By Vijay Darda | 12-01-2015
Last week, Sri Lanka got a new democratically elected President Maithripala Sirisena. His victory is at once a surprise performance that was written on the wall. The element of surprise comes from the fact that when the now ex-President Mahinda Rajapakse called for elections in the late 2014, he had gone for that move with the confidence of getting a third term. At that time, he still had two more years in his second term. Then the entire Opposition was weak, divided, and there was no apparent challenger. Moreover, no one least of all Rajapakse imagined that Sirisena, a member of the ministerial team, would take the plunge against his ‘boss’.
But now as the details are emerging, the outcome of the election is being described as the biggest ‘internal intelligence failure’ of the security apparatus that is routinely expected to monitor political developments. In that sense, it is a coup. Once Rajapakse amended the constitution to give himself a third shot at the presidency, internal opposition against him had begun to consolidate. The members of the government felt that such consolidation of powers in this one-man dubbed as semi-authoritarianism was not in the national interest of the people of Sri Lanka. They started mustering forces against him, but all the while Sirisena kept a low profile constantly denying any presidential ambitions and assuring the other side that he was with them. This process began way back in 2011, but then the over-confident Rajapakse never got any wind of it.
Rajapakse was banking on the Sinhala support for his candidacy considering that he had brought an end to the 30-year-old Tamil militancy and had no reason to doubt it. But this election tells us something very interesting about democracy. Good governance may be a hazy idea for a people not well-versed with Western education and value systems. Yet, the two words have amazing power at the ballot box. Sirisena campaigned on this theme and charmed the voters. So magical was the impact that the incumbent President did not wait for the full counting to take place and conceded defeat mid-way. That the entire minority vote –Tamil and Muslim — came to him is also a sign that this is the real strength of a democracy. The people fall for the promise of good governance, and then it is up to the leaders to deliver on the hope.
Indeed, Sirisena’s victory was written on the wall once he got the nod of the combined Opposition in the country and struck to this campaign theme. After that only the die-hard supporters of the Rajapakse clan could have expected him to cling to the job. But then defeating a semi-authoritarian Rajapakse is just half the battle won for Sri Lanka’s democracy. His party still controls the parliament and making the kind of constitutional changes that have been promised within 100 days (this seems to be a favourite with the challengers) of coming to power require the kind of bipartisan support that is usually elusive. For instance, the first promise is to undo the provision that enables a President to get a third term and it is difficult to see Rajapakse’s party agreeing to this change.
Then there are other major changes, and for us in India, the key question is to what extent will Colombo reverse its Beijing tilt? We have known that the Chinese have been pouring in billions of dollars into shipping and infrastructure projects, and the latest count is some 20 projects with an aggregate investment of some 20 billion dollars. This was Rajapakse style of politics, and his reaction to the global pressure on him regarding human rights issues. Instead of responding to these genuine concerns, he simply preferred to shift his allegiance from the West to the Chinese who offered him these billions without asking any uncomfortable questions. Besides, the facility to use Sri Lankan naval facilities offered the added advantage to China that simply relishes any chance to needle India in the regional super power sweep stakes. It also fitted into the Chinese global designs of fashioning a new silk route to Europe an ambitious 40 billion dollar project that India does not support.
Now, during the campaign Sirisena and his foremost leaders including Ranil Wickeramasinghe have been talking of reviewing all these projects. But then it is not feasible for such on-going projects with major investments to be dropped. The political tilt may be reoriented but it is difficult to see that these commercial concerns forgotten altogether. This is in spite of the fact that there is nothing like Chinese aid, in any situation and everything from Beijing is an investment, which finally turns out to be costly. It hardly creates any local jobs — (Chinese workers arrive for all projects)– and other spin offs for the local economy are also not that lucrative.
The Indian Tamil parties have always had a stake in Sri Lankan politics, and this time too it is no different. But then the entire Tamil issue within Sri Lanka has taken a different turn with the support Sirisena has got from this ethnic minority vote. So, it would be expected that the decibel level from the Indian Dravidian parties would be low, and the new government would get a fair opportunity to redress the long standing grievances that have dogged the Sri Lankan polity. That in effect was the essence of the combined Opposition which defeated Rajapakse at the hustings.On his part, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already invited the new Sri Lankan President to visit India, and the maiden trip could set the tone for a new era in Delhi-Colombo ties.
Before I conclude…
Normally, marriage is a private affair with others having nothing to do with it. While conceding this part without any reservations, the coming together of Pakistan’s major Opposition leader the 62-year-old Imran Khan ( better known to all of us as a great international cricketer) and the 41-year-old former BBC weather girl Reham Khan (who now does a talk show with a 24×7 News channel in Pakistan) poses an interesting question, more so as she has promised to continue with her professional life even after this high profile nikaah. Is this just one off for the high profile Khans or does it augur well for the rest of the society? Can all Pakistani women expect the same treatment? Can all girls be expected to be educated so as to become professionally qualified like Reham?