The results of Sri Lanka’s recently concluded parliamentary election were still trickling in when Prime Minister Narendra Modi rang Mahinda Rajapaksa to congratulate him on his victory — it was clear that the elder brother of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was going to win a landslide. And he did. Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, or SLPP, won 145 seats in the 225-member parliament to hand Mahinda the prime ministership for the fourth time.
It is a no-brainer why Modi chose to be the first leader — not just from the neighbourhood but around the world — to call Mahinda Rajapaksa even as final numbers were still awaited.
After all, it was during Mahinda’s 10-year rule (2005-2015) that Sri Lanka heavily tilted towards China, making India’s worst nightmare come true about Beijing encircling New Delhi.
This is why Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
The rule of one family
On 5 August 2020, the Rajapaksa brothers emerged as the island nation’s most powerful duo, making Sri Lanka a “one-family state”.
Mahinda was sworn in as the prime minister on 9 August at the Kelaniya temple. Legend has it that the temple was visited by Buddha himself. The venue for the swearing-in ceremony was clearly selected to appeal to Mahinda’s Sinhala-Buddhist constituency.
Tightening his grip over the small nation, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, 75, brought two relatives to the Sri Lankan Cabinet, which means there are four Rajapaksas in the 26-member Cabinet now.
While Mahinda will be in-charge of the Ministries of Finance, Urban Development and Buddhist Affairs, Gotabaya will retain the portfolio of Defence Minister. Additionally, eldest brother Chamal Rajapaksa has been named the Irrigation Minister and Mahinda scion Namal Rajapaksa is the new Youth and Sports Minister.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a former military officer who has also served as secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development when Mahinda was the country’s president. Gotabaya came to power in the November 2019 presidential election. He is credited to have brought an end to Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war — from 1983 to 2009 — that also led to the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Today’s Sri Lanka, though, is a changed country, one that every nation would want to mollycoddle. Sri Lanka has become strategically important not just for its neighbours India and China, but also for the US, Japan and Australia, as they give shape to the crucial Indo-Pacific strategy, which is popularly seen as a policy to contain Beijing.
Task cut out for Mahinda
Mahinda Rajapaksa will certainly focus on the 2015 constitutional amendment that made the prime minister of Sri Lanka more powerful than the president. This has to be balanced well by Mahinda so as not to fan sibling rivalry.
Mahinda’s next big task would be debt management for which he will have to conduct a great deal of debt diplomacy with New Delhi as well as Beijing.
After all, it was PM Rajapaksa who, as Sri Lanka’s president, began to obtain heavy loans from China, paving the way for Beijing to take control of the strategic Hambantota Port in December 2018 by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Unable to pay off the debt to the Chinese, the previous Sri Lankan government handed over the Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease in lieu of about $1.1 billion, keeping at stake the country’s sovereignty.
For India, therefore, the biggest challenge will be to ensure Mahinda’s policy actions don’t bring Sri Lanka under “the dragon’s grip making India lose its backyard to an adverse power,” a former intelligence official told ThePrint.
No wonder then that Indian High Commissioner to Colombo Gopal Baglay was quick to call Rajapaksa soon after the latter’s victory and committed a “fresh approach” to the bilateral ties while promising to push a laundry list of projects there.
A shrewd politician, Mahinda Rajapaksa knows all too well that he needs India today much more than he did during his decade-old rule what with the gigantic debt staring at this government.
And that is precisely the reason that there was no ‘anti-India’ rhetoric in either the parliamentary election this month or the presidential election last year.
In July, India approved an agreement between the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and Central Bank of Sri Lanka to extend to them a $400 million currency swap facility. The Modi government is mulling another such agreement for $1.1 billion, which will enable Colombo to pay off the debt it owes to India as well as China.
A currency swap is a transaction in which two parties exchange an equivalent amount of money with each other, but in different currencies. It helps in reducing the cost of borrowing in a foreign currency at favourable rates.
Last but not the least, post the Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019, the Rajapaksas have been able to win over the voters’ confidence, promising them a stable government and spiritual guidance. It has to now ensure that it gives prime focus on defence and security to keep the country safe.
After the end of the civil war under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule as the president in 2009, Sri Lanka came under the global scanner for severe human rights violations in its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Sri Lankan Army at that time was accused of killing at least 40,000 civilians.
This also has implications for India, which will now have to ensure that the aspirations of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka are being met by way of implementation of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution.
Mahinda, the naughty child who liked to play ‘Tarzan’
Since his school days, Mahinda, born as Mahendra Percy Rajapaksa, was a naughty and mischievous child, who often loved to play ‘Tarzan’ or hoot at passengers by climbing rocks near railway tracks. He was quite fond of ascending high platforms and making demands.
After his father’s death, Mahinda started focussing more on politics, leaning more towards the Left. He became the labour minister in 1994 under then-President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who finally chose him as his successor.
Views are personal.