To ‘neutralise’ the former President

Even as Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa angles for a political comeback, New Delhi appears to be weighing up possible political shifts in the island, including a split in the Rajapaksa camp.

On February 10, BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav, known to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s point man on Sri Lanka, met President Maithripala Sirisena and PM Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo, a week before Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s scheduled official visit.

Mr. Madhav also met a few other key political actors, The Hindu learns, and reportedly discussed political options that might “neutralise” former strongman Rajapaksa. Confirming that he met the President and the Prime Minister to discuss bilateral issues and a forthcoming Indian Ocean conference in the island, Mr. Madhav, when contacted in New Delhi, said “the [other] allegations are false”.

While he categorically denied having discussed the former first family in any of his meetings, political sources in Colombo told The Hindu that the BJP’s key strategist seemed to explore the possibility of Gotabaya Rajapaksa decamping from Mahinda Rajapaksa in return for high political office.

One of Sri Lanka’s most controversial figures and brother of the ex-President, Mr. Gotabaya was prominent in the leadership to defeat the LTTE, playing a key role as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development.

Currently facing corruption charges for allegedly transferring state-owned weapons to a private firm, causing a loss of nearly $75 million to the country, he has been a staunch critic of the government’s reconciliation strategy.

While Mr. Madhav’s reported enquiries about him have raised eyebrows in political circles, its timing is also significant.

Two years after coming to power, Sri Lanka’s national unity government — formed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that President Sirisena leads and its rival United National Party with PM Wickremesinghe at the helm — is pulling apart.

Immediate challenge

Amid mounting criticism over the government’s delay in delivering its key election promises, coupled with looming corruption charges, the government is facing another immediate task for its survival — managing the ex-President, who leads a faction of the SLFP. This political grouping is challenging virtually every move of the government as a “joint opposition” in Parliament.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rajapaksa has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of India. Observing that New Delhi has been “mouse-like” on the current government’s China policy, while it objected to his, the former President has accused India of plotting his defeat in the January 2015 elections.

Even as Colombo tries to iron out issues with Beijing on a massive port and investment zone being built with Chinese assistance, Mr. Rajapaksa went to China in late 2016 on an invitation from the government.

At the same time, Colombo-New Delhi ties improved visibly with Mr. Modi’s visit to the neighbouring country in 2015, the first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister in nearly three decades.

India and Sri Lanka are currently negotiating a trade deal and exploring partnerships in the strategically crucial eastern city of Trincomalee, in addition to collaborating on development projects. Mr. Madhav is a frequent visitor to Colombo and a known emissary of Mr. Modi. Foreign Secretary Mr. Jaishankar, who arrives on Saturday for a two-day visit, will meet the Sri Lankan President, Prime Minister and other key political actors. (The Hindu)

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