Sri Lanka: Verdict, Fluidity of the Aftermath

By M Rama Rao
In the end, as expected, there were no surprises. And a month or two down the line too there will be no surprise if ten odd new lawmakers switch over to the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and reward it with the magic two-third majority in Parliament, the goal President Mahinda Rajapaksa had set for himself quite a while ago.

The poor show by the opposition doesn’t come as a surprise. It was along the expected lines. The opposition reminded old timers of the rag-tag Grand Alliances India was familiar with during the Indira Gandhi years. Craving for power and illumination is not enough. The leadership should inspire confidence. That was not the case at the time of April 8 ballot. Sarath Fonseka’s victory has very little to do with Wickremasinghes and Vijitha Heraths.

In the public eye, the former General is still a war hero but he is in the wrong company at the right time. This perception was largely a result of the media blitzkrieg by the Rajapaksas.

Analysts like me thought the hounding `the General was being subjected to would boomerang on the government. Because, we proceeded with the assumption that Fonseka had become a modern day folk hero in Sri Lanka with his feat of decimating the separatist Tamil Tigers, who had perpetrated a blood bath in the country and appeared invincible till Fonseka happened.

And when he conducted his campaign from the jail, it appeared that he could sail on a ‘sympathy’ swing. Like India’s maverick socialist humbug George Fernandes did from Delhi’s Tihar jail in the 1977 Parliamentary elections that delivered a shock defeat to Indira Gandhi.

But in the end the ex-army commander’s magic worked only in the Colombo district. It could be because the Colombo electorate has a large sprinkling of government employees, who, like in India and elsewhere, are temperamentally anti-establishment at the core.

Why Fonseka brand lost for the second time in a row to enthuse the electorate will be an interesting case study once a detailed voting picture is available. For the present, two quick conclusions will be in order. One the company Fonseka kept did not enthuse the voters. Two the opposition failed to hold a mirror to the flip-side of the Rajapaksas.

It is, indeed, surprising how the combined opposition had failed to put its act together when they had a second chance in little over two months to nail the Rajapaksas, whose rule they have been dubbing as ‘authoritarian’.

With two brothers, a cousin and a son in the fray, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s flanks stood exposed as never before. Yet, the mandate shows people in South Asia, love a dynasty, whether old or in the making. Undoubtedly, press conferences and media coverage are no substitute for political work at the grass-roots.

The low turn out in the ethnic minority heart land particularly cannot be explained away as a fall out of electoral fatigue. Nor is it loss of voters’ faith in the system, as former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe likes to believe. All parties were hit, not merely the opposition.

One way of looking at the result is that the ethnic minorities are still ensconced in their cocoons. Only a forward looking leadership can bring them out and make them happily participate in the national mainstream.

How President Rajapaksa will go about the task will be keenly watched beyond the Jaffna Lagoon and the Palk Straits as well. Hitherto, his lament was that lack of parliamentary majority denied him the freedom to act. It was true. His government had tough times even for passing the budget till the treasury benches adopted an open arms policy to do a Fonseka on the opposition benches.

Whatever be the reservations of his detractors at home and abroad, Mahinda Rajapaksa is now propelled into a position where he has to deliver on his promise. He has the majority and the mandate to rule. No turning away from this reality.

Massive mandates give as much turf space as they take away and create as much a sense of security as insecurity. The only guarantee for success is the mantra Buddha had given long centuries ago and Mahatma Gandhi articulated as ‘Raja Dharma’ of the governments in a democracy.

In short, the advice is keep eyes and ears open and listen to advice coming in from any direction. Or what the present day political scientists and economists term as transparency and accountability. Cronyism is dangerous. So is guile. Always. Certainly, when chartering a new course, as Sri Lanka is set to do now from a martial past toward prosperity.

How much focus India will give to Sri Lanka is a moot point. It has been inward looking for a while what with Left Wing extremists indulging in mayhem at will. Delhi’s attention is also riveted on what is happening in Afghanistan which is a part of India’s extended neighbourhood.

Nonetheless Manmohan Singh government may not take its eyes off Sri Lanka completely. Not because Tamilnadu is entering the election year with assembly elections due in another eleven months. Chennai has always been a factor in Delhi’s Lanka policy. It will continue to be so, for reasons that are not difficult to understand.

During the last couple of years, Chennai under Muthavel Karunanidhi clearly delineated political rhetoric and did not allow it to override foreign policy and geo-security considerations. President Rajapaksa felt relieved as he found for the first time in 27-years of LTTE menace, Colombo has the freedom it needed to pursue the line it thought best.

How the Tatha (Grandfather) of Dravidian politics managed the feat and why is a subject for another discussion. But the fact of the matter is he stood his ground even in the face of great provocations from near and far. Also insensitivities on the part of Rajapaksa and his advisors.

Politics is a funny poker game. Nothing remains static. In fact, state of fluidity is what makes politics interesting and absorbing. Consider this one development, which shows that there is going to be no dull moment in the days ahead.

Sebastian Seeman, a Tamil film director, unveiled on the 10th April in Chennai the flag of Naam Tamilar (We The Tamils) party. The flag closely resembles the LTTE’s Tiger insignia in all respects except the twin rifles in the background.

Seeman plans to launch his party on May 18 to mark the first anniversary of the death of LTTE leadership. Obviously, the director is angling to occupy the space Vaiko’s MDMK once held with its virulent pan-Tamil politics.

It is not my case that Seemans should be feared. People will shun them. Experience of the recent past in Tamilnadu makes this clear. Some parties tested their luck by invoking such politics during the course of 2009 Parliamentary elections and failed. Jaffna too has shown what it prefers when the guns are silent and people are free to raise their head.

So, when people have clearly and unambiguously demonstrated their preferences, the leadership should not procrastinate. It must deliver on the promise of a ‘new Sri Lanka’ which inter alia means a new ethnic deal as the first step.

The new government that is taking office in Colombo needs the unstinted support of all sections of the island nation and its well wishers as it has to grapple with the economic mess left behind by the Wanni War. And also the diplomatic row with the United Nations over Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s plans to establish an expert panel to investigate the war related human right violations.

Neither Iran card nor China card can do the old balancing feat in the emerging dynamics of South Asia’s oldest democracy.