The come-back kid?

Neville de Silva considers former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s plans for new beginnings following a tentative thawing of relations with an old rival

Good fences make good neighbours – so goes an old saying. This is so much truer in geopolitics. Thus broken fences sometimes need mending and at other times fortifying.

So when former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa went on a three-day visit to India in September, during which he had a 45-minute private meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, many an eyebrow was raised on both sides of the Palk Strait, that narrow stretch of water separating Sri Lanka from its giant neighbour.

The quizzical reactions of many Sri Lankan politicians and commentators were understandable. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s relations with the Modi government had soured considerably since the 2015 presidential election, which Rajapaksa lost after prematurely calling it two years ahead of time.

His confidence then was high, having militarily crushed the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) six years earlier after nearly 30 years of war. Moreover, the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena, put up by a rainbow coalition of around 50 political parties and civil society groups to challenge the president, was hardly a charismatic ministerial figure in the cabinet from which he suddenly defected.

After losing the election, Rajapaksa accused Indiaof engineering his defeat, as he believed it had influenced a section of the minority Tamil community in the north and east of Sri Lanka, and the more recent Indian-origin labour working in the tea plantations in the central hills, to vote against him at the January 2015 election.

The allegation seemed credible enough to vast sections of the Sri Lankan people, even those who were not particularly amenable to the Rajapaksa government. It gained currency and an anti-Indian hostility – mainly among Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhala people due to previous Indian meddling, especially during the premiership of Indira Gandhi when minority Tamil separatist groups were armed and trained on Indian soil – was established.

What caused the steady deterioration in Indo-Lankan relations was India’s growing concern over China’s large footprint in Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa government, with heavy investment in the economy and increasing military cooperation.President Rajapaksa upped the stakes when in September 2014 he permitted two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo harbour, coinciding with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Sri Lanka.

India was naturally perturbed and understandably annoyed that the Rajapaksa government had failed to inform New Delhi of the visit to Colombo of Chinese subs, despite a standstill agreement between the two countries.

Such was the prevailing mood of antipathy towards India among Rajapaksa loyalists that Wimal Weerawansa, a loquacious parliamentarian and close associate of Mahinda, had planned a black flag protest to greet Indian PM Narendra Modi, due in Colombo in May last year to inaugurate the UN International Vesak Day celebrations, an important Buddhist event.

That protest fizzled out even before any flags began to flutter. But an interesting development that raised many questions was the unscheduled meeting with Prime Minister Modi that Mahinda Rajapaksa had sought.What transpired at that midnight meeting at India House, the High Commissioner’s residence, remains confidential. But it seemed very much like Rajapaksa was trying to break the ice after more than two years of frosty relations.

PROVOCATIVE: In Sept. 2014, Rajapaksa permitted two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo harbour
PROVOCATIVE: In Sept. 2014, Rajapaksa permitted two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo harbour

To Mahinda Rajapaksa, the way forward seems clear enough though not without its many hurdles. He is by no means a favoured Sri Lankan politician in India’s southern Tamil Nadustate, whose more than 60 million Tamil population have close cultural and linguistic ties with Sri Lanka’s Tamil people.

In trying to place the past on the back burner and forge closer links with Indian leaders, including Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi, what is foremost in Rajapaksa’s mind is the next presidential election in early January 2020 and the parliamentary elections later in the year.

He seems confident that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP, Sri Lanka Peoples Party), the new party of which he is de-facto leader, will win the parliamentary election. At elections in February this year, the SLPP won some 230 of the 340-odd local councils, garnering nearly 45 per cent of the vote.

The current coalition government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe lost badly. The two parties they lead, especially Sirisena’s faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), were brushed aside by what Rajapaksa loyalists claimed was an avalanche.

While conceding that a Rajapaksa triumph in the local elections will not necessarily translate into a major parliamentary victory, local and foreign commentators see public opinion turning away from the current National Unity Government (NUG), which is in disarray with the two leaders at loggerheads over policy issues and constant bickering between the parties.

Rajapaksa’s main concern is the presidency and how to preserve it for the family. In an interview with The Hindu newspaper in Delhi, he spelled out that his choice of presidential candidate is his eldest son and heir apparent Namal, who accompanied his father to India and met Prime Minister Modi.

But Namal is out of the 2020 presidential race. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government saw to that with the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which delivered a triple whammy, particularly to Rajapaksa family political ambitions. It raised the age bar for a presidential candidate from 30 to 35 years, leaving son Namal two years short.

Sirisena was hardly a charismatic ministerial figure

It also limited the presidential period to two five-year terms, thus eliminating Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting the presidency again. In addition, the amendment prohibited those with dual citizenship from holding political office which dealt a double blow to Rajapaksa’s younger brothers Gotabaya and Basil, who are also US citizens.

Asked by The Hindu whether a family member will contest, now that heir apparent Namal was out of the race, Rajapaksa said his brother ‘will certainly be a contender’. He did not name the brother, though his elder brother Chamal was the former Speaker of Parliament. Gotabaya has now stepped into politics but his US citizenship stands in the way. Even if he wishes to renounce it that will not be as easy as he thinks, especially if Washington chooses to delay the acceptance to disqualify him as a candidate.

What Mahinda Rajapaksa is hoping for is to smooth relations with India so that his family can continue to be the epicentre of Sri Lankan politics.After all, dynastic rule is not unknown to Asia. The Nehru-Gandhi family in India, the Bhuttos in Pakistan, the Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka, the Lees in Singapore and even the Kims in communist North Korea all cemented dynastic rule.

But these ice-breaking moves by Rajapaksa are not all a one-way affair. India also has much to gain. Although Sri Lanka’s modern relations with China go back more than 60 years, it was under Rajapaksa that Sri Lankan policy tilted heavily towards China, India’s chief rival in the region.

New Delhi does not have to read the tea leaves to see which way the political winds are blowing in Sri Lanka. So in the long term it would be advantageous to India too if the Rajapaksas were accommodated,allowing a more even handed deal in regional affairs.

When Rajapaksa told the media that India was a neighbour and a relative while China was a good friend, he appeared to be hinting at a new beginning.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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