Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa has the last laugh

There is poetic justice, no doubt, in former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapksa’s return to the government – and more so in the manner in which he has done that. It is sweet revenge that the defector who backstabbed him and usurped power in 2015 – incumbent president Maitripala Sirisena – has now beseeched him to forget and forgive and reconcile, sensing that Rajapkasa was on a comeback trail. Sirisena has dumped PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, his erstwhile conspirator against Rajapaksa 4 years ago.

(Mahinda Rajapksa)

There was widespread speculation internationally that the ‘regime change’ in 2015 in Sri Lanka was choreographed and executed by New Delhi and Washington. This time around, neither capital had any clue to the current ‘regime change’.

For the Modi government, in particular, this must seem a knockout punch. Delhi thought it had astutely reconciled with Rajapaksa – or, so it had been led to believe by the wily, tough Sri Lankan politician. Rajapaksa was hosted in Delhi as an honored guest in September. In a sure sign that Indian establishment had ‘cultivated’ him, Rajapaksa was even received by PM Modi. The impression given was that he was our latest ‘Man in Colombo’.

(Modi receives Rajapaksa)

But Rajapaksa who had openly alleged in 2015 that he was ousted in a R&AW plot, had other thoughts. Clearly, this proud patriarch from the Sinhala heartland never forgave Delhi for the humiliation he was subjected to.

Soon after returning from his Delhi trip in September, Rajapaksa held a secret meeting with Sirisena where they discussed reconciliation. According to some local reports, Rajapaksa warned Sirisena of an Indian plot to assassinate him. Conceivably, Rajapaksa’s discussions in Delhi prompted him to estimate that India was fed up with Sirisena.

Looking back, Delhi made a serious error of judgment that Rajapaksa could ever be India’s proxy, given the circumstances of his humiliating ouster in 2015. At any rate, Delhi need not have hosted Rajapaksa. It was plain idiocy that PM Modi was dragged into the hare-brained plot to court Rajapaksa. This was best handled at lower level until the plot reached Act V Scene 5 – the next presidential election in Sri Lanka in 2019. What was the hurry to flaunt that Rajapaksa is in India’s good books? PM Modi should never have been made the laughing stock of the Sri Lankan political class.

The constitutional propriety of Sirisena’s action to bring his erstwhile mentor back to power remains to be seen. Washington has already begun offering advice to Colombo. The State Department tweeted, “We call on all parties to act in accordance with SL’s Constitution, refrain from violence, and follow due process. We expect gov of SL to uphold its Geneva commitments to human rights, reform, accountability, justice, and reconciliation.” No doubt, it is a severe setback to the US’ Indian Ocean strategy that pro-American PM Wickremesinghe has been kicked out unceremoniously.

But Delhi must learn the correct lesson: It is none of our business to interfere in Sri Lankan domestic politics, leave alone spire to be kingmaker. Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy who feted Rajapaksa in Delhi last month, has put up a brave face: “I’m happy because he is a staunch nationalist. He’ll not sacrifice this sovereignty even one bit for any country/terrorist group. India would benefit from good relations with him.” But that is a correct assessment of Rajapaksa, which we should have borne in mind all along.

Funny, isn’t it, that it all began with a brief visit by a Chinese submarine to Colombo Port in 2014? Our security czars overreacted. The right thing to do would have been to sort out differences with Rajapaksa. We must focus on our interests and learn to work with the leaderships we get in the neighboring countries – for good or bad. That is what the Chinese do.

Quite obviously, the best thing to do now is to tell our boys to take timeout and leave it to the professional diplomats to clean up the debris and mend fences.

Regime change is a dicey business at all times unless we can follow through to ensure that our puppet eats out of our hands exclusively . To ensure that, we need big resources — money. What happened was that once in power, Sirisena was compelled to turn to China for financial help to bankroll his government. India lost the plot from that point. And, as the country’s economic situation began worsening and social and political disaffection started rising, blame game began and Sirisena and Wickremesinghe fell out with each other.

Meanwhile, Rajapaksa played his hands astutely tapping into the mass disenchantment to expand his political base while on the other hand lulling Delhi into complacency.