Sri Lanka: Should landslide victory of Mahinda Rajpaksa agonize India?

K S Tomar

K S Tomar

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In Indian context the Sri Lanka polls and final outcome thereby leading to unimaginable victory for Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP), led by prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, winning in 145 constituencies, bagging a total of 150 seats with its allies, a two-thirds majority in the 225-member Parliament should send warning signal to New Delhi as he adopted Pro-China tilt while dealing with India and China.

Notwithstanding the fact that in Feb, 2020 during his visit to India, Sri Lanka PM Mahinda said “India a relation for us, while other nations are friends”. Sri Lanka PM Mahinda Rajapaksa also said that Article 370 move is India’s internal matter and Sri Lanka won’t interfere in that.

sri lanka bro
Rajapaksa brothers

According to foreign policy analysts, Rajapaksa family’s ascendancy, however should worry India. As interim PM, he had endorsed the announcement made by Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (his brother), that the government would review a port deal worth millions of dollars signed between the previous government and New Delhi.

India and Japan were to jointly develop the new East Container Terminal as part of the agreement. The Rajapaksa brothers have also distanced themselves from the funding offered by the ‘Quad’ of the US, India, Japan and Australia — which is trying to counter China’s growing geopolitical influence.

Sri Lanka recently shelved the Japan-funded Colombo Light Railway project and a $480-million ‘Millennium Challenge Corporation’ grant from the US —indications of a markedly pro-China tilt.

India has liberalized shipping and ports businesses faster than Sri Lanka. Huge trans-shipment business with India is a cognizant factor. However, newly built Indian ports will be Sri Lanka’s competitors.

These are challenges and motivators to look elsewhere, if not controlled. Hence, cooperation is essential. Therefore, Sri Lanka must develop new strategies and convince domestic troubleshooters of the changes in port management cultures and the political fallout.

Financial assistance responses

A comparison of Indian financial assistance is an important yardstick to evaluate bilateral relationships. In the current budget, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has planned to disburse Rs 8,415 crore amongst the neighboring countries – Nepal (Rs 1,050 crore), Bhutan (Rs 2,802 crore), Mauritius (Rs 1,100 crore) and the Maldives (Rs 576 crore). But Sri Lanka gets Rs 250 crore.

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Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Narendra Modi

When compared to their respective populations, the disproportion is clear. On the other hand, India’s contribution to Sri Lanka in the last decade is less than the annual commitment to Bhutan. The discrimination is clear.

While pledging $450 million to Sri Lanka heralded a new beginning in relations. But Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal have received larger financial assistance in comparison, owing to their strategic importance. Similarly, Sri Lanka is also strategically important for India. Otherwise, why would Indians grumble about Chinese footprints at the Hambantota port?

Experts feel that officials of both countries met five months after PM Mahinda Rajapaksa had sought a loan moratorium in Delhi. PM Modi’s decision to pledge US $ 450 million within twelve days after Rajapaksa’s election after a five-month delay may be interpreted as a show of hesitancy.

In contrast, China signed an agreement with Sri Lanka giving it access to a US $ 500-million facility with concessional terms in mid-March, just as a COVID-19 induced financial crisis erupted. No delays were observed.

Sri Lanka-China-India Axis is a complex one

Neighbouring countries drifting towards China is a nerve-racking sign for India. Sri Lanka is under the microscope on this count. The above-mentioned package compared with Chinese assistance explains the attraction.

Adarsha Varma, in the East Asia Strategic Review, noted that Chinese foreign direct investments exceeded 220 billion dollars in 2016, surging 246% from 2015, mostly to BRI countries.

He added that Chinese loans to many Indian Ocean Region (IOR) littorals in Asia and Africa far exceed the loans they received from IMF or other developed countries. This cannot be an exaggeration.

Complete control for Rajapaksa family over everything

In Sri Lanka context, this absolute majority means an absolutely powerful Rajapaksa brothers with Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister and Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the president. Experts say that they will go ahead and usher in sweeping changes like making amendments in the constitution, waiving off the president’s term.

sri lanka
Sri Lankan president’s brother sworn in as PM

This also means tighter control over the police force and the judiciary. Critics fear the siblings – renowned for their crushing of Tamil separatist rebels to end a decades-old conflict in 2009 – want to end presidential term limits, bring the judiciary and police under their direct control, and extend their dynastic power to a new generation.

However, analysts say any attempt by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to push for changes that will strengthen presidential power at the expense of those of the prime minister may trigger sibling rivalry. Sri Lanka’s opposition has accused the government of corruption, censorship and intimidation.

Indian well wishers feel that a strong Rajapaksa duo means means balance and a more India-friendly Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first world leaders to congratulate Mahinda on the outcome of the elections and said the two sides will work together to further advance all areas of bilateral cooperation and to take their special ties to ever newer heights.

Thank you PM @narendramodi for your congratulatory phone call. With the strong support of the people of #SriLanka, I look forward to working with you closely to further enhance the long-standing cooperation between our two countries. Sri Lanka & India are friends & relations,” Mahinda tweeted.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out of office essentially just one term ago. The previous government came to power on the promise of change but it failed miserably. They did carry forward some constitutional reforms but ultimately, they were such a big disappointment that people of this country have gone back to the Rajapaksas.

sri lankaThe handling of coronavirus crisis by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has invoked a lot of confidence in the people in contrast with the shambles the last government made following the Easter bombing attack last year.

The Indian Ocean Island has largely contained the spread of the novel covid-19 with 2,839 confirmed cases, including 11 deaths.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe lost his constituency, and his party, which had 106 seats in the outgoing parliament, was reduced to just one seat.

A breakaway faction from Wickremesinghe’s party headed by the son of assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Sajith got 20 percent of the vote and was a distant second with 54 seats.

The moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which had 16 seats in the outgoing parliament, also suffered badly and was left with just 10 seats in the new assembly, which is due to sit on August 20.

It may be recalled that the victory of Rajapaksas in the presidential polls had already led to concern in New Delhi, with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar rushing to Colombo for a face-to-face meeting with the new leadership.

However, the ruling party continued to lean heavily towards China, with many of the major infrastructure projects having begun during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidential terms.

An opportunity for Indian government

Experts say that the perilous state of the Sri Lanka economy, however, also gives India an opportunity, with the Sri Lankan government facing high debt and a refinancing crisis that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is estimated that Sri Lanka’s debt repayment will amount to around $4 billion per year – for the next five years.

sri lankaAccording to the World Bank, the Sri Lankan economy is expected to shrink by3.2% this year. The last government figures show that the economy shrank by1.6 percent 1st quarter of 2020.

The Reserve Bank of India agreed to $400 million currency swap facility for Sri Lanka till November 2022. This comes five months after Mahinda Rajapaksa had first asked for a moratorium on debt repayment during his visit to India in February this year. Sri Lanka owes approximately $960 million to India.

Yet, another opening for India would be in the United Nations Human Rights Council, where Sri Lanka is expected to continue to face pressure from the West for accountability of alleged war crimes by the security forces in the last months of the civil war.

The southern belt of India is sentimentally attached to Sri Lankan Tamils. There are more than 22 lakh people in Sri Lanka who speak Tamil. The north and eastern belt of the country closely relate to India. Therefore, the results of the Sri Lankan polls are an opportunity for India.

The Rajapaksa camp always wanted to do better

The Rajapaksa camp always wanted to do better than what they claim. When President Gotabaya remarked that they have done more than they expected, a party that suffered maximum set back was the United National Party (UNP), the main opposition led by the former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe.

When UNP has got only

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka parliament

one seat, another party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa, who broke away from the UNP and was defeated by Gotabaya in the presidential polls, has got 54 seats and emerged the second largest.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which used to enjoy a huge mandate in the Tamil minority areas, also faced a setback and ended up with just 10 seats.

Where SLPP won with about 59% votes, Premadasa’s SJB seems to have fought a battle alone with SLPP for 23% votes against any veteran parties such as UNP or TNA at the opposition.

Where was Sirisena in this election?

Maithripala Sirisena, the rebel of 2015 who defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa to become the president, was an SLPP candidate this time, wining with a massive margin from his native town Polonnaruwa.

An interesting report of AFP shows that the all-powerful Rajapaksa clan has held sway over the island nation’s politics for decades, as well as having a major influence in key state institutions such as the national airline and state corporations.

The patriarch

Mahinda Rajapaksa, 74, is the patriarch of the family and served as prime minister in 2004 and then president from 2005 until January 2015.

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Mahinda Rajapaksa

He was appointed prime minister a second time by his brother Gotabaya in November.

Mahinda is adored by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority for crushing separatist Tamil rebels in May 2009 following a highly controversial military offensive that ended a decades-long civil war.

The Terminator..

sri lanka
Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 71, was the main lieutenant of Mahinda during his reign, holding the influential post of secretary to the ministry of defence with responsibility for day-to-day control of the armed forces and police.

Dubbed “The Terminator” by his own family, he is feared by foes for his short temper. He has faced several corruption allegations, but his court cases have been frozen or withdrawn as he enjoys immunity after winning the presidency in 2019.

Mr. Ten Percent

Basil Rajapaksa, 69, is a political strategist who managed the economy under Mahinda. He was called “Mr. Ten Percent” in a BBC interview in reference to commissions he allegedly took from government contracts.

Unexplained wealth

Subsequent administrations failed to prove any charges he syphoned off millions of dollars from state coffers, but he still faces several prosecutions for corruption and unexplained wealth.As a dual US-Sri Lankan citizen he was prohibited from standing for elected office but is currently a senior adviser to the government.

The Bodyguard

Chamal Rajapaksa, 77, was speaker of the Sri Lankan parliament when brother Mahinda was president and is also a former minister of shipping and aviation.Formerly a police officer, he once served as a personal bodyguard to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister.

PM’s cabinet

Chamal Rajapaksa is expected to continue to serve in the prime minister’s cabinet in the new government to be formed after the polls.

The scion

Namal Rajapaksa, 34, a lawyer, is the scion of the family dynasty and the eldest son of Mahinda. He entered parliament in 2010 aged just 24.

During his father’s decade in power, Namal, was highly influential although he did not hold any portfolio. The former administration accused him of money laundering and other corruption charges, for which he still faces trial. He is expected to play a key role in the new government, and observers say Mahinda is grooming him to become a future president.

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K S Tomar

K S Tomar

The writer, a senior political analyst, is a former Editor of the Hindustan Times' Rajasthan edition and has spent nearly four decades in journalism, including a six year stint in Nepal where he covered Sino-India-Nepal complex relationship and had a ringside seat to the Himalayan Kingdom's transition into democracy.

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