Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Sri Lankan PM: Ex-prez rode on anger over economic woes, graft charges to attain power

Analysts are poring over tea-leaves again, and discerning India’s hand in Friday night’s dramatic developments in Sri Lanka, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as prime minister.

Padma Rao Sundarji October 27, 2018 17:10:31 IST
Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Sri Lankan PM: Ex-prez rode on anger over economic woes, graft charges to attain power

It was a matter of time but an inevitability. For quite a while, all the stars in the skies over Sri Lanka pointed to the possibility that former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, twice head of state who suffered a surprise defeat in January 2015 at the hands of his own former defence minister, would return to power. He just did: by being sworn in as prime minister in Colombo last night, at the behest of the very man who was his nemesis: president Maithripala Sirisena.

Sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe isn’t taking it lying down. His United National Party (UNP) had entered into a marriage of convenience with its greatest political rival organisation, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), only to oust Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe is crying foul and has refused to move out of Temple Trees, the official residence. He says that only parliament – where his UNP has a majority – can remove him, and he will seek legal recourse.

But in a marriage that is star-crossed from the start, a divorce is often inevitable. After his 2015 defeat, Mahinda Rajapaksa had quit the SLFP and fractured it further by taking a raft of his party colleagues with him into the Opposition and many, even into his new political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. (Sri Lanka People’s Party).

Sirisena is a farmer’s son, said to be a simple man who still believes in the second adjective that forms the complete name of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP, on the other hand, has been a centre-right, market-oriented organisation bent on economic liberalism, often even in the leanest of times.

Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Sri Lankan PM Exprez rode on anger over economic woes graft charges to attain power

Mahinda Rajapaksa arrives at a temple after being sworn in as the new prime minister of Sri Lanka. Reuters

Adding to that inherently contradictory nature were the many problems that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine claim they inherited from Rajapaksa’s earlier rule, but failed to address even after nearly four years in power.

The country’s external debt, for one, increased from $43.4 billion in July 2015 to $53.4 billion in 2018. The debt-to-GDP ratio shot up too, and the Sri Lankan rupee has been on an alarming downslide. To pay off China alone, the government entered a controversial debt-for-equity swap over the major south-eastern port of Hambantota, gave Beijing a 99-year-lease and virtual control over the port and an additional 15000 acres of predominantly farmland for a free trade zone.

The new political duo was convinced that western countries would be so relieved to see the last of Rajapaksa that they would stop their shrill campaign against the Sri Lankan armed forces for alleged human rights violations. Rajapakse had ignored the western countries' demand to lay down guns and offer roses to the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the name of "human rights," even as his army was bringing a 30-year-long bloody civil war to a conclusive end. On the contrary, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine found itself co-signing yet another US-sponsored resolution against their own country.

All these developments, coupled with a central bank bonds scam allegedly involving Wickremesinghe, began to test the patience of even the staunchest supporters of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine.

Meanwhile, in the Tamil-majority northern and eastern provinces, the rapid infrastructure development that had begun under Rajapaksa, no longer held primary interest. The old and longstanding demand for Tamil autonomy that had contributed to Sirisena’s victory reared its head again. Riven by frustration at the demand remaining unfulfilled even under the new government, a faction of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) of the hugely respected moderate leaders R Sampanthan and MA Sumanthiran, began to nurture separatist sentiments again.

A turning point came with the country’s Pradeshiya Sabha (village council) polls in February this year. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP won resoundingly, setting the tone for general elections slated in January 2020. Despite the human rights allegations and corruption scandals which had dogged his rule, the former president was once again being viewed as a ray of stability amidst spiralling chaos.

And what about India, the regional Big Brother whom all neighbors love to hate ? Whose Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is the most popular bogeyman for everything in the region, from collapsed souffles to village scuffles? Rajapaksa himself had blamed RAW for his defeat in January 2015, and even current president Sirisena had to recently deny reports that he had pointed to RAW's involvement in an alleged attempt to assassinate him.

Meanwhile in India, Narendra Modi and South Block have been criticised for not walking the talk on their much-publicised ‘Neighborhood First’ policy. There had been a flurry of high-profile visits — Modi’s last being the most interesting, when he made history by acknowledging and emphasising for the first time not the Hindu-Tamil link, but the Buddhist majority traditions of Sri Lanka. Despite this, things had fallen into a familiar lull. Even as China went from strength to strength in the island nation, India seemingly continued to dither over investments in ports, an airport and various other bilateral initiatives with Sri Lanka.

Then Rajapaksa landed in New Delhi with an entourage of his most loyal supporters just a month ago. It wasn’t one of his usual trips to various Hindu temples and Buddhist religious sites, but at the invitation of one of the BJP’s most senior members, the irrepressible Subramanian Swamy, who, despite his own Tamil origin, has always ignored the cacophony emanating from many Tamil Nadu politicians supporting the LTTE, and never minced his words of praise for Rajapaksa for decisively defeating the terror group.

The itinerary of what was obviously a whole new ball game was very much like a state visit : a 45-minute meeting with Modi, conversations with Opposition leaders Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. Not to be outdone, Wickremesinghe also arrived in New Delhi with his own entourage earlier this month.

What really transpired at the various meetings remains a secret. Little wonder then, that analysts are poring over tea-leaves again, and discerning India’s hand in last night’s dramatic developments in Colombo.

Those not so favorably inclined towards India – most of Sri Lanka – see the shadow of interference in domestic affairs. Others – notably those annoyed by India’s reticence vis-a-vis China in the Indian Ocean region, insist that Rajapaksa’s swearing-in as the new prime minister is a masterstroke by New Delhi to regain its clout in its backyard.

However, both opinions are slightly blinded by a top-note of nationalism and fail to notice several significant moves on the chessboard of Sri Lankan politics and its relations with India.

Modi’s government – officially and otherwise – as also Rajapaksa, have recently chosen paths the two countries had ignored before: that of mutual recognition of each other not as bullying brother and errant sibling of a single Hindu-origin famly, but as inherently different, if close cultural cousins. Those are strong, opening moves.

Then, there’s the King’s Defence. Sirisena may be the son of a simple farmer, but he has cut his teeth in politics within a party which boasts of formidable dynasties such as the Bandaranaikes and the Rajapaksas. At least by the time the Pradeshiya Sabha polls delivered a resounding victory to Rajapaksa, President Sirisena would have planned switching his bet from the losing horse – Wickremsinghe – to the new, winning one.

Finally, there’s the Queen’s Gambit.

In 2015, President Sirisena’s government kept its election promise by passing the 19th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution to return powers from what had become an all-powerful presidency under Mahinda Rajapaksa – to the office of the prime minister. By taking the oath as prime minister instead of waiting for the 2020 elections, Rajapaksa has, in Gen Next parlance, slayed it. And if he ensures the return of another Rajapaksa to the office of president in January 2020 too, it’ll be checkmate.

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