Sri Lanka’s ousted President Mahinda Rajapaksa had the demeanor of someone who had the levers of power firmly under his grip by whatever means. As it turned out, it was an illusion. What seemed barely two months ago like a fait accompli in terms of his winning a third term in office is now a historic ouster.
As always, my focus is on the trivial at first. The man replacing him, his former health minister and a trusted aide, has a singsong/poetic name—Maithripala Sirisena compared to the more prosaic Mahinda Rajapaksa. Not that either has any implication on the way they would be as rulers but it is presumed that the new president could be friendlier given that his name possibly means a guardian of friendship (Maithri-friendship, pala—guardian). Sirisena is said to be an amiable, soft-spoken man. In contrast, Rajapaksa’s bearing was that of a man who constantly reminded you, ‘You mess with me at your own peril.” With that utterly useless interpretation out of my way, now on to something more substantive.
Rajapaksa and Sirisena were supposed to be rather close with the latter regarded as the former’s number 2. In the Rajapaksa administration, where the Rajapaksa and family were said to have full command of government, being number 2 meant a lot. Although I have not reported on Sri Lanka for years now, I do keep track of the goings-on from time to time. Rajapaksa was a much-feared man who ruled with unflinching authority. His was executive presidency that amassed unprecedented powers in the president’s office. Sirisena has promised to abolish that.
It is a measure of the extent of disaffection for Rajapaksa that the Sri Lankan voters chose his once number 2 who, logically, should have been significantly involved in major decision making along the outgoing president; decisions that made the ousted president so vulnerable to defeat. Sirisena broke ranks with Rajapaksa only in November last year and in less than two months managed to win the presidency. It is quite a dramatic turn of events.
One of the fallouts being watched closely in India and China in the defeat of Rajapaksa and rise of Sirisena is how the new leader might deal with Beijing’s deep involvement in the island nation’s economy. Sri Lanka’s strategic location on the Indian Ocean shipping lane as well as proximity to India has made it highly attractive for China which has invested billions in port and other infrastructure development.
The Rajapaksa government had pulled out all stops for Beijing. In contrast, Sirisena is expected to be less than enthusiastic about China’s inroads into the island nation. One of the projects that will be watched closely as a test of Sirisena’s China policy is the construction of the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City that was launched only in September, 2014 when China’s President Xi Jinping visited Colombo. Under the deal, China is supposed to own a third of 583 acres of the land reclaimed for the port city. Those were the days when to Rajapaksa a third term appeared to be his for the taking.
Although it is early days to say one way or the other about how the Sirisena administration might treat such ambitious projects as the Colombo Port City, there are expectations among some that it would at the very least seriously revisit it.
India has been watching the growing Sri Lanka-China cooperation with a measure of mystifying helplessness. The emergence of Sirisena might open doors for India again even though it has been over decades seen as a meddlesome big brother unlike China whose interest is purely utilitarian–economic and strategic.
It says something about Rajapaksa that just days before the vote, he had invited Hindi cinema superstar Salman Khan to campaign for him. It was said that he was trying to appeal to the youth vote by roping in Khan who is very popular along with Jacqueline Fernandez, a former Miss Sri Lanka, who has made a career in Hindi cinema. Evidently, Khan couldn’t save Rajapaksa.