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Rajapaksas brought own ruin. India knows it must support Sri Lankans now, not just the govt

India’s agile diplomacy in Sri Lanka has certainly surprised not just naysayers within the island, but also key countries in the region.

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Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa finally resigned Monday in deference to the escalating protests against his reign, but not before his supporters beat up anti-government demonstrators outside his residence in Colombo. Five people, including a ruling party MP, were killed and protesters retaliated by setting several homes, including Rajapaksa’s ancestral house, on fire.

As protests escalated overnight, the former prime minister was flown to a naval base in Trincomalee to keep him out of harm’s way.

Mahinda’s younger brother, the powerful Gotabaya Rajapaksa, remains president but it’s unclear for how long. The street is clearly in charge, and at least for the moment, the opposition has taken a back seat. A power vacuum looms large in Sri Lanka.

Mahinda’s move was aimed at averting total political disgrace. His son, Namal, along with his brothers Basil and Chamal – former finance and agriculture ministers, respectively – were asked to quit a month ago in order to assuage the protesters. But the protesters are unlikely to stop. They have tasted blood and want Gotabaya Rajapaksa to go now.

Does this mean that the reign of the Rajapaksas is drawing to a close? For a family that has stamped its footprint in the island nation’s history for the last 50 years, is the last chapter looming large?

Moreover, what does this mean for India and the larger geopolitics of the region? How is China, a key player in Sri Lanka, likely to adjust to a rapidly changing scenario in which their good friends, the Rajapaksas, are being slowly defanged?

Also read: As Colombo burns, India hopes for interim govt, supports democracy, stability, economic recovery

Geopolitics and spoils of power

There are two key questions here. The first addresses the matter of friendship, alliances, enmity and strategic interests in geopolitics – the saying, ‘there are no permanent friends or enemies, only interests,’ is beautifully illustrated by the India-Sri Lanka relationship these past several decades.

India’s relations with Mahinda Rajapaksa in the decade he was president from 2005-2015 may be described as ‘stable, but chilly’ – this was the time he moved closer and closer to the Chinese, asking them to build the Hambantota port which has since been handed over to a Chinese company to run.

But when he returned as prime minister in 2019, with brother Gotabaya in the president’s chair, PM Narendra Modi rapidly moved to readjust ties with him – India knew it had few options because a weakened Opposition had lost significant clout. It was a move that has since significantly paid off.

The second question relates to the matter of sharing the spoils of power and whether it is far worse when it all remains in the family. Political dynasties are littered across South Asia as we know, so why should Sri Lanka be any different?

But when dynasties grab more than their share of the spoils and do so by accentuating ethnic divides, as the Rajapaksas have done these last few years and the Bandaranaikes-Kumaratungas have allowed in the past, then what lessons can one learn to promote communal and ethnic harmony and nation-building?

Also read: Insolvent Sri Lanka should consider swapping its central bank with a currency board

The Rajapaksa ruin

Let us address the second question first. The ongoing protests against the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka have no doubt been triggered by the severe economic crisis that have resulted in long food queues, fuel and medicine shortages. Sri Lanka’s reserves are down below $50 million and the country has gone to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to obtain a bridging loan to repay some EMIs. India has supported the effort.

But there is an underlying fracture between the Sinhala and Tamil communities that the Rajapaksas exacerbated. In the wake of the civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE – Gotabaya was defence minister, Mahinda was president and India supported the Rajapaksas because the LTTE had assassinated an Indian prime minister – Mahinda promised to implement the 13th amendment that was part of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord. It promised land and police powers to all provinces, including where the Tamils were in a majority.

But Mahinda Rajapaksa went back on his word. He and his brother were riding high on the tiger of Sinhala nationalism. LTTE leader Prabhakaran had been killed, as was his 12-year-old son, the LTTE was routed and the nearly 30-year-long civil war had been brought to an end.

The Rajapaksas went back on their word because it was easier to divide and rule between the Sinhalas and Tamils, than heal. The Tamils got provisional councils, which they ruled in the north and east of the country, but no real powers to exercise.

Indian prime ministers have since come and gone and returned, from Manmohan Singh to Modi, but the Rajapaksas have refused to relent. They took refuge in the majority Sinhala card, which includes the powerful and highly nationalist Buddhist clergy. (The Buddhist clergy has turned against them today because of the economic crisis.) They perpetuated themselves in power.

Since 2005, either Gotabaya or Mahinda have been President of Sri Lanka, except for a short four-year stint in 2015 when Maithripala Sirisena surprisingly tipped the scales – covertly supported, it is said, by India.

In 2005, when Mahinda became President he brought in the 18th amendment, which removed the two-term limit for the executive presidency. When Maithripala became president in 2015, he brought in the 19th amendment, which restored the two-term limit. In 2019, when Gotabaya became president, the 20th amendment removed the limit again.

The problem with Sri Lanka’s divided polity is that the President-PM duo are very strong. What is worse is that the Opposition has refused to show its hand. Sajith Premadasa, the son of the powerful former president Premadasa, who leads the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), has said he won’t head an interim government to tide over the economic crisis, but neither will he say what the opposition’s plans are.

Also read: How a powerful dynasty bankrupted Sri Lanka in 30 months

India’s choice now

Meanwhile, China has finally stepped up to the plate to bail out their old friend, Mahinda, who signed an agreement with them to construct the Hambantota port and build the airport next door, in Mattala – both in his constituency.

In the last week of April, China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong expressed reservations about Colombo seeking aid from the IMF, saying it would impact the ongoing talks between Colombo and Beijing for a loan to tide over the crisis. Sri Lanka owes China $6.5 billion.

But in early May, Qi quickly moved up to speed and told Sri Lankan finance minister Ali Sabry that China supports Sri Lanka’s decision to work with the IMF. Perhaps Beijing saw how India moved to defer its own loan payments and supported Sri Lanka at the IMF by offering itself as a guarantor.

India’s agile diplomacy in Sri Lanka has certainly surprised not just naysayers within the island, but also key countries in the region. India’s economic stakes in the island have grown by leaps and bounds in the last six months not just because it has transferred $2.4 billion to help Colombo allay a loan default, sent several tonnes of fuel and medicines, but also because it has signed a long-term lease to run an oil tank farm in Trincomalee.

In a troubled and highly polarised situation such as now, India knows it needs to be seen to be supporting the people of Sri Lanka, not just the Rajapaksas. For the moment, just like the Buddha said, it seems determined to walk the middle path even if it’s a long and tortuous one — and especially when the light at the end of it continues to flicker.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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