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15 January 2015, Gateway House

Mahinda Rajapaksa: down but not out

Incumbent Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost to his opponent Maithripala Sirisena in the recent elections. The reasons have been attributed to nepotism and dwindling support from the Sinhala community. With considerable challenges awaiting the new government, it would be wise to not rule out a return of Mahinda

Director, Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University

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In the recent dramatic national elections in Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse secured about the same number of Sinhala votes as did his opponent Maithripala Sirisena, but trailed miserably in areas where the minority communities dominated the voter population. Had he really been guilty of what he was alleged to have perpetrated during the campaign, namely blocking Tamils and other minority groups from casting their ballots, he would most probably have carried the day.

What almost certainly cost him the edge among his Sinhala supporters was a perception that he was being too accommodative towards India, such as by releasing, in November, the Tamil Nadu fishermen who had been captured by the Sri Lankan navy in 2011. This columnist expected the release to take place after the polls, but clearly Rajapaksa wanted to do a good turn to Narendra Modi, and build goodwill with the new Prime Minister of India which could be useful after he won a third term in office.

Again, had he not gone in for the expedient of adding his unfinished second term to the six years he would have got subsequent to a victory, several of his supporters would not have either switched to Sirisena or refused to vote. While six years of Rajapaksa were acceptable, eight was out of the question for many, especially in a context where Mahinda Rajapaksa apparently believed that only in his family were there genes of the quality needed to give a good administration to Sri Lanka. Of the miscellaneous brothers, nephews, cousins, in-laws and others accommodated by the former head of state in key slots, the only individual deserving of such consideration was younger brother Gotebaya, a shrewd and hard-driving individual devoted to his sibling and able to carry his team along in a way that the other Rajapaksas failed to do.

Amazingly, Mahinda Rajapaksa was unable or unwilling to pick up the numerous indications showing  that even his close supporters were restless at the way in which he had converted his clan into a sub-continental version of the Al Saud family, which controls practically all the significant levers of official power in the country which bears their name. Clearly, the intelligence agencies on which he relied, were aware that any talk of Clan Rajapaksa was a no-go area, and needed to be kept out of briefings to the President. This despite the fact that a swelling tide of negativism was attaching itself to the way in which the Rajapaksas were enriching themselves.

In particular, they had extensive business connections in China – although now that he has been defeated and is no longer influential within the councils of government, it will not be long before Beijing establishes equally close ties with the new setup in Colombo. After all, the Chinese have in abundance the most persuasive of instruments for the forging of friendships – capital. Rather than show off their military or mutter threats about action in the China seas, the Communist Party of China would have been better advised to let its immense reserves of cash speak.

In the case of India, potentially Chinese financial institutions have the wherewithal to fund companies in India with $100 billion in loans, both longer term and carrying lower interest rates than those loans secured from a domestic system hamstrung by the RBI’s obsession with keeping interest rates high. Of course, given the orientation of the RBI (it is said that senior officers there and in the Ministry of Finance begin each day by looking respectfully in the direction of New York), it is unlikely that Chinese financial institutions would be allowed to rescue key corporates in India from the financial overreach they have slipped into this past decade. Nor will there be any rush by Chinese entities to come into India except the way they are presently doing, using this country as a dumping ground for their manufactures – especially after the defence minister Manohar Parrikar publicly identified China as being as vile an enemy of India as Pakistan. By his tough talk, Parrikar would certainly have impressed Indian voters of a macho persuasion, but he has not helped his Prime Minister get more of the capital this country needs for double-digit growth.

Back to Rajapaksa – because the India-China play will matter in Sri Lanka’s future. He will certainly seek to retain leverage within Sri Lanka by continuing to exercise control over his party, but it is likely that most of the senior tiers in the UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) will seek to rid themselves of an individual who has a binary view of every situation: only that which is subject to his full control is good, with the rest needing to be eliminated.

What is likely is that Rajapaksa and his loyalists will break away into a splinter faction, and from this vantage point, will work on a comeback. He is likely to play to his strengths, which incidentally are the same as President Sirisena’s, namely appeal to the patriotic instincts of the Sinhala majority. Although in the past he has sought to give the appearance of balancing the perceived interests of India with the far greater pull of China, from now on, Rajapaksa is likely to focus negatively on any concessions made by Colombo to New Delhi.

Hence any expectation in India of a substantial dividend from the NDF (New Democratic Front) victory is premature. Concessions made to the Tamil community will almost certainly result in an outcry from the Rajapaksa group, even though the former President may not himself join in it.

In the short run, rather than India it is the U.S. which will gain from the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is a politician whose defeat the U.S. has sought ever since he treated with contempt their “request” to enter into yet another cease fire in 2009, which would have enabled the LTTE to survive to fight another day. Such uppity behaviour by a third world politician is unforgivable, and since that year, the U.S. and its allies have targeted Rajapaksa, especially on the issue of human rights. At the core of the U.S.’ annoyance is the fact that as a clan, the Rajapaksas are bound closer to China than to either the U.S. or India.

Given the hold that Mahinda Rajapaksa still has within the Sinhala population, it will be difficult to neutralize him to the extent needed for the Sirisena government to function in an untrammeled way. Will the new Sri Lankan head of state be able to institute corruption charges against Clan Rajapaksa,when so many of its own luminaries have shared in the pickings? Will the new president of Sri Lanka be able to satisfy the U.S.-EU demand for accountability within the military for deeds committed during the war with the LTTE, in a context where Gotebaya Rajapaksa enjoyed close ties to the personnel in uniform? And will Sirisena be able to attract the international investment needed for Sri Lanka to enjoy the 9% growth required to secure his political base? Will Sirisena be able to reverse Rajapaksa’s China-centric policy and create a greater space for India in Sri Lanka?

The challenge is daunting. And there to pick up the gauntlet will be Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose appeal can grow as memories of the seamier aspects of his tenure in office fade.

M.D. Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University, and a regular contibutor to Gateway House.

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