Verdict for Progressive Change

challengesBy Seshadri Chari                                                                   

Trust the electorates in Sri Lanka to vote on the predicted lines! It was widely speculated that it would be a hung Parliament with no party or coalition getting majority. At a time when politicians are not expected to keep pre-poll promises, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena declared Parliamentary elections as promised by him thereby drawing the attention of the world once again towards the Island’s keenly contested elections. His quitting the party and contesting against his one time leader and also winning made him a political heavyweight overnight. But soon afterwards, his ambivalence on his predecessor’s political come back remained the talk of the town.

More than once during campaign time, Sirisena had publicly declared his unwillingness to invite Rajapaksa to form a government even if his own party and coalition was in a position to form a government, with or without an absolute majority. As party chief, Sirisena also replaced a majority of Rajapaksa loyalists in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) central committee with men of his choice, if only to carry forward his vow, post-poll.

In a public statement just a few days before the elections, President Sirisena not only declared that he would uphold the mandate (for change and good governance) that his election portrayed, but would also not invite Mahinda Rajapaksa (who managed to get about 48 per cent of the popular votes) to become Prime Minister if his SLFP-United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), now under the latter’s control, manages to win a majority in Parliament. While the President sat back and watched the fun, his party and the people did not have that comfort. Soon after the President’s statement, nervous and uncomfortable members of his party went to the Election Commissioner and got his speech removed from the public domain.

While Rajapakse went strong on serious electoral issues, Sirisena’s stand was seen as strengthening the hold of Rajapakse over the party’s candidates and almost reinforced his chances of staging a comeback. However, Sirisena-Ranil nominations of candidates came with their own set of problems for Rajapakse.

It’s now left to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to cobble together a parliamentary majority, what with the intervening 19th amendment to the Constitution shifting governmental authority and responsibility away from the executive presidency. Between them, Sirisena and Ranil have promised more reforms to the executive presidency, within two years of the new Parliament through a new constitution.

The hung Parliament comes as a blessing in disguise for Sirisena-Ranil tie-up. They decided to swim or sink together ever since UNP proposed the former as the common opposition presidential candidate. The Presidential poll was the first step in political partnership and now they have taken the second step. In this marriage of convenience they both need each other even more now than in the past eight months.

The idea of national government has found favour with the people as no party in Sri Lanka enjoys the kind of credibility that they had in the past. Moreover, the President is under pressure to justify Ranil’s out-of-turn elevation as Prime Minister in January. Ranil on his part has to repay the debt to the President without whose patronage he could have never hoped to gain this position. So the partnership works best as both realise the need for each other’s support and make the arrangement work for credibility and greater stability to the new dispensation.

In this scenario the former President is not expected to keep quiet. On his part, Rajapakse may use the sentiment against him and try to split the SLFP-UPFA parliamentary party. Initially the prospective ministers might shun Rajapakse but the disgruntled elements may eventually be tempted to topple the apple cart. The new dispensation will have to try hard to pin down Rajapakse with corruption cases and other serious charges. How Rajapakse plays his cards and manages to remain relevant would be interesting to watch than what the president-PM duo do.

The new government formation is not a comfortable task for the Prime Minister and the President. Ranil Wikramasinge of the UNP will have to heavily depend on Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA) with 16 seats and the other minority groups with one seat each. The JVP with 6 seats is nowhere in the reckoning.

But the TNA’s support will come with a long list of demands and may even seek to keep the PM’s chair always shaky. Rajapakse camp had climbed down on 13-plus power devolution, as promised when he was President, to seemingly settle for India-facilitated thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, but with no clear commitment on ‘land’ and ‘police’ powers that the Tamils have been seeking
all along.

Ranil’s UNP promised full power devolution, again leaving the details vague. However, when the Tamil National Alliance reiterated its age-old demand for ‘federalism’ in its manifesto, Ranil said, ‘No’, but talked power devolution down to the ‘village level’—whether or not of the type that had existed in the pre-war era.

The Tamils themselves are divided between ‘federalism’ and ‘confederation’, with a smaller group hoping for either of them to lead them to some sort of ‘separate State’.

There are still others, including some Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora groups, who hope for separation without having to go through such processes which, to them, could head either way. Neither of these groups would mind the TNA settling for ‘federalism’ of some substantive kind, if that could be the starting point for their ‘separatist’ aspirations and endeavours.

Post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation is a serious pending issue requiring urgent attention. The trust deficit between communities, the core issues of the decades old civil strife, the reconstruction of the war-torn economy, the delicate balancing between major international players and Bharat and many more such issues are staring at the people and politicians alike. The elephant in the room is the impending United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report which got a reprieve as the new government took over. Colombo has very little elbow space in Geneva and could only hope for greater support from New Delhi.

Wisdom dawned belatedly on New Delhi on the issue of UNHRC vote. Bharat voted against Colombo in 2012 and 2013 but suddenly decided to abstain in 2014, none of these voting giving Bharat any strategic advantage. There will be a new government in Colombo when the UNHRC report comes up for voting. It would be prudent for New Delhi to convey its stand well in advance, win the confidence of the new government and regain the strategic space lost in the past to the mechanisations of some motivated groups in the West. Narendra Modi was the first Bharatiya Prime Minister to visit Tamil areas and build a bridge between these areas and Colombo. New Delhi urgently needs to wrest control of the post conflict reconstruction process in Sri Lanka and partner with Colombo and the political and social set up in the North and East.

Besides New Delhi and the West, China is closely watching the political situation as it is unfolding. The former President’s acts of commission and omission in obliging Beijing through Colombo Port City, the Maritime Silk Route and looking the other way while Chinese submarines roamed around freely in Indian Ocean back waters, proved to be red rags for New Delhi and rightly so. It is in this background that Sirisena’s chosen Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s approach to China needs to be viewed. Bharat has always held that as a sovereign country it is Sri Lanka’s prerogative to conduct her foreign policy and pursue an independent economic policy. But New Delhi has reiterated its faith on Colombo’s prudence in not doing anything that will imperil Bharat’s strategic and security interest. The new PM is expected to remember this and also assure New Delhi of Colombo’s commitments.

Reports of Sri Lanka acquiring twenty four or so JF-17 aircraft from China and prompt denials from Colombo have added a new dimension to the strategic outreach of China. The JF-17 Thunder is a lightweight, single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft developed jointly by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation of China good for deployment for aerial reconnaissance, ground attack and aircraft interception. Its designation ‘JF-17’ by Pakistan is short for ‘Joint Fighter-17’ and its alias ‘FC-1 Xiaolong’ in Chinese stands for ‘Fighter China-1 Fierce Dragon. Denials apart, China was a trusted defence supplier to Sri Lanka during its war against LTTE.

While the international players hijacked the post war reconstruction process and also the peace making, the perception is that Bharat’s legitimate interest in her neighbourhood were overlooked both by Colombo and the West. US President Barack Obama’s ambassadorial nominee for Sri Lanka, Atul Keshap is reported to have told Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation-hearing that the US wanted to build lasting peace and fellowship among Sri Lanka’s various religious and ethnic groups.

“We want to help build a lasting peace and fellowship among Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious communities, including credible justice, accountability and reconciliation that can facilitate closure for those who suffered and lost loved ones during the war,” Atul Keshap, the nominee for US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, told the all-important Senate panel, the Press Trust of India has reported since. “It is important to get this right, and the UN and international community can lend useful insight to the efforts of the Sri Lankan people,” Keshap said. The fact that Bharat’s assistance and legitimate concerns were not even mentioned is not lost on New Delhi. (Sri Lanka Guardian)

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