses for Tamil-Sinhala reconciliation, but it requires reconciliation of the divided Sinhala polity. Negotiating the majoritarian fault lines, winning over Sinhala Buddhist nationalist forces, engaging the disparate constituents of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and not disappointing the smaller Sinhala parties in the coalition is a formidable proposition even at the best of times.
The more radical Tamil outfits may not have succeeded electorally, but their aggressive opposition to the government and the TNA leadership, viz. the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), which is the main Tamil party, shows that on both sides of the ethnic divide, there are competitive communalist forces at work.
All of these add up to an extremely fraught situation presently. Although the August election reaffirmed the January election’s rejection of authoritarian and divisive politics, elements that can vitiate the atmosphere, obstruct reconciliation and thwart the harmony and social stability required for an economic revival are still at work.
Domestic recognition of these realities is evident in the national government’s continued striving for all-round consensus, reflected, for example, in former president Chan-drika Kumaratunga being roped in to lead the Reconciliation Task Force. Kumaratunga is the Sinhala politician who went farthest to win over the Tamils and became the president with maximum Tamil support. Her popularity among Tamils so unnerved the LTTE that it tried to kill her. She survived the assassination attempt but lost an eye in the attack.
External recognition of these risks is reflected in the decision of the US and the UN to support the new government with a favorable, collaborative resolution in the Septem-ber session of the Human Rights Council. This is the second time—the first being in March, after the presidential election—that the US and the UN have explicitly endorsed an internal Sri Lankan investigation into alleged war crimes.
Past US resolutions on the issue, which India and China did not support, called for an international probe, and the UN was seen as being “excessively active”.
This helps the new government in many ways. On the home front, the nationalists cannot raise a hue and cry over “violation of sovereignty”; and the military leadership is reassured that there would be no action which affects the morale of the forces. At a larger, diplomatic level, relations between Sri Lanka and the US, which were severely strained under Rajapaksa, have a more sustainable basis to go forward and this is of significant strategic advantage to the US.
This is a also a big boost for Wickre-mesinghe, who is perceived as pro-West and “market friendly”. As a result, Sri Lanka may be required to lean away from China and provide more economic and investment opportunities to the West. However, as Sirisena realized, especially during a visit to China, and Wickremesinghe indicated after the election, Sri Lanka is unlikely to burn its bridges with China.
After the crushing of the LTTE in 2009, China’s wooing of Sri Lanka as another “all-weather friend” in the region caused concern in India. Chinese submarines docking in Sri Lankan ports heightened these concerns because in strategic terms, the island is assumed to be in India’s “zone of influence”.
In the last eight months, Colombo appears to have addressed these concerns to New Delhi’s satisfaction. Although India would be equally suspicious of Sri Lanka cosying up to the US, Colombo’s current posture of equidistance between the Washington and Beijing is a consolation to New Delhi. Wickremesinghe’s quest for deeper, more enduring ties with the US is not causing any discomfiture in India because of the good equation Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys with him and President Sirisena. There are also a large number of intermediaries, including partymen and businessmen, who are regularly at work on keeping up relations between Modi and Wickremesinghe.
The unraveling of the new political culture in Sri Lanka would be watched with interest at home, in the region and other world capitals too.