Sri Lanka: An election that India needs to watch

WatchingAny nation-wide election in the neighbourhood is a treat and/or threat for India not to miss watching even otherwise. Advanced presidential polls in Sri Lanka, the second in a row, slated for 8 January 2015, demands India’s attention even more, given the nature of bilateral relations and cooperation, international engagement — and more so, for a fuller understanding of the socio-political cross-currents in that country, which has mostly been missed all along.

As the largest nation in South Asia in every which way, India has a responsibility to self and the rest, for ensuring and enhancing peace and stability in the region. In terms of self-interest and that of those smaller nations without the required politico-diplomatic and economic-military muscle in its ‘traditional area of influence’, India also has the responsibility to check against avoidable external influence and interference of the kind that has the potential to change the status quo — whether in individual nations or the South Asian region as a whole.

The exceptions, flowing from a partial surrender of ‘sovereignty’ by nations under the UN scheme and international norms, have proved to be a bugbear in many cases, in the post-Cold War years in particular. In the Indian and Indian Ocean neighbourhood, an example is being made out of Sri Lanka, for justifiable and not-so-justifiable reasons.

The need and demand for an honest and non-selective employment of the ‘international due processes’ seems to have been given a go-by. Instead, the continuing global trend of the shifting of goal-posts in a world where might alone is being proved to be right is finding yet another testing ground in Sri Lanka. Or, so it seems. Through the past decades, India has repeatedly demonstrated its inherent unwillingness – hence, inability — to get involved in inherently controversial ‘regime-change’ exercises in the neighbourhood. Compared to ‘more matured’ and extra-regional western democracies, which have had the uncanny knack of escalating trouble in already troubled nations the world over, India, as a State policy, has always displayed an ability, willingness and readiness to work with governments that the people of these nations elect. It’s true of India’s policy towards non-regional nations, too.

Yet, there has been no escaping domestic ‘excuses’ in these countries for prospective defeats of electoral stake-holders taking the form of ‘perceptions’ and ‘proof’ that India was meddling in their ‘internal affairs’. None has had any answers how such a course could help India, or the local stake-holders that India was purportedly backing. After all, India, despite its careful balancing-act, has remained an unmentioned electoral theme in neighbourhood politics and elections all the time, and has been named loudly at other times. India is more aware of this perception and predicament than is often credited in the nations concerned.

If such perceptions have influenced the post-poll poll ‘India policy’ of incoming governments in individual nations in the neighbourhood, India could not help it. New governments, after a time, have found the truth for themselves and have often re-adjusted to the Indian reality and the reality that India does not have stakes or preferences in their internal affairs – other than the State-centric approach to security of the nation and the neighbours as well. They are also witness to the unfolding reality that election-centric political changes in India do not always have to change the State-to-State relations with individual neighbours, either.

Preference votes

It’s in this background that the upcoming election in Sri Lanka needs to be viewed and reviewed. The campaign team of two-term President Mahinda Rajapaksa is confident that he would sail through a third time, too. Despite their tall claims of a clean-sweep, the combined Opposition that has fielded Maithripala Sirisena, the one-time political and ministerial aide of President Rajapaksa, still hopes that their man would still make it, either by a small margin in the first-preference vote, or in the second/third preference round(s) – though no one has as yet started talking about it.

The Rajapaksa campaign has been openly charging western nations with ‘conspiracy’ to cause a ‘regime-change’ – a charge that it had made during the run-up to the 2005 polls, too. Now as earlier, the US, which was openly named, has promptly denied the charge. Before the current poll campaign, the Government side had claimed – without evidence — that the West, particularly war-time peace-facilitator, Norway, had funded the Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a relatively new outfit charged with targeting the nation’s Muslim minority.

In the reverse flow, at least a few Opposition leaders in Sri Lanka have been making particularly avoidable mention about the Rajapaksa leadership involving the military in a post-poll scenario, should the incumbent lose the elections. In an email interview to the Mumbai-based South Asia correspondent of the Financial Times , London, President Rajapaksa has committed to a peaceful transfer of power, if he lost the polls.

The last time round, when President Rajapaksa won the post-war 2010 presidential polls by a huge margin, the Opposition continued to harp on ‘computer jilmett ‘ or fraud as the cause of victory. A senior aide of President Rajapaksa at the time, Sirisena has denied all such charges, sought to be revived by a section of his common Opposition under-writers. Whether it could hold until after the elections, particularly if President Rajapaksa were to win – or, lose – by a margin lower than the lowest-ever 2005 show would be on test in the coming days and weeks.

India can breathe easy that the Third Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution provides for a losing President to transfer power forthwith. It should also be aware that in close-fought contests, temptations to try and call for public protests of the ‘Orange Revolution’, ‘Arab Spring’ and the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ kind could be tried out. In this era of the social-media, it only requires a few anonymous SMS messages to whip up mob frenzy. So what if post-facto investigations show that the ‘disturbing’ messages had originated in some foreign nation or the other?

There is possibly no question of India getting involved politically or militarily in any perceivable dead-locked situation in Sri Lanka, as in any other. The question is how far would and could India need and go to check against ‘interested’ international players getting involved more than at present – whatever the poll result. And how could India do it, if the need arose, without having to be seen as ‘interfering’ in Sri Lanka’s affairs, itself?

The spirit of the ‘sovereignty’ concerns that India had recognised while voting against the US-sponsored UNHRC-2014 resolution on ‘accountability issues’ pertaining to Sri Lanka should guide and govern the Indian position. How innovative and initiative-driven would and could India be cannot be pre-judged. It’s the kind of ‘balancing act’ that India has never felt comfortable with, or proved itself in – as, for instance, in neighbouring Bangladesh not very long ago.

‘Tamils’ and ‘Tamil Nadu’ factors

If this is an area that India should watch with as much concern as interest, it also has to look inwards for the influence of the Sri Lankan elections on the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’. It would have to be more so and immediately if there is a resultant disquiet and signs of instability in Sri Lanka, post-poll. The latter could apply even if all political stake-holders in Sri Lanka acknowledge the electoral results, whatever that be. Internally, it would have to involve the Centre telling other constitutional stake-holders inside the country, where to draw the line, and when.

It’s not without reason. As the co-author of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 and the facilitator of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, India has often times sworn by it. Occasionally, India has also spoken about a ‘political solution acceptable to all stake-holders’ in Sri Lanka. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which swept the historic, post-war provincial council elections of the Tamil-exclusive North in Sri Lanka, too continues to swear by a ‘political solution within a united Sri Lanka’.

In recent months in particular, the TNA, as the dominant and respected Tamil political player, has succeeded also in bringing around select sections of the vociferous Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) Diaspora to accept such thinking. However, the Tamil Nadu polity continues to harp on ‘separatist’ ideas viz Sri Lanka. Going beyond political players, the Tamil Nadu Assembly had passed a resolution, calling for a global SLT referendum on a ‘separate’ Tamil State in Sri Lanka. It’s unacceptable to the Centre, but it has remained unenforceable under the specifics of federalist principles enshrined in the nation’s Constitution.

‘Separatist’ demand

Going beyond the TNA and fellow-travellers, India however needs to read other signals emanating from the more committed and equally deep, ‘separatist’ sections of the SLT Diaspora, who have not favoured from their agenda. Post-war, post-LTTE, they have at best changed their action-plan, from military and terror means, to international politics and greater public relations than what the LTTE was inherently capable of.

Even if belatedly, India should ask itself if the US and the rest of the West could provide the base, if not basis, for the TNGTE’s continued relevance to the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil politics’ in the international arena, what could be a related message of the kind for India under certain circumstances. It goes beyond any theoretical perceptions that what’s happening to Sri Lanka could be repeated against India, too, should certain ‘aggrieved’ and identifiable sections in the country could continue with their call for a ‘separate state’, as used to be the case with ‘Khalistan’ and ‘Kashmir’.

In the immediate circumstances, India should be worried, instead, as to what could flow from TNGTE position and proposition, among other hard-line Diaspora voices, should there be a greater clamour for a ‘separate State’, based on the much-awaited UNHRC findings on ‘accountability issues’ and the like. What could be the Diaspora reaction and reaction-based action on the ground, should the US and the rest were to climb-down on the Diaspora expectations of the kind, if a ‘regime-change’ in Sri Lanka met the expectations of the West, but not of the ‘Tamil nationalist’ hard-liners?

The content of a media interview by US-based Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, the self-styled ‘prime minister’ of the self-styled ‘transnational government of Tamil eelam’ (TNGTE) on this score reflects his intent, too. Rudrakumaran’s reference to a recent meeting of the ‘TNGTE parliament-in-exile’, keeping the legitimate SLT leadership and constitutional apparatus out of it and the way hard-liners in the past had hijacked the moderate agenda after the latter had failed to meet the ever-shifting goal-posts, should make the TNA too thinking, but that is beside the point.

Internal discourse

Whoever wins, will the post-poll leadership in Sri Lanka be more tuned to the Indian position on finding a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue? India too needs to acknowledge the changed Sri Lankan spectre between 1987 and 2015. As much as the divided Sinhala polity, the TNA too wants the India-facilitated 13-A reviewed – and an internal national discourse would only be in order.

Whether it takes the shape of the Rajapaksa-appointed non-functional Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), or the Rajapaksa-promised direct Parliament involvement (in his election manifesto), or any other form would depend also on the election results. But India cannot afford to ignore ground realities.

Sirisena has declared that he was against federalism and more powers to the Provinces, a view closer to that of President Rajapaksa, and not as much to his own prime minister nominee and main Opposition United National Party (UNP) leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Another of Sirisena’s current under-writers, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, or CBK, as President had walked the extra mile in her time, only to be rebuffed by both sides.

‘Accountability issues’

Sri Lanka’s presidential election results can also throw a few hints at what the international community (read: the West) would do – and could do — at UNHRC’s March session. An ‘independent’ investigation report on ‘accountability issues’, undertaken without Sri Lankan Government’s cooperation and participation is due for presentation.

If the Rajapaksa campaign’s continuing charges of an international conspiracy for effecting a ‘regime-change’ are to be considered seriously, then his victory or defeat could and should make a difference to the UNHRC-related perceptions and processes and procedures. India, having voted with the US resolution for two years in a row (2012-13) and abstained in 2014, would have to watch for internal and international signals, so as not to be left out in the lurch, one way or the other, all over again.

Given the voluminous work on hand, anything more than an ‘interim report’ would read less credible than the three-man Darusman Report. The latter’s credibility itself continues to rest on its existence than contents. Against this, the Government-appointed probe into ‘missing persons’ in the war-zone would remain an incomplete task, when the election results are known.

Sirisena, in his manifesto, has promised a domestic probe into ‘accountability issues’, if elected, but how different would it be remains to be seen. So would be the effect of such a probe on the UNHRC investigations and follow-up action. The international community (those voting for the UN resolution and those against it) would need to remember Sirisena’s campaign commitments that no harm would be allowed to befall on the Sri Lankan armed forces or the Rajapaksa leadership and family.

Whoever wins or loses the presidential poll in Sri Lanka, a tricky situation awaits India, particularly considering its own China-centric concerns. It would be more so should President Rajapaksa won a third-term, not because his administration is seen as accommodating China too much and too fast. It would owe mainly to the UNHRC proceedings, where the Indian position could continue to influence Sri Lanka’s greater dependence on veto-powers like China and Russia, with their own regions of influence, to be able to influence the UNHRC vote, in turn.

The question is this: Should India vote with Sri Lanka and try and see if it would help slow down ‘Chinese incursions’ in this region and at India’s cost – to national and regional security, good-neighbourly relations and regional power-projections and aspirations? Or, should India take the larger geo-strategic posturing, cooperate even more with the US and the rest of the West on Sri Lanka in Geneva, and pay the neighbourhood prize for it, if it were to come to that in the short and the medium-term.

The long-term is away and would matter to India if and only if China and Sri Lanka and the rest of India’s neighbours played the geo-strategic game the way the West would want them to do, if only to keep India on their own side in the ‘Indo-Pacific region’. If the West called it the ‘String of Pearls’ too far, too early, China seems to have worked on both the name and what it stood for, even more – giving it the name of ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (MSR). Both have focussed on trade and investments for China, and development for the hosts. But hidden security concerns of India remain. (Observer Research Foundation – South Asia Weekly Report) 

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