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Sri Lankan Presidential Elections: India’s Stance

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • December 15, 2014

    Sri Lanka`s presidential elections are to be held on January 8, 2015. President Mahinda Rajapakse will be up against his former Health Minister, Maitripala Sirisena, who defected from the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Chandrika Kumaratunga, earlier the country`s President from the SLFP, has stepped in to support Sirisena. For his part, Sirisena has arrived at a working arrangement with the SLFP`s arch rival, the United National Party (UNP), to entrust the premiership to the UNP leader, Ranil Wikremasinghe, in the event of his victory. Along with Sirisena, a number of Members of Parliament have also defected from the SLFP and the United People`s Freedom Alliance of which the SLFP is a constituent.

    From the Indian perspective, there is no clear cut posture as yet that Sirisena has outlined on which New Delhi can work out its future policy options. Therefore, a neutral posture on India`s part vis-à-vis the Rajapakse-Sirisena contest may be prudent. However, the Government of India may not be oblivious of the support extended to Sirisena by another defecting member of the Rajapakse Government, Rajitha Senaratne, Fisheries & Aquatic Resources Minister, who had advocated devolution of power to the provinces.

    As for the electoral prospects of Rajapakse, the hard reality is that he still has the support of a large segment of the economically lower strata of the Sinhala middle class, particularly in the deep south and central parts of the country. This is so notwithstanding some erosion of support over the past two years as evident from the SLFP`s narrow win in the provincial elections in Uva Province in September 2014. An apparent lack of cohesion among the political forces opposed to Rajapakse at the level of middle-level leaders and grass-root workers is likely to militate against an effective anti-Rajapakse campaign.

    However, some leading figures in the Sinhala Buddhist clergy (Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha thero) seem to have already positioned themselves against Rajapakse. The hard core Buddhist Party, Jathika Hela Urumaya, and the Peoples` Liberation Front (erstwhile Janatha Vimukti Peramuna) are already lined up against Rajapakse. A more active involvement of Chandrika Kumaratunga in the campaign may be a game changer. Active association of the minorities – Sri Lankan Muslims and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – with Sirisena, or even a moderately favourable posture on their part towards him may, however, divide the Buddhist clergy and eventually dissuade a majority in their ranks from working against Rajapakse.

    In this backdrop, it may be in India`s interest to adopt a neutral posture vis-à-vis the political contestants in these Presidential elections. While President Rajapakse has not moved forward in regard to political and administrative devolution of power to the Northern province, he has also allowed the C. Wigneswaran-led TNA Northern Provincial Government to function, though under substantial administrative constraints. These include, for instance, inadequate control on land-use matters, not appointing functionaries having the confidence of the provincial political executive, police and the armed forces functioning disharmoniously with the TNA Government, among others.

    Sri Lanka’s relationship with China has come under increasing scrutiny in recent times. Rajapakse has continued to build up a multifaceted relationship with Beijing with an underlying strategic content that involves procurement of weapon systems as well as provision of docking and refuelling facilities for Chinese submarines with extended operational capabilities. Sri Lanka has also continued to engage India in a cooperative relationship involving exchanges between the defence forces in training matters, anti-piracy operations, and working in a cooperative mode in the Palk Straits and the high seas around.

    While India-Sri Lanka relations with Sirisena in power may not undergo much of a change, in the initial phase it is only in the domestic sphere that the nature of Sri Lankan polity may be a little different. It is pertinent to note that the SLFP of today is quite different from the SLFP of the Sirimavo-Chandrika period. Rajapakse has transformed the party into a political establishment run by a coterie. A Sirisena victory in the presidential elections may lead to a transformation of the SLFP, with consensual views having more impact in inner party decision making. Sirisena has not yet enunciated a clear policy on devolution. However, it is possible that his government may be more flexible on this issue and may devolve more powers to the provinces in general, with the Northern Province becoming a consequential beneficiary. A reappraisal of central and provincial government relations may ensue without, however, any alteration in the basic unitary structure of the state.

    In such a scenario, India may not have much to lose as compared to its position today though some positive fallout may be expected eventually as a result of further devolution or re-distribution of powers from the centre to the provinces in general. Kumaratunga may also influence a favourable slant in Sri Lanka`s relations with India, considering the past political profile of the Bandaranaikes towards India.

    Given the above dynamics, in the run-up to the presidential polls, India has to be extremely cautious in its posture. The slightest tilt in favour of any of the contestants, or even a benign hint, is likely to be misconstrued. This is borne out by the adverse reaction in some quarters in Nepal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi`s advice to Nepalese political parties for an early finalisation of their Constitution through consensus methodology. India perforce should be sensitive and tread cautiously in its approach to her smaller South Asian neighbours. Adopting an equidistant posture between Rajapakse and his opponent in the presidential elections would therefore be most prudent. Post-elections, India should intimately work with whoever is in power with a view to obtaining the best outcome in terms of devolution of powers to the Northern Province in the inherent interest of the original inhabitants of that province. It should also seek to foster the development of economic and cultural ties with Sri Lanka without external involvement in that country which militates against India’s strategic interests.

    Gautam Sen is a former Additional Controller General of Defence Accounts in the Government of India and presently Adviser to former Chief Minister of Nagaland & present Member of Parliament. The author served in the High Commission of India at Colombo in the late eighties.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India