The announcement in Colombo on Sunday by former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa that his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be his party’s presidential candidate in the election due to be held before December 8 electrifies the politics in the island country.
The announcement was expected, but there was an element of uncertainty lingering because the incumbent president, Maithripala Sirisena, also harbored ambitions of seeking a second term. Gotabaya was waiting for the approval of the US administration on his renunciation of American citizenship, which would qualify him to be a candidate under Sri Lanka’s electoral laws.
Sirisena has fallen in line, finally, sensing that his political future lies best in forming an alliance with Rajapaksa. A few hours before Rajapaksa made the announcement on Sunday, the visiting US acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, and US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina Teplitz called on him at his official residence in Colombo to signal that Washington will not put hurdles in Gotabaya’s path and the coast is clear for the erstwhile American citizen to be a candidate in the presidential election.
“Fortune’s furious fickle wheel,” as Shakespeare wrote in his play Henry V, has come full circle. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was overthrown in a “regime change” plot – which was hatched jointly by the US, the UK and India in January 2015 – is staging a comeback and his tormentors are scurrying for cover – seeking favors from him, sensing that Gotabaya’s victory in the upcoming election is a strong possibility and Mahinda is likely to be the next prime minister.
Mahinda is known to be a forgiving type by nature and even Sirisena, who betrayed him in 2015, is apparently hoping to get a cabinet post in the next government. Surely, Wells too came all the way to Colombo just in time, hoping to cash in on the Rajapaksa clan’s return to power.
US War Crimes Act
According to reports, US President Donald Trump’s administration put Gotabaya’s application to renounce American citizenship on the fast track and the rigorous scrutiny of such applications by the US Department of Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security stipulated under US laws has been waived in this case as an exception.
There is a delightful irony in the fact that Gotabaya would have come under the category of American citizens liable and punishable under the US War Crimes Act on account of his highly controversial role in the horrific violence in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), having been the defense secretary at the time.
But Washington prefers to strike a Faustian deal if only Rajapaksa’s party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), will not stand in the way of finalizing the military agreements that the US has been seeking with the country, seeing it as a “military logistics hub” for the United States Indo-Pacific Command.
Quite obviously, Wells’ mission to Colombo aimed at ensuring that there was no slip between the cup and the lip. From Colombo, she is heading for New Delhi, where she will be joined by US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who is also on a similar back-to-back mission to Bhutan and India “to advance the United States’ partnership with two nations that are critical to preserving the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region,” according to the State Department.
The US is pushing hard to anchor its Indo-Pacific strategy firmly in the South Asian region.
In the final analysis, leaders like Rajapaksa with a strong political base, cannot be pushed around, especially in the present multipolar setting in the world order. If Colombo grants military facilities to the US, similar facilities may be granted to China and perhaps Russia as well at some point.
Gotabaya said categorically in Colombo in his acceptance speech on Sunday that he would robustly safeguard Sri Lanka’s independence and strategic autonomy and give primacy to its economic development. Without a doubt, China will continue to be an influential player – in investment, trade and Belt and Road projects.
Mahinda Rajapaksa said openly in an interview last week that it was no longer an issue that Chinese submarines routinely visit Hambantota Port.
Gotabaya’s electoral platform bears a striking resemblance to that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is also riding the wings of “cultural nationalism” (read: Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism), which has lately assumed strident overtones of Islamophobia. He’s a platinum-grade populist, too.
Interestingly, when asked about the SLPP’s stance on the Sri Lankan Tamil problem, Mahinda Rajapaksa has blithely drawn the analogy of the Modi government’s revocation of the special status for Jammu and Kashmir.
How does he view India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir? Rajapaksa says: “What was done there [revocation of Article 370] was an internal matter of India, no? But still, I would say that being nuclear powers and neighbors, they [India and Pakistan] could sit together and talk.
“Perhaps a third party trusted by both could bring them both to the table, someone like the UN secretary-general.” One begins to wonder why India did such a foolish thing four years ago to undermine such a confident, strong leader in a neighboring country.
The prevailing national mood in Sri Lanka can be compared with the eve of the 2014 general election in India. It favors Gotabaya’s candidacy. Gotabaya cashes in on the “anti-incumbency” factor that works to the detriment of the present government, which is associated with rampant corruption, ineptitude and political infighting.
After the recent terrorist attacks, people are hankering for a “strongman” and forceful leadership. Gotabaya is also peddling big economic dreams and an aspirational electorate laps it up. He is openly pandering to nationalist sentiments. The only difference with Modi could be that Gotabaya hails from a “political dynasty.”
MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.