Perhaps Mahinda Rajapaksa had seen the rapid decline in his popularity much before others did. That and apparently advice of astrologers who told him his propitious time was fast running out, forced Rajapaksa's hand in calling for elections two years ahead of schedule in November.
As someone who had won a famous if controversial military victory over the brutal Tamil Tigers, Rajapaksa was supremely confident of his grip over the country but missed all signs of a brewing rebellion under his nose.
Maithripala Sirisena, his long-time colleague and friend walked out of the then ruling combine to join forces with Rajapaksa’s political opponents. His decision attracted a disparate group of politicians from the right and the left of the ideological spectrum to create a broad alliance that unseated Rajapaksa.
Clearly, neither his core constituency of Sinhala supporters nor his stars were on Rajapaksa’s side. All of Rajapaksa’s opponents—prominent among them former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and ex-Prime Minister Ranil Wicramasinghe—had rallied behind Sirisena with a singular aim of ousting Rajapaksa. All of them, apart from tapping into a strong anti-incumbency sentiment as well as large scale fear among minorities, focused on the Rajapaksa’s tendency to concentrate power within his close family as a strong poll pitch. At least three of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brothers were occupying powerful ministerial positions. But it was perhaps the blatant promotion of Namal Rajapaksa’s son as heir apparent that heightened dissidence within the ousted President’s close supporters.
Sirisena was the first one to defect but there were a series of others including Navin Dissanayake, son of former leader Gamini Dissanayake, who abandoned Rajapaksa. He would have still scraped through but for an overwhelming vote against him by the country’s two largest minority groups—the Tamils and the Muslims, mostly inhabiting Sri Lanka’s North and the east.
The Tamils, goaded by the largest political grouping the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) came out in large numbers and voted for Sirisena despite initial reservation. Rajapaksa had promised much but delivered little on his assurance to give the Tamils a genuine devolution of power. His failure to graduate from a war winning politician to a statesman who cared for every ethnic grouping, ultimately led to Rajapaksa’s electoral defeat.
While not undertaking genuine reconciliation with the Tamils was his major failure, not protecting the Muslims against extremist Buddhist organisations during the riots of 2013, cost Rajapaksa his Presidency for which he had even amended the constitution using the brute Parliamentary majority. Several prominent Muslim parties and their leaders cast their lot with Sirisena less than a month before the elections were held on 8 January dealing a body blow to Rajapaksa’s bid for re-election.
Despite these factors, Rajapaksa would have emerged a winner had he offered a new deal to the majority Sinhala population. Instead, he kept harping on old achievement of having prevented Sri Lanka’s division by annihilating the Tamil Tigers in Eelam War IV. The common Sinhala was ready to move on, demanding delivery of basic needs and not empty sloganeering. Although the economy had done reasonably well in recent times, its benefits had not fully reached the people at large.
Rajapaksa may have been defeated but Sirisena’s task is not easy especially, because he is being propped up by a coalition of disparate political forces ranging from strongly pro-Tamil to pro-Sinhala parties and from leftists to parties focussed on solely on Muslim rights. During the campaign Sirisena’s pointed omission about any future concession for the Tamils, makes the alliance partners like the TNA wary. Sirisena also has a tricky task to weigh the option of scaling down the military, grown beyond Sri Lanka’s current genuine need because of the tendency in the previous regime to exaggerate the threat to country’s unitary status.
More than anything else however, Sirisena will have to recalibrate Colombo’s equations with New Delhi and Beijing. Over the past half a decade, Rajapaksa had deftly used the China card against India whenever New Delhi tried to push for much promised devolution of power to the Tamils and giving them their rightful dues. In doing so however, Rajapaksa allowed the Chinese large stakes in vital sectors of Sri Lanka than necessary. In a clever move, the Chinese have granted huge soft loans to build ports, roads and power plants. Whenever the Sri Lankans have expressed their inability to repay the loan, the Chinese have sought to turn parts of the loan into equity giving them part ownership stakes. India was also worried about increasing Chinese military presence in the island nation of late. Sirisena had promised to review that policy.
Change of regime however will not automatically witness India’s return to a more active role in Colombo. New Delhi will need to reach out to the new dispensation quickly and assure full and unequivocal support. Fortunately, the foreign policy establishment appears to be thinking on its feet. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first leader to call Sirisena and congratulate him. India’s high Commissioner to Colombo Yash Sinha also was first off the block to go and meet the new President on Friday. However, if India wants to keep Sri Lanka on its side, New Delhi will have to go beyond tokenism and support Sri Lanka’s efforts to build a truly inclusive society by extending all material and diplomatic help. India must also stand with Colombo in its standoff with the West that seeks to punish the country for alleged human rights violations. New Delhi must push for a just probe not coloured by prejudices of the West or driven by calls for retribution against the Rajapaksa brothers. In his defeat, Rajapaksa’s contribution in ending one of the world’s most brutal insurgencies waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) must not be forgotten or underestimated.
Rajapaksa squandered a chance to use the aftermath of the military victory to create a new deal for the country’s minorities. He has paid the price for that folly but the new regime should be careful in not being vindictive against him on that count. Or else, Rajapaksa who polled about three percentage points less than Sirisena has the ability to bounce back much like Indira Gandhi did in 1980 after a three year stint in political wilderness.
(The writer is a strategic analyst and long time Sri Lanka watcher)