India - Sri Lanka

Does India Have as Little Influence with Sri Lanka as is Commonly Said?

February 3, 2010 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

It is often said – by Indian decision-makers and others – that the Indian Government lacks influence with the Government of Sri Lanka. At this time of great risk to journalists and human rights activists in Sri Lanka, let alone to the Tamil detainees, the following commentary is important. It comes from the former head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka.

The paragraphs highlighted are particularly noteworthy and it makes a clear case for the Indian Government to do much more than it has done. As India seeks to join the UN Security Council and more generally, to be considered a reliable member of the international world order, the challenge is also one for Indian civil society, which has also largely adopted a bystander mentality. Awful and as inexcusable as the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was, what is the logic of making innocent civilians also suffer and allowing a neighbouring country to drift into elected dictatorship? Many commentators have called Sri Lanka “India’s Vietnam” and so far, at least, India is failing this test.

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa’s Victory & After

Col R. Hariharan, C3S Paper No.440 dated January 28, 2010

This article is a summary of answers to questions put by various national and international print and electronic media on January 27, 2010.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has won a second term as President of Sri Lanka with a handsome margin. Did you expect this victory? Would you take it as peoples’ recognition of his leadership role in the victory against the Tamil Tigers?

Of course, President Rajapaksa’s rise in popularity was mainly due to his contribution in designing and orchestrating the actions of the entire government to achieve military victory. While he provided the canvass for the victory, it was Fonseka who led the campaign and made it a reality. So, both gained public acclaim after the military victory. According to one assessment the popularity of Rajapaksa and Fonseka on this count was in the ratio of 60:40 respectively.

Many of us had forecast a victory for the President by a narrow margin. In fact, he was expected to scrape through. So, winning by over 58% plus majority was indeed a surprise. This is a sizeable increase over the 50.3% majority he secured in the 2005 election. Actually, a popular poll prediction in the early days of election ring said he would win by 62% and nobody was prepared to believe that. On the other hand, another pollster on January 21 had forecast a lead of 12% for Fonseka. So much for poll predictions.

However, it is too early to carry out a detailed analysis of the polling patterns. We need more inputs to do that. But it is clear that majority of Tamils in the north did not vote, and the President was elected by overwhelming Sinhala support.

Do you think the President’s victory came by fair means? How did he achieve it?

Stuffing of ballot boxes is not an uncommon phenomenon in South Asia and in particular in Sri Lanka. Probably there were such cases in this election also. The detailed reports of monitors would surface in due course, I presume.

But there was considerable misuse of state media by the ruling coalition; and government servants campaigned openly against the opposition candidate. The Election Commissioner was so disgusted at the utter disregard shown to his directions that he decided to retire from office before the next parliamentary poll in April. Even while announcing the results of the election, the Elections Commissioner said that though he tried his level best to ensure the polls were conducted in a free and fair manner, it was “largely out of his control to manage, especially in areas like Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Matale.”

In spite of all this, it would be unfair to the voters to trivialise the overwhelming mandate Rajapaksa has secured as solely due to electoral malpractices.

I think President’s victory came about because of overwhelming Sinhala majority support, and large scale abstention of Tamil voters of Northern Province, just as it happened in the 2005 presidential poll. Many Tamils in Vanni have not been able to get back to their normal life savagely destroyed by the war. Many believed there was nothing much to choose between the two main candidates. In their eyes probably both the candidates lacked credibility particularly on the Tamil issue. Though the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had supported General Fonseka, it could influence only those who voted, but not the majority who stayed away from voting. In the end only around 19% of them voted. As a whole it has exposed the lack of credibility of Tamil political class among the public.

At the same time the ruling coalition had generally created a climate of fear and suspicion in the country before the election. There was intimidation, high handedness, and muzzling of opposition media. By January 24 there were over 900 incidents of election related misconduct. Five people were killed. In this kind of environment, the explosion of a few bombs in Jaffna in the early hours of Election Day probably came as a final straw for the voters not to stir out of their houses.

Rajapaksa’s overwhelming support came from Southern Sinhala voters particularly in rural areas. Apparently, Fonseka had not been able to make a dent in this vote bank. Even Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga’s belated show of solidarity with Fonseka had only symbolic effect.

General Fonseka had alleged that the troops had surrounded the hotel where he was staying, and it was part of a plot to kill him. What are your comments?

“Politics of revenge” became the order of the day in Sri Lanka ever since the ambitious General fell out with the President and his brothers. Its pitch increased when he decided to contest the presidential poll. The General has since moved out of the hotel to his house. The government had said the troops were out there “to protect the opposition leaders” (from whom?) and the search was carried out to apprehend deserters holed up in the hotel. This is hardly a credible story as police can to carry out these tasks.

The General’s accusation of a plot to kill him needs to be substantiated. The allegation was probably a manifestation of the confrontational politics. Presumably, the aggressive act of massing of troops was a continuation of pressure tactics used against Fonseka starting with allegations of corruption and nepotism. The General’s statement also could be to enrol international sympathy for his plight and uncertain future after his defeat.

The General Fonseka led the army to victory in the Eelam War under President Rajapaksa. Despite this he appears to be daggers drawn with the President. What was most important reason for his relationship with the President going wrong?

Basically, the General was an ambitious person. He felt the President had not given the recognition he deserved for his contribution to the military victory that eluded Sri Lanka for 26 years. After the General became the CDS, he spoke of a grandiose vision of building 300,000-strong army. His talk of building a huge and powerful army, when even the 200,000-strong army was becoming redundant after the war, made political classes uneasy.

The President apparently felt uncomfortable in handling him and sidelined him from the mainstream of decision making. This process of “downsizing” reached its low point when he was appointed Secretary of Sports Ministry.

The differences between the President and the General came out in the open and culminated in the fight for presidency. And the opposition parties desperately looking for a suitable candidate to oppose the President, they found a useful foil in Fonseka.

What was India’s equation with the two candidates?

Over the years, President Rajapaksa has built a strong relationship at various levels of Indian leadership. He is quick to acknowledge India’s help and appreciates the political limitations of India in supporting him during the Eelam War. Even though India had harped on activating the 13th amendment to the Constitution on provincial autonomy, it chose to ignore when the President deferred action on it and went to war. India had consistently supported Sri Lanka under his leadership in international forums even on some of the critical issues like human rights violations.

On the other hand, Fonseka was an unknown quantity to Indian leadership. The UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is on a good wicket with Indian leaders, had tried to plead for India’s support to the General. Apparently, India was not comfortable with the idea. When he was the army commander, General Fonseka’s pronouncements had smacked of Sinhala nationalism and support to him would at best be controversial.

Moreover, India considered Rajapaksa a safe bet, as it probably expected him to come on top in the election. So probably India favoured his victory although its stand on the subject was never made public.

President Rajapaksa has been elected with a sizeable majority votes for a second term. Do you expect him to be dictatorial in his second term? Will he use the majority Sinhala support he enjoys to crush the Tamils?

I agree there are instances where presidents repeatedly given a democratic mandate tended to be dictatorial. And the executive presidency gives considerable leeway for the president to be dictatorial. But Sri Lanka has an enlightened political class and strong civil society which had become vocal during the election. It had always opposed such tendencies as was seen during the Jayawardane regime. So, it would not be easy for the President to behave like a dictator.

Rajapaksa is a seasoned politician who uses existing political instruments to get his writ through. He has demonstrated this a number of times say by splitting political parties in his favour, buying time on the Tamil issue etc.

Tamils are a sizeable minority who can make a difference between the winner and the loser in national elections. So, over the years, all major parties have tried to cultivate a Tamil lobby. So, I do not expect the revival of vintage anti-Tamil attitude of rabid Sinhala nationalism as a major political force. Already Rajapaksa enjoys huge Sinhala support, and he will gain no political advantage by “road rolling” Tamils and their concerns.

There is also the lingering India factor in Sri Lanka, however reluctant India might be to acknowledge it. Rajapaksa knows that across the Palk Straits, Sri Lanka Tamils enjoy considerable empathy and emotional support. This has already been tested during the war. And Tamil Nadu has a big clout in New Delhi in the ruling coalition. So Rajapaksa would always keep India at the back of his mind while dealing with the Tamil issue. India is also likely to come under considerable pressure to bring up the issue with Rajapaksa as Tamil Nadu gets ready for the 2011 assembly polls.

Overall, although the election mandate has boosted Rajapaksa’s power, I expect the President to show a nuanced approach during his second term. However, he could be encouraged by those around him to deviate from this path when pressure builds up against him internally or externally.

It had been reported that the U.S. favoured Fonseka in the presidential poll. What are your comments?

It is true the U.S. had been quite unhappy with the Rajapaksa regime on two counts: its indifference to the U.S. concerns over gross human rights violations, and its contacts with the anti-US club – Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, Myanmar etc. Moreover, considerable anti-U.S. feelings were whipped up in the closing stages of war when the U.S. wanted to extricate the beleaguered Tamil Tigers.

Countries do act at times in strange ways, but I do not believe the U.S. ever seriously considered supporting Fonseka, despite its frosty relations with Rajapaksa. I am sure the U.S. is realistic enough to know of Rajapaksa’s strengths as demonstrated in his success against the Tamil Tigers. I am sure this was the reason for Senator John F. Kerry led Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s call for friendlier relations between the U.S. and Sri Lanka in December 2009. Moreover, the U.S. does consult India on key issues relating to Sri Lanka. And India’s lack of enthusiasm for a regime change in Sri Lanka would have definitely discouraged the U.S. from any thought of favouring Fonseka.

When Mrs Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, she reacted strongly to America’s planned foray into Sri Lanka. China has already made an entry into Sri Lanka. As Sri Lanka is in a 1987-like situation now, do you expect Rajapaksa to slowly marginalise Indian influence in the island to accommodate the Chinese?

The Cold War scene of Mrs Gandhi’s time does not exist anymore. The world and this region have changed considerably along with international power equations. China is poised to become a global power; it has become the financier to boost up America’s sagging economy. Its economic influence is spreading the world over and in support its military reach is also growing. This is the reality.

And the Chinese influence in Sri Lanka is a part of this reality. And Sri Lanka would need China’s economic support to build its war ravaged economy as much as it needs India’s support. In spite of this, Sri Lanka had carefully tried to balance the relationship. In fact, it offered the Hambantota project to India first; it went to China only after India failed to respond. On the other hand, as China’s footprint increases in Sri Lanka, India’s security concerns would also increase. And India should constantly keep a watch on Chinese activity in Sri Lanka, regardless of its nature.

At the same time, India has also become an important economic power and militarily a strong regional player. It is building its strategic security relationship with the U.S. This is likely to grow in the coming years. As the U.S. sees India as a factor to balance the Chinese power projection in this region, despite India’s reluctance to acknowledge it. So, India of today is not the same as it was in 1987.

Sri Lanka-India relations are closer than ever before. It has a fairly successful free trade agreement with India. Indian capital flow to Sri Lanka is poised to increase and this would boost employment and economic opportunities for Sri Lanka. There is considerable similarity of perception on many international issues between the two countries. So, it is doubtful whether Rajapaksa would gain any major advantage by enlarging his relationship with China at the cost of India. In fact, it would be strategically risky for him to do so as India is physically too close to Sri Lanka. This is an advantage that China does not enjoy.

The President is politically savvy enough to understand these nuances of the Sri Lanka, India, and China triangular relationship. He would probably try to reap maximum advantage for his country from India using the China card.

The writer, Col. R Hariharan is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia and served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Blog: https://col.hariharan.info/