If Gotabaya wins India may have to get Sri Lanka strike a balance in its relationship with India and China.


Col R Hariharan

Amid the excitement of the Ayodhya verdict and opening of the Kartarpur corridor to Indian devotees of Nankana Sahib, the Sri Lanka Presidential election to be held on November 16 finds little space in the media, not even in Tamil Nadu. The election will decide who will be at the helm in Sri Lanka in the next five years.

Internationally, Sri Lanka has emerged as the strategic pivot for China to assert its military and economic power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China’s influence is to make further headway with the progress of the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative in the region.

These developments have become a source of major concern to India as its national security is tied with Sri Lanka by geography. Growing Chinese power in IOR has increased the concern to the USA and its East Asian and European allies, dominating the Indo-Pacific.

The election is being held at a time when the country’s governance has taken a beating ever since President Maithripala Sirisena made an abortive effort in October 2018 to replace the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The infighting between the two exposed serious deficiencies in national security with the April 21 Easter Sunday attacks costing more than 253 lives. The anti-Muslim backlash that followed highlighted the potential threat of religious extremism getting out of hand. These events overshadowed some of the achievements of the government, which came to power promising good governance, rule of law and greater accountability.

The country is facing severe economic pressure compounded by growing debt servicing load, high cost of living and unemployment. Alleged war crimes and forced disappearance issues after the Eelam War continues to hang fire delaying efforts to bring ethnic amity. The election will also decide whether former president Mahinda Rajapaksa will emerge powerful again.

Of the 35 candidates, the real contest is between 70-year-old Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the controversial former defence secretary and brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa, 52, housing minister and son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Gotabaya, fielded by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by Mahinda, has Sinhala Buddhist nationalists as his support base. On the other hand, Gotabaya’s reputation as an authoritarian figure with disdain for democratic norms, humanitarian laws and rule of law dogs him. Gotabaya’s manifesto released on Oct 25 focuses on national security and restoring stability after the failure the present regime to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks. The government plans to work with India for regional security and engage with SAARC and BIMSTEC groupings.

In contrast, Sajith Premadasa, deputy chairman of the ruling United National Party (UNP), fielded by New Democratic Front (NDF) is a non-controversial personality. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief His father Ranasinghe Premadasa came from humble beginnings rose up to become PM and then President. Since 2000, Sajith has been elected to parliament four times.

Sajith has followed his father’s footsteps by focusing on development youth, and the downtrodden. Apart from the UNP, which usually enjoys the support of a third of voters, Sajith is supported by two prominent Muslim parties — Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and All Ceylon Makkal Congress, the Tamil Progressive Alliance formed by Tamils of Indian origin and the Jathika Hela Urumaya, popularly known as monks party. Former president Chandrika Kumaratunge and her group within the SLFP has also pledged their support to Sajith.

Sajith’s manifesto appeared to have more depth, having learned from the aberrations of the outgoing Sirisena government’s failure to deliver on its promises. The manifesto pledged a new constitution to create a strong nation with a judiciary independent of the government, independent public prosecutor appointed by the Constitutional Council. The manifesto also envisaged the creation of an upper house comprising provincial council representatives. Other promises include creation of a national security advisor, adopting a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and extremism, and set up special anti-narcotic courts with special prosecutors. Of interest to minorities are the introduction of new laws to monitor religious extremism, penalising hate speech, resettlement of war displaced persons and “meaningful devolution” of powers to provinces.

As a neighbour, India would prefer a politically and economically stable Sri Lanka, to build upon existing cooperation in national security and trade between the two countries. At the same time, India is wary of China’s use of Sri Lanka as a springboard to further its military advantage as well as commercial edge in South Asia. The Easter Sunday attacks have shown the need for close cooperation and coordination of combating terrorism between the nations. The Rajapaksa rule had shown a tilt towards China ostensibly to develop infrastructure projects using its help; however, the country has been burdened by huge debts. So if Gotabaya wins India may have to get Sri Lanka strike a balance in its relationship with India and China.

Courtesy:Times of India