Elections in Sri Lanka Benefit India

The fate of Mahinda Rajapaksa has been decided by the people of Sri Lanka, and when Maithripala Sirisena takes his oath as the new President of Sri Lanka, the island will leave behind what has been a tumultuous period of transition since the end of the Civil War in 2009. Despite having won his first and second presidential elections by a 2% and 18% margin,  the embrace of Maithripala Sirisena, a former cabinet member of Rajapaksa, who most recently was Sri Lanka’s Health Minister, and who flipped from Rajapaksa’ Freedom Party to become the fresh face of the opposition coalition has put an end to Rajapaksa’s administration, one that was not without controversy, and will likely continue to receive criticism for its alleged mishandling of affairs concerning the human rights abuses of the minority Tamil population.

Riding what was a surprising amount of momentum and hype, Sirisena’s victory may have been by a slim margin, but represents Sri Lanka’s dynamic voting population. Both Rajapaksa and Sirisena are Sinhalese, like three-quarters of the Sri Lankan population, but the brunt of Sirisena’s campaign remained fixated on the effort of gaining approval from Tamil and Muslim parties, in an effort to secure minority votes. The effort not only proved successful, but displayed the population’s frustration in what has been depicted as a widely divided society among ethnic and religious lines. The votes of the minority will likely never be as overlooked as they were by Rajapaksa’s camp in future elections, and the influence of these minority groups is expected to grow in the new administration.

As for India, Sirisena’s victory runs parallel with the Modi Government’s goal to recoup lost influence in Sri Lanka, and would likely make the task of mending relations between both countries a much easier and concentrated effort. The issues brought forth by the Indian Tamil diaspora for the ongoing humanitarian crisis for Sri Lankan Tamils proved to be a hindrance in diplomacy and garnered unwanted attention for Rajapaksa and the island of 20 million people. Now, with two relatively young administrations in place in both India and Sri Lanka, such concerns that maligned the relationship between Delhi and Colombo may finally be resolved.

Rajapaksa, who oversaw the tumultuous period following the end of the war, a time of which has received condemnation for human rights abuses from the likes of the United Nations and Amnesty International, has utilized the end of the war to his absolute advantage, taking liberties to call special elections and reminding his constituents of the victory. Nevertheless, this special election in particular, was ill-timed and ended what is better known as the Rajapaksa family’s rule over the island.

With nepotism rampant in the highest ranks of the government, there is a Rajapaksa in the posts of President, Defence Minister, Speaker of Parliament, and Minister of Economic Development. Such dominance exuded by Rajapaksa and his family perturbs India, as international attention launched at Sri Lanka by transnational organizations and NGOs puts India in a difficult position between being the key communicator within the South Asia region, and Sri Lanka’s push back against what it sees as a hegemony in Indian intervention in the island’s domestic affairs.

Characterized as both parts Freedom Party hardliner, and aspiring monarch, Rajapaksa’s development of a cult of personality was evident in the streets of Colombo, with Bollywood superstars like Salman Khan at his side just days before the election, Rajapaksa paraded in the manner expected of a ceremonial king, and not of one concerned about the possibility of his legacy ending. Yet, in a political climate brewing among Sri Lankans that has not been ancillary to the SLFP, the vulnerability of Rajapaksa was realized.

A generally warm relationship with instances of rockiness, India and Sri Lanka appeared to be drifting apart, examples include the severance of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the two countries, and the consistent moves by Rajapaksa to foster closer relations with China. With a Free Trade Agreement between China and Sri Lanka planned later this year, bilateral ties in trade and defense are steadfastly reaching unprecedented heights, as China exercises  and extends its influence within South Asia. While today, India remains the largest exporter to Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa’s close ties with China could have altered such a standing, in what would have been a blow to the “Make in India” campaign.

Whether the Tamil population will truly accept and receive Sirisena better than Rajapaksa remains to be seen, but judging by the activism produced by Tamil Diasporas outside of the recovering war-torn state, it seems likely that for the present, an outgoing Rajapaksa may appease the Tamil community both in and outside of Sri Lanka for a short period of time. Furthermore, to curb Chinese growth in Sri Lanka, a reset in the Sri Lankan leadership and change at the helm may have been what the Indian government finally needed to repair relations between the two countries.

By Arman Sidhu

Arman Sidhu is a political commentator based in Phoenix, AZ, USA. He is a former Reagan Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.

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Categories: Asia

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