Gotabaya Rajapaksa's victory in Sri Lanka not setback for India; New Delhi should disregard narrative shaped by western fears
The fact that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has won the popular mandate fair and square makes him the legitimate leader of Sri Lanka. India will engage with him the way they would have engaged with Sajith Premadasa had he won
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence secretary under the presidency of his brother Mahinda, crushed the LTTE rebellion in 2009
A stentorian military personality, Gotabaya’s victory was, by all measures, overwhelming in a nation of 16 million eligible voters
Preconceived notions, being expressed in some quarters, about India interpreting his win as a setback might be misplaced
During an interview to German newspaper Der Spiegel (Spiegel Online), India’s external affairs minister scoffed at the suggestion that India must play the role of a counterweight to China’s rising influence in Asia. On the West expecting a democratic India to ‘balance’ an aggressive China’s authoritarianism and revanchist designs, Subramanyam Jaishankar gave a curt reply: “I find the idea of being someone else's pawn in some ‘Great Game’ terribly condescending. I certainly don’t plan to play the counterweight to other people. I'm in it because of my own ambitions.”
Jaishankar, an experienced diplomat, one of India’s foremost strategic thinkers and now a crucial cog in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet, is a pragmatist and a hardcore realist. So is his boss. Both tend to see the world as it is, not what they expect it to be. It will therefore be interesting to see how they react to an important development down south in India’s strategic backyard where the powerful Rajapaksa clan has returned to power with a strong mandate in Sri Lanka.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who as a former defence secretary under the presidency of his brother Mahinda, crushed the LTTE rebellion in 2009 and ensured Sri Lanka’s victory over Tamil separatists in a brutal civil war, won the presidential election on Sunday. He secured 52 percent of the vote in a pool of 35 candidates — over 10 percent more than his closest competitor and UNP rival Sajith Premadasa.
A stentorian military personality, Gotabaya’s victory was, by all measures, overwhelming in a nation of 16 million eligible voters where the turnout was more than 80 percent. It is clear that he enjoys the popular mandate even though voting pattern revealed that the polity has been left deeply polarised.
Gotabaya, who enjoys the image of a “strongman” leader, went in big on national security during the campaign — boosted by his credentials of crushing the Tamil rebels — and cashed in on the lax security and intelligence lapses suffered by the Renil Wickremesinghe government that apparently led to the devastating Easter Bombings.
The Easter Sunday attacks, which left over 250 dead, was masterminded by an Islamist terrorist organisation claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. It targeted churches and hotels in a series of coordinated suicide bombings to kill Christians and foreigners in April. It left a deep impact and irrevocably altered Sri Lanka’s socio-political landscape. It devastated the economy that is reliant overwhelmingly on tourism and triggered a backlash against the Muslim minorities as well as the UNP-led government. Gotabaya’s image as a tough defence chief and strong-willed politician served him well as the issue of national security came to the forefront of political discourse.
Voters — at least the majority — seemingly believed that Gotabaya is the right person to revive the economy and take care of national security. A preliminary analysis of the voting patterns show Gotabaya has the trust of the nation’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority who constitute about 70 percent of the population, while his nearest competitor Premadasa ended up scoring heavily in the areas where the minority Tamil ethnic groups and Muslim community members are dominant.
This is where western nations have run into concerns over the results of Sri Lanka’s presidential polls. The West, especially Europe and the US, see Gotabaya as a ‘strongman’ leader who may push the nation toward a more authoritarian rule. They take his brother Mahinda’s tenure (president from 2005-2015) as a precedent.
New York Times wrote that Gotabaya ended the nation’s long civil war “through brutal means”, and along with his brother Mahinda, stands “accused of crimes against humanity, including directing the bombings of civilian hospitals and torturing journalists” during the tumultuous 2009. The newspaper gives shape to the familiar western narrative that fueled by a majoritarian impulse, Lanka will become yet another nation to lapse into a ‘democratic authoritarianism’ where democracy and freedom of speech will be endangered.
As the article notes: “Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade as president was known for tightly centralised power and the spread of a strident Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism that has inspired attacks against the country’s large minority communities. Hostility toward Muslims, in particular, has risen since the Easter Sunday attacks, heightening fears of retribution against innocent Sri Lankans.”
The Wall Street Journal, another US publication, notes in a report, “Tamil and Muslim minorities, concentrated in the north and east of the country, voted largely for Mr. Premadasa. Tamils were scared by Mr. Rajapaksa’s war record, while Muslims were apprehensive about his alleged ties to hard-line Buddhist groups.”
BloombergQuint added rather colourfully that “Gotabaya was defense minister during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 10-year-rule, when Tamil politicians were murdered, thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared and dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile” ignoring completely the context of the civil war that ravaged Lanka for decades.
Along with apprehensions of curtailment of civil rights and backlash against minorities, the dominant narrative against Gotabaya’s win also holds that the nation might see Sri Lanka tilting towards China again. During the years that Mahinda was president, an investment hungry Lanka was fed by Chinese-funded infrastructure, port, expressways power stations, but even though it fueled the economy, Lanka was mired in a vicious Chinese debt-trap that eventually saw the Mahinda government barter away the strategic port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease to Beijing.
It is being feared that Gotabaya might reorient Lanka’s foreign policy to favour the Chinese that was, under the tenure of UNP government led by Maithripala Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, pivoting back to the US.
As The Wall Street Journal noted in a report, “Sri Lanka had became a new logistics hub for the US Navy in the Indian Ocean as Washington seeks to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region. Washington wants the new government to sign up to a $500 million economic aid program and a contentious military agreement that will enable US military personnel to operate freely in Sri Lanka.” The report quotes Palitha Kohona, an adviser to Rajapaksa and a former foreign secretary, as saying that there is “no need” for a military pact with the US at this time.
The twin prospects of China “taking control” of Sri Lanka and a “strongman leader” taking charge of a nation that is of strategic significance to the US is feeding western paranoia, and in turn shaping the narrative, at least partly, in Indian media. It is here that preconceived notions — being expressed in some quarters — about India interpreting Gotabaya’s win as a “setback” might be misplaced.
For starters, Modi and Jaishankar’s realist approach precludes preconceived notions. The fact that Gotabaya has won the popular mandate fair and square makes him the legitimate leader of Sri Lanka. India will engage with him the way they would have engaged with Premadasa had he won without letting ideological baggage or past history (for instance Mahinda, post electoral defeat in 2015, blamed India for interfering in Lankan elections) shape present diplomacy.
Jaishankar's reply to Der Spiegel on a question regarding Donald Trump (whether he is destroying international institutions) bears mention: “Let me explain the difference between Germany and India: You are in an alliance with the US. We are not. We are used to handling different American administrations who in the past haven’t been altogether friendly towards us. We approach America as we approach many issues in international politics: with a high degree of realism. At the end of the day, President Trump is President Trump. We Indians are pragmatic people.”
Gotabaya and Modi have already exchanged warm pleasantries post election results. Incidentally, the new Sri Lankan president’s camp has already moved to allay India’s apprehensions, if any, conveying that while China remains Lanka’s “trading partner”, India remains a “relative”.
Gotabaya has reportedly chosen Anuradhapura, the World Heritage City and ancient capital known for its traditional links to India, for his swearing-in ceremony Monday as a “symbolic first step”, instead of the traditional Independence Square in Colombo, noted The Indian Express.
Sri Lanka needs investment, and at the end of the day, everything will depend on India’s ability to execute and deliver projects and setting the terms of engagement on mutually beneficial terms. The civilisational ties between nations will do the rest. As far as making Sri Lanka the “pawn” in India’s “game against China” is concerned, Jaishankar’s words are indicative enough.
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