Chennai: Mahinda Rajapaksa must be cursing himself now for that announcement of intent he made on November 20 last year to seek a third term as President of Sri Lanka. The gambit, he must have calculated, would not fail as the opposition remained in disarray while he himself enjoyed absolute control over the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of which his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is the major constituent. Besides, he was feeling uneasy after the UPFA’s Sinhala vote share showed downslide in six out of nine provincial elections held during 2013-14.
Mahinda must have thought he could manage a win if he went for elections now, before the opposition could unite. But then, he did not expect his camp to be hit by large-scale desertions after the announcement of the poll battle. If the crossing over of his health minister Maithripala Sirisena to the rival alliance to be the common opposition candidate shocked him, there was worse to come.
Two ministers representing the Indian origin plantation Tamils walked out on 11 December to support Sirisena and within a fortnight, prominent Muslim minister Rishad Bathiudeen crossed over. The proverbial last straw was the migration of justice minister Rauf Hakeem of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the largest Muslim party in the island. “It all seemed like the rats running out of a house on fire or a sinking ship”, recalled Kandaiah Kukanesan, a Tamil businessman of Colombo when this correspondent spoke to him a couple of days before the poll day.
Can the great Mahinda, who was crowned emperor by the Sinhala masses in May 2009 when he eliminated Velupillai Prabhakaran and his Tamil Tigers much like King Dutagamunu (161-137 BC) vanquished the Chola invader Elara, be defeated by the unimpressive Sirisena? “Well, I have spoken to my friends, both Tamils and Sinhalese across the island”, Kukanesan replied in Tamil. “Mahinda will lose if the elections are held, he will win if they are conducted”. That is, Mahinda would have won had he manipulated the poll.
As it turned out, this did not happen and he even walked out of Temple Trees, the Presidential palace in the heart of Colombo, in the morning even before the entire results were out. Some hailed his exit as statesmanship facilitating smooth transition of power, some others insisted Mahinda had no choice. US Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken to him on Tuesday to underscore his responsibility to ensure that the elections would be fair and free from violence.
But then, Mahinda had read the writing on the wall, clearly, much before that call from Washington. There have been reports widely circulated in the political corridors in Colombo that the powers-that-be, namely India, US, UK and EU, had decided on regime change. The US is upset with Mahinda for the increased space he was giving to the Chinese both on land and in the sea, while India had an additional cause to be angry and worried after discovering last year a senior ISI trouble-maker operating in the Pakistani Mission in Colombo.
This officer Siddiqui he has since returned to Islamabad had recruited a few local Muslims as agents to carry out intel-gathering operations in Tamil Nadu and a few of them have been nabbed in the course of the TN police and the Central IB investigating some terror operations. “Actually, Delhi tried its best to reason out with Mahinda that his closeness to China and Pakistan were hurting not only the geopolitical interests of India but also threatening its internal security. He would make promises but act differently, defiantly”, said an Indian officer in the know of things.
It was in such a situation that an officer in the Indian high commission in Colombo was told by the Mahinda administration to pack up and leave Elango was said to be from RAW and was allegedly meeting with opposition leader and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, frequently. While all those maneuvers by the foreign powers might have facilitated Sirisena gathering strength in the opposition camp, the real muscle to his vote on January 8 came from the people's anger at Mahinda regime's high corruption, family domination, subjugation of democratic institutions and even the Supreme Court.