Sri Lanka went to polls yesterday to elect its next President. While there are a record 35 contenders for the top post, the real fight was between Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party (UNP) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Party (SLPP). Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the former Defence Secretary of Sri Lanka. He is largely credited with ending the 37-year separatist war in Sri Lanka in 2009 even as the LTTE was defeated. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President of Sri Lanka at that time.
Even though there were no opinion studies of the likely voters, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been seen as the favourite to win the Presidential polls. The results are now out, and Rajapaksa has claimed victory at the polls.
The popular opinion has remained titled in favour of strongman Gotabaya Rajapaksa especially after the Easter attacks in the country in the month of April this year. National security has become a key issue in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa brothers have been traditionally credited with the defeat of the Tamil rebels and taking the island country out of the civil war. In such circumstances, Sri Lankan nationalism finds expression in Gotabaya Rajapaksa which gives him a clear edge over his rival, Premadasa.
The early election result trends are on expected lines. Rajapaksa was being seen as the likely winner in the contest between him and Premadasa. According to reports, Rajapaksa was leading with 52.87 per cent, while Sajith Premadasa had 39.67 per cent out of half a million votes counted. Gotabaya Rajapaksa took an early lead in Sri Lanka Presidential race and this might as well lead to the Rajapaksa brothers occupying the centre stage in Sri Lanka politics.
While Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems all set to become the President of the island country, his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa is said to be eyeing the Prime Minister’s seat following parliamentary polls next year. He is currently the leader of opposition in Parliament and is being seen as a clear choice for premiership when parliamentary polls are held next year. Last year, Mahinda Rajapaksa had occupied the office of Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for a brief period, as he carried out a soft coup in Sri Lanka. Sirisena had installed him as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and sitting PM Ranil Wickremesinghe was fired, following a breakdown in ties between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. However, Rajapaksa resigned later on in the midst of a court battle during which he was also restrained from functioning as the Prime Minister.
With Gotabaya Rajapaksa comfortably winning the Presidential elections, it is being widely propagated that a pro-China regime is going to return in Sri Lanka. These apprehensions are largely based on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ten-year rule from 2005 to 2015 during which China gained a foothold in the island country. It was during his tenure that the infamous Hambantota port project came up, that is now seen as a living example of China’s debt-trap diplomacy across the world.
Financed by the Chinese despite adverse feasibility reports and refusal by India for such a project, the port turned out to be a miserable failure. While tens of thousands of ships pass through the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the Hambantota port drew only 34 ships in 2012. The Rajapaksa regime was ousted in 2015 but the new government struggled to discharge the debts taken by the Rajapaksa regime. Finally, unable to pay off the debt, Sri Lanka had to hand over the port and a mammoth 15,000 acres of land around it to the Chinese on a 99 yer lease. This was strategically crucial for China as it gained foothold just a few hundred miles off the shores of India.
Fears of a Chinese military base extremely close to India’s shores set the alarm off in New Delhi. Last year, as relations warmed up under Modi government, Sri Lanka offered the Hambantota airport to India, to somehow cancel out the Chinese presence.
The geo-strategic location of Sri Lanka makes it a point of competition between India and China in the Indian Ocean Region. This is why India also has a keen interest in the domestic Sri Lankan politics. At a time when the entire coverage has been about how a Rajapaksa regime can again pivot Sri Lanka towards China, the Rajapaksa family doesn’t seem antagonistic towards India.
Over the recent past, there have been some conscious moves in the part of former Sri Lanka President, Mahinda Rajapaksa to make it clear that India is not an adversary. Last year, he visited India in what was seen as a clear message by the leader that India is no more an adversary, nor is India adversarial to his return to power. While Mahinda Rajapaksa was not qualified to contest the Presidential polls, his message remains relevant with his younger brother contesting the Presidency polls. In a recent interview, Mahinda Rajapaksa once again tried to express bonhomie towards India. He said that fears in India about him being “pro-China” were unfounded and he is “the best friend India can ever have in Sri Lanka”.
While the Rajapaksa regime was labelled as “pro-China”, it is important to look at the issue in the correct context. It must be kept in mind that the US ended military aid to the island country in 2007. At that time Sri Lanka was still fighting the Tamil rebels. During the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, the war with Tamil insurgency was concluded by 2009, however, reports of gross human rights violations left the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka government mired in controversy.
At a time when the whole world had shut its doors on Sri Lanka, and India had remained hesitant, China saw an opportunity and Rajapaksa a compulsion in China-Sri Lanka relations. Relations between India and Sri Lanka soured greatly at this point. The dragon took advantage of this situation and became Sri Lanka’s biggest donor. China also used this opportunity to push the Hambantota port project, which India had rejected in 2002.
Beijing’s strategy of debt-trap diplomacy was still not that well known and Colombo seems to have been taken in by China. This should not be taken to mean that a Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka is adverse to India’s interests. India must chalk out a strategy to counter the Chinese presence in the island country, irrespective of whichever regime is in power in the island country. Last year, Sri Lanka offered the Hambantota airport to India, to somehow cancel out the Chinese presence.
It is also important to mention here that Sri Lanka has also had a perception of India’s policy being greatly influenced by Tamil Nadu. With DMK not mincing its words during the UPA era, when it was a part of the ruling coalition, this perception, or misconception might have gotten further emboldened. Then in 2013, the then PM Manmohan Singh decided to skip the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). This made it clear that domestic politics was interfering in strategic ties.
Had an extensive meeting with the Leader of Opposition, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 9, 2019
The Rajapaksas remain popular in Sri Lankan politics. Their victory in the Sri Lanka elections are another testament to this fact. New Delhi under Narendra Modi appears to be completely conscious of this fact, whereas, Rajapaksa has shown keenness in mending ties.
With Modi government at the helm of affairs, any regime in Sri Lanka, including a Rajapaksa regime is not going to look at India with the common perception that India’s Sri Lanka policy is shaped by the Tamil factor. When the BJP came to power in 2014, a section of commentators in the Sri Lankan media is said to have heaved a sigh of relief. It is thus clear that the Indo-Sri Lankan relations are now set to move in the right direction. As such, it is now up to the political leadership of the two countries to move ahead from the ghosts of the past and forge closer ties. India must not allow its Sri Lanka policy to change out of any particular perception towards the Rajapaksa regime.