From India’s standpoint, it is futile to directly challenge the disproportionate Chinese influence over its neighbours like Sri Lanka.
By Bappaditya Mukherjee & Rajan Kumar
The recently concluded parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka was widely regarded as a referendum for the incumbent president Gotabaya Rajapksa, elected in November last year. The ruling Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLFP), headed by Rajapaksa brothers won 145 seats in last Thursday’s parliamentary elections, only five short of a super-majority needed to amend the constitution. The victory of this political front dominated by the Rajapaksa clan was expected given Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s landslide victory in last years’ presidential elections.
This SLFP victory was facilitated by a faction-ridden opposition and the widely acknowledged electoral management skills of former minister Basil Rajapaksa, who was put in charge of the re-election campaign of his brother. However, even the most optimistic prognosticators of an SLFP victory were surprised by the complete rout of the opposition. The disastrous performance of former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was particularly noteworthy. Wickremesinghe failed even to protect his constituency. The Wickremesinghe-led United National Party (UNP) has been completely wiped out in parliament. Its seat share in parliament has gone down from 106 to 1.
Factional split in the UNP largely contributed to its poor performance. In February this year, Wickremesinghe had a falling out with his senior UNP colleague Sajith Premadasa over electoral strategy and alliance formation with smaller parties. This internecine UNP struggle triggered Premadasa to quit the party and form the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). In the recently concluded elections, the SJB captured a significant section (23.9%) of the anti-Rajapasas vote. As a result, the SJB now holds 54 seats in parliament.
The consolidation of power by the Rajapksas in Sri Lanka closely tracks the personality-driven politics of polarisation in the rest of South Asia. The present power dynamic in the Sri Lankan government is borne out of an amalgamation of a political dynasty and ethnic majoritarianism under a ruthless military leader. The current trends in Sri Lankan politics are a far cry from its storied progressive legacy that elevated Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the first woman prime minister in the world. At best, Sri Lanka can now be classified as a mere procedural democracy with a peculiar spectacle of brothers occupying the positions of President and the Prime Minister.
The Rajapaksa brothers belong to a political family of Hambantota district in the South. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was Secretary to the Ministry of Defence when his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was the president from 2005 to 2015. The most controversial aspect of 2005-2015 tenure of Rajapaksa brothers is the heavy-handed tactics employed against the Tamil separatist group, the LTTE. The LTTE had sustained a three-decade-long insurgency against the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan state. Although Gotabaya claims credit for bringing the long-running conflict to a close in 2010, his counter-insurgency strategy has been beset with allegations of torture in domestic and international forums. Irrespective of these criticisms, the harsh tactics of the Rajapksa regime against the LTTE were given a democratic stamp of approval in the 2010 elections when their political front garnered 60% of the total votes polled.
In addition to Gotabaya and Mahinda, several other members of the Rajapaksa clan have served in senior positions in the Sri Lankan government. Two of their brothers, Basil Rajapaksa has been the Minister for Economic Development while Chamal Rajapaksa held the position of speaker of the parliament earlier. Chamal Rajapaksa was given the portfolio of agriculture and rural development following the Presidential election of November 2019. Therefore, with a wide network of family members in powerful positions, the sway of the Rajapaksa’s over the Sri Lankan state reigns supreme. As their performance in several rounds of elections has aptly demonstrated, Sri Lanka is perfectly comfortable voting a political dynasty to power.
With his military background, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is most infamous for dealing with the Tamil separatists with an iron hand. Gotabaya’s association with the termination of the Sri Lankan civil war has given him a license to curb the voices of dissent, free media and human right activists. A large number of former military officers, many of whom stand accused of war crimes during the civil war, have been politically rehabilitated. They are important functionaries of the government with key portfolios. A majoritarian politics, militarised institutions and a web of family-driven governance are undermining Sri Lankan democracy. Contemporary developments have dashed the expectation that the elimination of LTTE separatists would lead to the emergence of inclusive politics.
One of the contributory factors in the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa in this election has been his relatively successful response to COVID pandemic. The Sri Lankan electorate has responded positively to the largely proactive actions of the Rajapaksha government, including its public health officials and the army. Notwithstanding the aggregate success achieved by Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime, it is disturbing that the crisis has been used to militarise further those branches of government (e.g. public health) that were traditionally under civilian control. Given the unfortunate history of ethnic strife in Sri Lanka, the open attempts by the regime to portray the regions populated by the indigenous minority communities – particularly Muslims – as the hotbeds of COVID outbreak has been very irresponsible.
This election will not change the course of Colombo’s relations with New Delhi. India’s main concerns are growing Chinese investments for major projects including the Hambantota port and Colombo Harbour, and political reconciliation of Tamil population in North and East. The areas of North and East need investment and development as measures of reconciliation.
Following their experience in dealing with India and China during their previous tenure (2010-2015), the Rajapaksas have realised the futility of trying to act as realpolitik balancer in the dispute between the two bigger powers. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first visit following his election in November last year was to New Delhi. This was seen as a reciprocation of prime minister Modi’s decision to visit the Maldives and Sri Lanka right after being re-elected in 2019.
In an ideal world, Gotabaya’s strategic choice would be to pursue a policy of non-alignment between New Delhi and Beijing. However, the reality is that with approximately $11 billion capital outlay by China, it is by far, the largest investor in Sri Lanka. This limits the autonomy that Gotabaya will have in tackling the India-China dynamic in the neighbourhood.
From India’s standpoint, it is futile to directly challenge the disproportionate Chinese influence over its neighbours like Sri Lanka. The best counter to Chinese machinations in these countries for India is to enhance its developmental, infrastructural, cultural and capacity building programmes. This should help cement the recognition in Colombo that India is a central player in the Indian Ocean region. The Rajapkshas can also rely on India’s influence in global diplomatic circles, and its function as a bridge in its ties with the US.
(Bappaditya Mukherjee has previously taught at the State University of New York, Geneseo. Rajan Kumar teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal).