Not what India wanted

THE winner in the seventh Sri Lankan executive presidential election is Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP) Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Not what India wanted

THE BAGGAGE: Seen as the key architect of ending the 30-year war against the LTTE, Gotabaya has been critical of India.

Maj Gen Ashok Mehta (retd)

Maj Gen Ashok Mehta (retd)
Defence Commentator

THE winner in the seventh Sri Lankan executive presidential election is Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s  (SLPP) Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa. National security trumped economy, democracy and reconciliation. That an authoritarian regime in which Gota played a key role in ending the country’s insurgency has bounced back to power,  after only five years, is not surprising,  given the lackadaisical record of the incumbent United National Party  government. This time, there was no grand alliance to stop the Gota juggernaut. 

The key to winning a presidential election in Sri Lanka is garnering the minority Tamil and Muslim vote, given that rival contenders are usually neck and neck in majority Sinhalese areas. In order to vanquish Gota, the National Democratic Front’s Sajith Premadasa had to eat into Gota’s Sinhalese constituency. The reverse happened. Not only did Gota outvote Sajith in the south, but also made a dent in his minority vote in the north-east. In the last two presidential elections, like this time, too, the minorities voted en bloc in favour of Gota’s elder brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s opponents. The election was not finely balanced as expected. A New York think tank, Eurasia Group, got it wrong, predicting a 55% chance of a Premadasa victory over 45% for Rajapaksa.

Gota, a former Colonel from Gajaba Regiment and Mahinda’s defence secretary, is seen as the key architect of ending the 30-year war against the dreaded LTTE. Due to the 19th amendment, Gota was an early bird in the contest whereas the opposition could not pick its contender till six weeks before the elections. Initially, Gota came out as a reluctant debutant, a soldier discomfited in a politician’s role. But the lure of an executive president’s job, even if diminished by the 19th amendment, is still the ultimate aphrodisiac. Under Mahinda’s divine shadow, Gota’s campaign gathered momentum, notwithstanding his linkages to ‘white van’ disappearances, murder of a journalist, sundry corruption charges and alleged human rights violations in the war. It is a near miracle that he managed to keep his head above water. He had to renounce his US citizenship mandated by 19A.

Ironically, this year’s Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo by six local Muslim suicide bombers linked to Daesh, which caused catastrophic casualties and damage,  came as a godsend to Gota. It shot up national security, as internal stability was rocked after a decade of peace. The colossal bungling of the incumbent regime during the tragedy made people yearn for the return of the Rajpaksas. Two other challenges meant to undercut Gota’s chances did not work — a former army commander, Gen Mahesh Senanayake, who distinguished himself after the Easter Sunday bombings, standing as President; and Premadasa announcing that if he won he would appoint Gen Sarath Fonseka, another former army commander and a war hero who unsuccessfully contested presidential elections against Mahinda in 2010, as his defence minister.

In an atmosphere charged with extreme nationalism and reverence for the military, Gota announced he would release all army personnel in jail for alleged human rights violations, and that no war hero would be investigated for excesses during the war, thus countermanding the government’s commitments to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, when Colombo co-sponsored US resolution 30/1 in 2015.  

The UNP’s youthful Sajith Premadasa, the underdog, was a late entrant and gave his best, but could not switch economy and development to replace national security, which was on top of the election agenda, because his government’s record on them was shoddy. His father, a one-term President assassinated by the LTTE, was renowned for his housing programme for the poor, which he replicated. In the end, Sajith could not convince the southern majority Sinhalese that he was their choice for President. While Gota was victorious in nearly all 15 southern provinces, Sajith won just the five north-eastern and Nuwara Eliya provinces. That was insufficient to out-Gota the Rajapaksas. 

PM Modi was quick to congratulate Gota. That India was part of the plot to dislodge Mahinda in 2015 is New Delhi’s worst-kept secret. Mahinda has openly accused R&AW of engineering his defeat. Gota’s younger brother and chief strategist, Basil Rajapaksa, a former commerce minister in Mahinda era, has said Mahinda is their supreme leader, adding that while India is their closest neighbour and friend (Mahinda used to call India a relative) — and that they will depend on it for political security — they will count on China for economic development. How this will play out of the ground with Gota, who was critical of India during the war, at the helm only time will tell.

New Delhi now emphasises it will work with a President Sri Lankans elect. Sri Lanka is at a crossroads. Will Gota follow his brother Mahinda’s anti-West (and anti-India) path or contrary to what he has said in his campaign about withdrawing from international agreements, a more balanced policy? 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in, with a government headed by PM Ranil Wickremesinghe of the opposition United National Party. Another awkward interregnum could follow as parliamentary elections are due in mid-2020, and extendable by 53 days, the time consumed in the constitutional crisis this year. Till then, cohabitation could be explosive and ended by the President dismissing the government four-and-a- half years into its term, and advancing elections, expecting SLPP victory with Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM. Recently Mahinda said: ‘The real power is with PM’!

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