View: What Gotabaya Rajapaksa's victory means for Sri Lanka and India
Gotabaya is a pragmatic leader and can be expected to live up to his manifesto to develop security cooperation with India, as national security and fighting extremism are his priorities. But the reality is China is now entrenched in Sri Lanka more...
The election of former defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as the seventh President of Sri Lanka came as no surprise to those familiar with the island’s politics. Gotabaya’s strong and assertive personality, focused on results rather than means, earned him the reputation of an authoritarian figure hated by many, particularly international media and civil society. There are a few home truths to how he managed to win 52.25 per cent of votes polled to walk away as the victor.
His 10.25 per cent margin of votes over his nearest rival Sajith Premadasa showed majority of the voters – mostly Sinhalese – believed he is the man of the hour to ensure Sri Lanka’s security and stability as a united entity. For most Sinhalese, not only the rural Rajapaksa supporters but many among the middle class, he is a leader who delivered them from Tamil Tiger separatists who threatened their existence for over two decades.
They saw the record of public service of his rival pale in comparison with Gotabaya’s results achieved during the civil war years. Gotabaya’s pithy remark in his maiden speech after his victory: “We knew right from the start that the main factor of this election victory is the Sinhalese majority of the country” underlined his strength.
It is true Gotabaya cuts corners to get results and in many cases trampled upon humanitarian laws during the Eelam war. There are a number of cases of corruption, cronyism, kidnapping and murder where his name is linked to alleged perpetrators. All these cases have been under investigation for over five years. In not even one major case has he been convicted. Even in the infamous White flag case where Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka accused him of ordering the killing of LTTE leaders who wanted to surrender, he was not found guilty.
Though incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe won power with promise to clean up administration, restore rule of law, abolish executive presidency, they worked cohesively only for first two years. But after that they were working at odds with each other, due to their animosity which became visceral.
Inner party power struggle also took its toll. President Sirisena’s abortive bid to carry out a ‘constitutional’ coup to replace Wickremesinghe with Mahinda as prime minister in October 2018, was the final straw that paralysed the government and rendered it inactive. The adverse impact was seen later when the government failed to act and prevent the jihadi terror attacks on April 21, though it had advance information.
The terrorist attack shook the confidence of Sri Lankans in their government. Probes revealed utter failure of leadership. Sinhala fringe elements triggered a backlash adding to chaos and instability. Gotabaya’s earlier record made him the most qualified among the candidates to become president to ensure security and stability.
Gotabaya started his presidential campaign unofficially last year after his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid to become PM failed in October. As against this, the ruling UNP under PM Wickremesinghe intentionally delayed accepting Premadasa’s bid as official candidate, because of his own ambitions. Premadasa got barely a month to launch his official campaign. So there was little time to rally forces against the Rajapaksas, as was done in the 2014 presidential election.
Gotabaya was totally focussed on Sinhala sensitivities and did not deviate from what Mahinda had already offered to minorities. On the other hand, Premadasa compromised Sinhala votes by agreeing to favourably consider some of the Tamil demands. While he won near total minority support in the north and east he lost out on Sinhala votes, though his father Ranasinghe Premadasa came from humble beginnings and built his reputation through development projects for the poor.
During Mahinda’s term as president he had skewed relations in favour of China, to the disadvantage of India. He had even accused India of interfering in the last presidential election, when he lost. In spite of this, Mahinda kept his India connections open. He visited New Delhi in September 2018 and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And when Modi visited Sri Lanka in June this year to show India’s solidarity after the Easter Day terrorist attacks, Mahinda discussed security related issues with him.
Gotabaya is a pragmatic leader and can be expected to live up to his manifesto to develop security cooperation with India, as national security and fighting extremism are his priorities. But the reality is China is now entrenched in Sri Lanka more than it was in 2014, when Rajapaksa’s rule ended, and it has become the major player in Sri Lanka’s economy and strategic security. So India will have to walk the extra mile to build on positives of its relations with Sri Lanka.
The incoming president has to keep up good relations with India as the Chinese promoted Colombo International Financial Centre, a selfcontained smart city project, will open for business next year. To be profitable, not only this project but almost all Sri Lankan projects would need Indian participation. We can also expect the Chinese to factor this aspect while negotiating with Indian counterparts. The challenge for India would be how to take advantage of it.
Gotabaya’s victory with a good mandate has made Sinhalese constituency strong. So Tamils have to rework their strategy afresh to find equitable space, beyond mere whipping up of ethnic passions. Till then there is not much India can do in this traditional area.
(The writer served as head of intelligence of the IPKF in Sri Lanka between 1987-90)