Massive stakes in Lankan polls
Sri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena has dissolved the Sri Lankan parliament ten months ahead of schedule and called for general elections on August 17. Early elections became inevitable in view of the strange situation in which “the Government was in the Opposition and the Opposition was in the Government” as a wagging tongue put it succinctly. Sirisena won the presidential elections in January this year, by defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa. Now, Sirisena is the president but the Parliament is dominated by an opposition loyal to the previous Rajapaksa regime.
In the 2010 elections, the United People’s Freedom Alliance led by Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came to power by winning 144 out of the total 225 number of seats. However, later the Alliance became riven with factions. Sirisena himself belonged to the SLFP. He quit the party well before the presidential election and became the de facto candidate of one faction of the SLFP and the Opposition United National Party led by prime minister Ranil Wickramasinghe.
His predecessor Rajapaksa was perceived as being very close to Beijing. It was during his time that a Chinese nuclear submarine was allowed to enter and dock in the Colombo port. This raised India’s fears and apprehensions no end. New Delhi let its feelings be known to Colombo in no uncertain terms. On assuming office Sirisena announced no Chinese sub will be allowed in Sri Lankan ports in future. Also, all the projects in which China had promised investments worth $5 billion would be reviewed, including the $1.5 billion Colombo Port City Project. This unambiguous announcement allayed India’s fears to a great extent.
Next, Sirisena set himself the arduous task of amending the constitution to rectify the ‘authoritarian’ provisions that Rajapaksa had introduced and which Sirisena had promised to do away with, like curtailing the powers of the president and limiting the term of the President from six years to five years and abolishing the provision to allow the president to run for the third term. The 19th amendment to the Constitution was ultimately passed by the Parliament. Sirisena called it a ‘historic victory’ for the Sri Lankan people. But Sirisena’s promise of carrying out a full-scale political reform is meeting with strong resistance from the Parliament.
There was another reason for calling early elections. The report prepared by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR) — on the alleged war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army on unarmed Tamil people during the terminal phase of the war against the LTTE — was to be presented in March. Sirisena was able to get it deferred by promising a domestic inquiry. The report is now expected to be tabled in September. By calling early polls, Sirisena is trying to deny Rajapaksa the opportunity of drumming up support for him by whipping up extreme nationalist feelings and mobilizing the Buddhist clergy behind him. Sirisena has an advantage. Former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and prime minister Wickramasinghe are not known to be very well disposed to China.
Sri Lanka has vital importance for China. China wants to dominate the Indian Ocean Region by subduing Indian naval strength, something that India obviously does not want to happen. A pro-Beijing government in Colombo will not be in India’s interest. So, India has a significant stake in the outcome of the Sri Lanka elections. And the Chinese also have a stake for the opposite reason. They would like someone close to them in the power continuum.
It is to be realized that the Chinese challenge to India is not only military but also economic. Not only in its neighbourhood but all over the world the Chinese are offering liberal financial assistance for development. It has already provided more than $40 billion to far away Venezuela in Latin America in exchange for a lot of <g data-gr-id="61">oil</g>. Last year, during Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro’s visit to Beijing, China signed an agreement for a joint development fund to which China would contribute another $4 billion. Venezuela will repay the loan by supplying more oil.
In order to win over the countries in Asia, especially South-East Asia, India has to go <g data-gr-id="66">in </g>a big way towards assisting in their economic development programme. Narendra Modi, after he became prime minister, has shown awareness of the need to participate in our neighbours’ development efforts. India has already provided assistance to Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Mongolia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Seychelles. Had it not been for the unfavourable political situation in the Maldives (due to which the prime minister’s visit had to be cancelled ultimately), India would have extended assistance to this small island nation also. Both India and China are trying to set up a naval base in the Maldives.
In the days to come, India will have to gird up her loins to meet the Chinese challenge on the economic front as well by providing assistance to her neighbours in a big way. Merely harping on security cooperation or joint efforts at countering terror will not do.