by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
Mahinda Rajapaksa has just won the Sri Lankan Presidential election of 2015. The Modi mood sweeping India has given a second wind and a fresh momentum to the Mahinda incumbency. However, the dramatic new chapter in the Indian epic, if misunderstood and underutilized by President Rajapaksa, can enhance rather than decrease the pressures on Sri Lanka. Given that he is named after the son of a great leader of India —Ashoka—who bore the message of the greatest son of the Indian subcontinent— Gautama, the Buddha— there’s a question, more geopolitical than metaphysical, that Mahinda Rajapaksa must ask himself: what if King Devanampiyatissa had declined to convert or delayed in converting to the doctrine of the neighbouring metropolis?
India has caught up with Sri Lanka yet again. It was twenty years after Ceylon, that India spawned a two party system. It was only in the 1990s that India had its first “SWRD/SLFP” type administration— that of the BJP under Mr Vajpayee. This month, India had its Mahinda moment— the victory of Mr Modi’s tougher minded BJP.
The Modi victory will re-legitimize and reinforce Mahinda’s majoritarian religious nationalism and grind the main democratic opposition, the neoliberal cosmopolitan UNP (with or without its Mangala mediated CBK auxiliary) with its minoritarian profile— it appears to be the country’s largest NGO and possibly its largest INGO— into the electoral dust.
The scenario of the mono-issue monk as a common candidate is merely a symptom of the collective craziness and political paralysis that has seized the Opposition.
The fate of being pushed into electoral exile by the winds sweeping India and swelling Mahinda’s sails, giving him a second wind, can be deflected only if the UNP re-brands by handing the reins over to its own (mini) Modi-Mahinda approximation, Sajith Premadasa. The UNP’s Establishment and supportive civil society elite would rather commit collective suicide than do so. Therefore collective electoral suicide is what the outcome will be at the upcoming national elections.
Luckily the non-UNP Opposition (SF, JVP) will survive the tsunami, and the UNP itself will probably have to hand the leadership over to Sajith in the aftermath of the coming debacle, but will all of that prove enough to constitute a credible post-election social and political counterweight, nationally and more particularly in parliament?
The Modi victory will prove a mixed blessing for Mahinda Rajapaksa, though. The handsomely re-elected President Jayewardene and the new PM of India Rajiv Gandhi were the warmest of friends in 1985-86 (and India’s Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari was an even firmer friend, so to speak). Yet in 1987 there were Mirage 2000s in Sri Lanka’s airspace, followed by a 70,000 strong Indian peacekeeping force on Sri Lankan soil.
The reason for the drastic about-turn was that JR Jayewardene was unable or unwilling to push through the agreement on devolution arrived at with — and in— Delhi in 1985, because of filibustering by Sri Lanka’s powerful Minister of National Security, Lalith Athulathmudali and the president’s own son and Security advisor Ravi Jayewardene, both of whom thought that the Sri Lankan state could imitate Israel and prevail. When President Jayewardene was asked in the presence of Rajiv Gandhi at a historic press conference after the signing of the Accord, why he didn’t agree to essentially the same deal earlier and therefore pre-empt Indian intervention, he confessed that it had been a “lack of foresight, lack of wisdom, lack of courage” on his part.
Let us hope that history does not repeat itself. The bottom line that any Sri Lankan President has to get is that however close the ideological congruency and warm the initial friendship is with any Indian leader and administration, it can be cemented, protected from hostile lobbies (Tamil Nadu, Tamil Diaspora, the US) and prevented from turning adversarial as in 1987, only if Sri Lanka’s Tamil issue which has inevitable repercussions in and for India (given the 70 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu), is neutralised by sufficient and expeditious devolution of power as agreed to between Colombo and Delhi during and just after the war.
Sri Lanka can stave off Western pressures, and contain the rise in global pan-Tamil secessionism (the Tamil Diaspora and Tamil Nadu), only with the solid support of Delhi which is in turn obtainable only through devolution to the Tamil majority North.
President Rajapaksa must also remember that what is true in physics is also often true in politics: like poles repel. If similarity ensured affinity and affinity guaranteed alliance, the Sino-Soviet split and conflict could simply not have happened; President Premadasa and Vardarajaperumal should have been friends, and Prabhakaran should not have gone to war with either Premadasa or Mahinda Rajapaksa.
It is almost certain that no Sri Lankan decision-maker or policy maker, Government or opposition, is aware that in his landmark work “A Clash of Civilizations?” Prof Samuel Huntington classified Sri Lanka’s then ongoing war in his key category of “fault-line wars”. For him, the site of conflict often corresponded t the borders of civilizations and he saw Sri Lanka’s war as a Tamil-Sinhala conflict which was at bottom a conflict at the contested confluence of two civilizations— Hindu and Buddhist. The kinship between Hinduism and Buddhism can make for a political bonding between Modi and Mahinda, as proved by the Zionist-Christian fundamentalist convergence in US Republican politics. On the other hand, it can lead to a sharp polarisation as centuries or more of conflict between Judaism and Christianity, not to mention millennia of conflict between the Abrahamic ‘religions of the Book—-Judaism-Christianity–Islam—amply demonstrate.
Mahinda Rajapaksa must grasp that if it is a choice, a BJP India will always feel closer to the Tamil Hindus or more correctly the Hindu Tamils, than to the Sinhala Buddhists. Similarly the Hindu Tamils (exemplified by Mr Wigneswaran) will always feel closer to a BJP India than to a Sinhala Buddhist kingdom of Colombo or Hambantota. Bal Thackeray, the notorious leader of the Shiv Sena, a seminal contributor to the RSS-led Sangh Parivar penumbra of the BJP, openly regarded Velupillai Prabhakaran as a hero. Potentially, it is a recipe for a Crimea or a Bangladesh— and Mr Modi’s ego might opt to compete with the ghost of Indira Gandhi by creating his own (Hindu Tamil) Bangladesh.
It is up to Mahinda Rajapaksa not to push Mr Modi into thinking/feeling that he has to make that choice. The enemies of Sri Lanka will already be doing so. Mahinda has to pull or draw him away from that temptation. If I may be pardoned the flippancy, Mahinda is caught between a rock and a hard place: between Modi and the MoD (Ministry of Defence). It is Mahinda’s sovereign — and deeply existential—choice to make.
Both Mr Modi and Mahinda may or may not be fundamentalists under the skin (as their secular liberal critics allege), but Mahinda cannot afford to forget or overlook the fundamentals of Indo-Lankan relations and Sri Lanka’s relationship with the world. For an administration that prides itself on its achievements in building highways, the Rajapaksa regime must realize that Colombo’s road to Washington lies through Delhi and Colombo’s road to Delhi lies not lie through Kataragama but through Jaffna and Kilinochchi.