Sri Lanka: Return of Ranil, what it means for India

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In an interview to N. Ram for ‘The Hindu’ a day after being sworn in as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister – for a second time in eight months and fourth time, overall – Ranil Wickremesinghe referred to India-facilitated Thirteenth Amendment, circa 1987, “build on it…maximise it” for finding a negotiated settlement to the vexatious ethnic issue in the island-nation. On China, another issue of concern for India, he had this to say: “We get back to having the close relations we had with the West and with India while maintaining our relationship with China, which has also been a longstanding one. And looking at our own role in the region and what stand we will take on some of the main international issues.”

Surprisingly for a South Asian, Third World nation’s Prime Minister in his place, Wickremesinghe was less critical of arch-political rival and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Was it a kind bonhomie that had marked the personal disposition of the two leaders towards each other through the past decade and more, or was it also indicative of a kind of broad national consensus’ on key issues about which enough signs and signals where available for long now?

If nothing else, until the ‘people were ready to vote out Rajapaksa’ or even afterward, Ranil and his UNP were less than critical of the former’s regime. It owed to their combined ability to retain and recover much of the ‘traditional’ UNP vote-share/vote-bank on the one hand. On the other, they might have also not wanted to risk targeting the ‘war-victor’, whose image the civil society and the social media had sullied enough.

In the final analysis, Rajapaksa could consolidate the traditional SLFP vote-share as none else before him but could not retain the 10-plus per cent from the ‘swing-votes’, which he had got ever since the LTTE’s military reversals began in 2007. Now, with successor President Maithripala Sirisena trying to take over the party from Rajapaksa, that too with the open blessings of their common predecessor, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, upcoming attempts at anticipated political re-alignment could become as much a burden for PM Ranil as it seems to be a boon, to make up the numbers.

Suffice is to point out that despite open hostility on CBK’s part, Rajapaksa has continued to lead in her family’s pocket-borough, the Attangala polling division since his maiden (victorious) presidential poll of 2005. Ex-cricketer Arjuna Ranatunga, the CBK-appointed SLFP ‘organiser’ for their native Gampaha district had to cross over to the UNP, weeks before the parliamentary polls, to win a parliamentary seat. Unless Sirisena were willing to concede that his supporters in the SLFP-UPFA in native Pollonoruva had worked secretly for his UNP-UNFGG ally from the January presidential polls, he would have a lot to explain why the latter had led in the parliamentary polls, too.

If not immediately, over time, the inherent and inevitable tensions in the ‘National Government’ that PM Ranil heads with President Sirisena’s blessings and the Leadership-Voter dichotomy in the SLFP-UPFA milieu would also influence and impact upon the new leadership’s reconciliation efforts – with the ‘minority’ Tamil community from within and the ‘international community’ (read: West) outside. India would fit in, in both.

Ethnic issue

After becoming prime minister in January, Wickremesinghe named President Kumaratunga to head the National Unity Task Force. None can question their sincerity, as was evident when they were in power and began negotiations with the LTTE. While the LTTE’s recalcitrance of the mid-Nineties forced the CBK leadership to join in when the group revived terrorism and conventional war, Ranil stuck to the Norway-facilitated cease-fire agreement (CFA), signed almost behind his President, CBK’s back in 2002, till he lost power in 2004.

Faced with ground realities, however, they will have a tough task convincing the SLFP partner (with or without the latter’s UPFA formation) on the one hand and the rest in the Ranil-led UNFGG on the other. In Ranil’s company are Tamil-speaking Muslim parties and also the Sinhala-Buddhist right-wing JHU. They are both for a reasonable settlement with the Sri Lankan Tamils that would ensure permanent peace in the country, but would not want to walk the extra mile themselves or allow their government to do so.

Thus, the SLT and the TNA cannot hope for the re-merger of the North and the East, after the Muslim community, together with the Sinhala-centric UNP, has won most parliamentary seats from the Eastern Province. UNFGG got a total of seven seats from the three Eastern Province districts, as against five for the TNA with three going to the SLFP-UPFA. Any revival of the merger talks thus could end up having to stop with the ‘Chandrika package’ of the Nineties, where a merger of the North and the Batticaloa district from the East were on offer.

On the more immediate land and police powers, PM Ranil’s response to The Hindu was complete and vague at the same time, capable of diverse interpretations and reopening of the issue. There have been issues over police powers, too. While a representative each from the government and the TNA side had prepared working papers on both issues when the latter was in post-war negotiations with the Rajapaksa dispensation, hard-liners on both sides would not even consider the proposals as basic documents for further discussions.

In his interview to N. Ram, PM Ranil said that his UNP was ‘flexible enough’ to approach devolution-related problems. But during the parliamentary poll campaign, he returned to the pre-war era scheme of village-level devolution. There are takers still for the same in the Sinhala South, but none for ‘federalism’, the ‘Indian model’ or the 13-A. Even the second and third-rung Sinhala politician of every political hue has no appetite for political power(s) at his grabbing distance, in the Provinces. Against this, the TNA and the larger Tamil social leadership still stick to their 13-Plus demands, even while remaining unclear on the details.

China factor

Establishment Sri Lanka, comprising the political and bureaucratic classes, has always looked upon India’s assistance of every which kind as the inherent responsibility of a larger neighbour. To them, perceptions of Indian faults look bigger than the real thing. India, it should also be acknowledged, has not been in a position to give its neighbours enough in terms of economic assistance or politico-strategic backing, whatever the reason and justification.

Against this, ‘distant powers’ like the US during the ‘Cold War’ era and China, before and afterwards, has been generous in their assistance of every kind. It was thus that ordinary Sri Lankans of that generation and their grandchildren, too, would fondly recall the ‘rice-rubber’ barter trade when the island-nation required rice to feed its people and had only rubber to offer.

That was in the Fifties, under Mao’s China, and Ranil’s pro-West UNP was ruling the country. In the Nineties under President Chandrika, post-Mao China had offered Colombo fighter planes and the rest to fight the LTTE, reportedly without discussing money, which Sri Lanka did not have. In context, and also in the context of the preceding ‘Cold War’ era regional and global dynamics, the Sri Lankan strategic community would still want to blame the larger Indian neighbour for ‘creating’ the LTTE in the first place, owing to purportedly ‘misplaced’ perceptions about Sri Lanka-US relations of the time.

Old leaders, new outlook

Rajapaksa

In context, the Ranil-CBK combine represent the past that has had an enlightened view of things, particularly from the Indian perspective just now. Their ability to carry the rest of the nation, both Sinhalas, Tamils and the rest, would be matched only by the inherent inability of the Sri Lankan society and system to accept change(s) without a price.

In this, Rajapaksa with his considerable vote-pull remains ‘branded’ in every which way. President Sirisena, with elected constitutional powers, still remains an enigma of sorts – as Rajapaksa, among others, could vouch for. Any encouragement by and for Sirisena to sideline Rajapaksa without adequate political preparations – as different from legal condemnation – could backfire, and possibly elsewhere and within the nation’s body politic.

The possibilities are many, and India cannot shut its eyes to emerging realities, particularly if the continuance of a ‘National Government ended up creating a huge vacuum in the large ‘Opposition space’. As legitimately as any other party or formation, the TNA, as the third largest group in the new Parliament, could aspire to form a ‘minority formation’, which could command a high 35-40 per cent population-share, depending on which all communities are included. But the party still lives in the past, and is unable to think beyond its shoulders. It is unable to think realistically and imaginatively at the same time.

India needs to be as watchful for developments, unforeseen for details but foreseeable as concepts. To India-baiters in Sri Lanka just now, the parliamentary poll results have also shown that claims of an ‘Indian involvement’ against Rajapaksa in the January polls were unfounded. Now that an old leadership has re-emerged, putting behind their mutual animosities of the first years of the 21st century, there is as much hope for Sri Lanka as there could be possibilities for the emergence and/or re-emergence of extinct forces or electorally expelled leaders and parties. The reverse is more plausible, what with India, too, getting caught on the ethnic issue, critical to Sri Lanka and the China issue, which is of equal, if not greater concern, for India.

sathiya(N. Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the New Delhi-headquartered Observer Research Foundation. This article has been written for India Writes Network)