Even though the recent election of Gotabaya Rajapaksha as the president of Sri Lanka has brought Indian anxieties to the fore (because of his pro-China leanings –and the leverage China has over India vis-à-vis Colombo’s cordiality quotient with Beijing –which, places it- much ahead of New Delhi, India is not that disadvantageously placed, because some strategic rear guard initiatives taken by India have firewalled it from being hated, or, even merely being ignored by Sri Lanka. These initiatives will be detailed in this article.
There were four presidential aspirants, however two, namely Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party ( UNP ) and Gotabaya Rajapaksha of the Sri Lanka Podujana Party ( SLPP ) were the major rivals. Rajapaksha, the winner who is 70 years won 52.20 pc of votes.
Rajapaksha’s success at the hustings was a foregone conclusion –given the threat to the island nation’s national security in the wake of the terrorist attacks –which targeted churches during Easter, last April and also centrally located hotels. These attacks took a toll of more than 321 people. According to the Wall Street Journal and other media reports both India and the US had passed on intelligence reports to Sri Lanka India’s first warning regarding this dastardly bombing was communicated to Sri Lanka, well ahead of the happening on April 4-this was repeated on April 20, 2019- just a day before the massacre.
The political dynamics within The Sri Lankan establishment –was not only completely ill prepared but also lacked proper coordination, to thwart the attack, said to have been perpetrated by an obscure local Islamic group- namely National Thowheeth Jamath (said to be having links with al-Queda as well as the Islamic State) the fact that sections of the political establishment within Sri Lanka had, over the decades, become mistrustful of India-also made Sri Lanka ignore the warnings from the Indian intelligence agencies. This mistrust came about because of the alleged tacit links of the Dravidian political parties in India supporting the Prabhakaran led Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
President Mahinda Rajapaksha and his brother- the recently elected president in waiting, Gotabaya Rajapaksha (who happened to be Secretary of Defence, then ) -were vociferous in claiming that LTTE’s complete rout in Sri Lanka in 2009- after 26 years of running a parallel government in northern Sri Lanka was largely due to the direction given to the Sri Lankan political establishment and its military. In fact, this was accomplished by ruthlessly dealing with the Eelam militants even to the extent of committing the gravest of human rights violations and atrocities against the Tamil minority as well as the Muslim population.
Of course, the above claim of the Rajapaksha brothers was fully endorsed by all and sundry, particularly the bulk of the inhabitants of the island nation who are mostly Buddhists with a sprinkling of Christians. However, Rajapaksha was hated both by the Muslims and Tamils.
It should be mentioned the Mahinda Rajapsksha had a scant regard for the Sri Lankan Constitution in its original form and rode rough shod over its salient democratic features ensuring suitable checks and balances. Resultantly, his political rivals –notably Maithripala Srisena (who later assumed the presidentship of Sri Lanka ) assured the people that he will initiate measures to repeal the 18th Amendment to the Constitution-taking advantage of which President Rajapaksha had subverted all democratic norms. Keeping up his promise President Srisena was successful in getting legislated a 19th Amendment. This 19th amendment was passed by 215 members of the island nation’s parliament having a strength of 225.
However, now with Rajapaksha again gaining the political leadership of Sri Lanka , it is almost certain that he will revisit and most likely redesign Sri Lanka’s Constitution to suit his interests.
Fortunately, for New Delhi the political and diplomatic loss due to the recent leadership changes in Sri Lanka is not as damaging as many geo-strategists would fear because a) New Delhi did not allow the pro-Tamil sentiment of the Dravidian parties to overtake national priorities of refraining to negatively intervening in Sri Lanka and b) the fact that India did come to the rescue of Sri Lanka when Rajapaksha was being hauled up by the UN Human Rights Council, a gesture Sri Lanka acknowledges. In essence Prime-Minister Modi’s political craftsmanship has also paid dividends.
Since former president Rajapaksha was mistrustful of Indian intentions –he never saw India as a neighbour well disposed towards it , therefore, his policy pronouncements and decisions were influenced more by China, than India. Beijing was also successfully able to lure the island nation into sizable infrastructure investments-such as , for example the Hambatota port. Sri Lanka signed up for this project erroneously believing it to be financially viable. In fact, this project, like many others undertaken with Chinese help, became, in time, a debt trap for Sri Lanka. Of course, this port is a veritable security risk to India, in as much as it imperils not maritime commerce, but also India’s strategic interests in the region.
In the aftermath of the rout of the LTTE- Sri Lanka was seething with political unrest because of Insecurity among ordinary people coupled with the economic problems and the ruling political dispensation was accused of being incapable of meeting the challenge. It was widely acknowledged that only Rajapaksha of the SLPP could usher in a government which will render Sri Lanka politically and economically secure. It is precisely this notion, which installed Gotabaya Rajapaksha as President.