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Indo-Lanka Relations Power Shift in Sri

Lanka
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.

by Seshadri Chari

( February 2, 2015, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) 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.
Sirisenas 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 countrys 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 Kumaratunga and the main Opposition United National
Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, 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 Sirisenas 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 dont 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 countrys 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.
Sri Lanka wants close relation with India
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera met his Indian counterpart
Sushma Swaraj on his first foreign trip after Maitrhripala Sirisena took power on
January 9. Samaraweera was in New Delhi to hold bilateral talks between Indian and

Sri Lanka.
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 run camps.
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 Sirisenas agenda is the abolition of the Executive Presidency.
But it is easier said than done.
Constitutional amendments to abolish/amend the Executive Presidency requires twothirds 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 Rajapaksas 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 Lankas
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 personsaround 3,00,000 peoplehave 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 nations minority communities.
Inadequate infrastructure had been a considerable bottleneck in the countrys
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 dont 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. Indias 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 Indias
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.


( The writer is former Editor of Organiser, One of the oldest and most widely circulated
weeklies from the capital, first hit the stands in 1947, a few weeks before Partition of
Bharath, now India and Pakistan)
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