Expectant hush in Delhi as Sri Lanka chooses president

Top presidential candidates Sajith Premadasa (L) and  candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa (R) greeted each other at a chance encounter in Colombo, October 7, 2019  

An engrossing presidential election is due to take place in Sri Lanka on November 16. Considering that this is the first major election in Sri Lanka following the ‘regime change’ in early 2015 in which India was from all accounts a major protagonist or promoter, Delhi ought to be in the Sri Lankan election arena by now, jostling for influence, pulling strings, shadow-boxing, dissimulating and keenly orchestrating a predictable outcome on the fateful day just a fortnight from now. 

But there are no visible signs of any of that happening. A hush has descended on Delhi. Three reasons could be attributed to this. First and foremost, The bleeding wound in J&K may largely account for it.

India’s diplomacy is increasingly entrapped in a quagmire of Delhi’s making where relations with China and Pakistan have nosedived which makes the nerves taut and ultimately saps energies. The recent charade of the stage-managed visit by 27 European Union MEPs to Srinagar underscores the plight.

An exit route is nowhere in sight despite all the bravado of the leadership. India’s neighbouring countries would, arguably, welcome this ‘happy’ state of affairs where they can opt for ‘selective engagement’ of the Big Brother but will be mostly left alone to tend their pastures while India tackles Islamabad and / or Beijing.

Even Bhutan could be heaving a sigh of relief, as the recent visit of the delegation led by the Secretary for the International Boundary Cell, National Land Commission Letho Tobdhen Tangbi, to Beijing suggests. 

By the way, the Bhutanese delegation was in China for the first International Conference on Boundary Cooperation, which was co-organised by the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Foreign Ministry and the Belt and Road School of Beijing Normal University. Clearly, it was a Track 2 enterprise and the Bhutanese delegation was the star attraction. 

The Chinese Foreign Ministry website says, “Themed on “Border of Friendship, Belts of Cooperation”, the conference aimed to strengthen communication in boundary policy, vision and practice among various countries, exchange work experience in land border, enhance boundary management capabilities and discuss cooperation and development modes of border areas.”  

Second, attrition would have set in after four years with Delhi belatedly realising that the Sinhala political elite are no pushover. Plainly put, when the balance sheet is drawn today, India gained nothing out of the regime change in Sri Lanka in 2015.

The Sri Lankan elite preferred by us in 2015 continued to troop to Beijing for help to salvage their indebted economy. Furthermore, disillusionment would have set in that neither of the two top leaders — President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — really ‘delivered’ for India on any of its core demands. 

The sad party is that although Delhi did some ‘social engineering’ to get the duo elected to power in 2015 by leveraging the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), once in power, the new leadership did nothing much to reach a solution to the Tamil problem. (Of course, it is a different matter that the TNA leaders also settled for power in their self-interests.) 

Yet, the foreign and security policy establishment in Delhi cannot but be aware that the Tamil votes may still constitute a crucial ‘swing’ factor in a tight race between Rajapaksa and Premadasa in the upcoming poll. 

Third, Delhi finds itself between the rock and hard place in the upcoming Sri Lankan election insofar as it is difficult to choose, from an Indian perspective, either of the two top presidential contenders — Gotabaya Rajapaksa of SLPP and Sajith Premadasa of UNP.

Ironically, both are right wingers and neither of the two is averse to riding the wings of Sinhala nationalism, and both bear striking similarity to the present Indian ruling elite in their political DNA — lavishly dishing out promises, pandering to cultural nationalism, etc.  

Neither Rajapaksa nor Premadasa is of upper class (caste) lineage but are no strangers to the Colombo establishment, either, and can claim political lineage to powerful ‘dynasty’ — the latter more so, being the son of late Ranasinghe Premadasa, former PM and President of Sri Lanka. 

Paradoxically, Rajapaksa has a record of having worked closely with the Indian security and defence establishment in his capacity as the Defence Secretary during the war with the LTTE but in the perception of Indian analysts, he may be too ‘pro-China’ to Delhi’s comfort. 

Premadasa, on the contrary, has a soft spot for ‘westernism’, which probably raises Delhi’s comfort level — although, his father, while in office, used to be viscerally ‘anti-India’ so much so that he had gone to the extent of collaborating behind the scenes with the LTTE leadership to evict the IPKF from Sri Lankan soil. The late Premadasa made no bones about his disagreement with President J.R. Jayewardene’s smart thinking to invite the IPKF to intervene in Sri Lanka. 

The Sri Lankan election once again brings to the fore the efficacy of the Indian approach in the Modi era to promote amiable political personalities to leadership in the South Asian capitals rather than deal with the leaderships that may emerge from time to time out of the churning of local politics, which is what China does.

Sri Lankan campaign trails are notoriously raucous. But, interestingly, neither of the two top presidential contenders is interested in vilifying the big regional players – China and India – in this election. They probably know it’s a bad idea.