Colombo: As Sri Lanka is all set to hold its crucial Presidential election on Saturday, the outcome will be critically important not only for the lovely little island but also for India, its northern neighbour. For, the ‘Big Brother’ of once-upon-a-time is no longer that big as the Beijing Dragon has spread its ambitious wings across the island, even up north in the Tamil areas that had once sworn umbilical cord allegiance, thoppulkodiuravu, with India and more so with Tamil Nadu.
Though there are 35 candidates in the race, the real fight will be between the controversial former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, People's Front), whose charismatic chief is his elder brother Mahinda, the ex-President, and Sajith Premadasa of the ruling United National Party (UNP), who is the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
The Rajapaksas are telling the electorate they would guarantee peaceful life in the backdrop of the Easter bombings that killed over 250 people in capital Colombo and stable politics as against the bickering witnessed between allies-turned-foes, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. They are also focusing on getting the support of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority constituting about 75 per cent in the country, but it's essential to get some minority support as well to get past the 51 per cent vote share.
The majority Tamil grouping, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has extended support to Sajith though he has not promised them the moon; in fact, not even the guarantee of a solution to their long-pending political question. Their choice appears to have clearly swayed against the Rajapaksas as there is a visible fear that the return of the brothers to power would mean an end to any semblance of democracy in the country that has not really come out of the trauma of the long and bloody Eelam war, which ended in May 2009 with the death of LTTE chief Velupillai Pirabakaran.
While the Rajapaksas appear as the elite junta that would surely and quickly decimate all political opposition and rule the country in ruthless autocratic manner, Sajith is projecting himself as a representative of the commoner, in the mould of his father who had come from the 'lower classes' in the elitist UNP and pulled the country out of poverty with welfare policies and pro-poor housing projects. Also, senior Premadas is seen as a martyr for the Sinhala people as he was killed by a LTTE suicide bomber in 1993.
The campaign seemed to be heavily weighted in favour of Gotabhaya until recently but now there is some resurgence of energy and hope in the UNP camp as it has stepped up the attack on Gotabhaya on his human rights record during the post-war period when elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa held power as the President. The minority Tamils and Muslims, particularly, are uncomfortable about the Rajapaksas returning to power.
Besides, there have been some scandals popping up to embarrass the SLPP in recent weeks, including the controversy that Gotabhaya has not really given up his US citizenship - which is absolutely necessary for him to take the oath even if he wins the poll. However, the Rajapaksas have stoutly denied there is an issue here, maintaining that he has given up the US citizenship long ago.
Analysts see this poll war through yet another interesting prism of global geopolitics. When he lost power in 2015, rather surprisingly, Mahinda had openly accused India of toppling him through the machinations propelled by its intelligence agency, RAW. It's been an open secret that during his 10-year tenure as the Head of Government, he got close to the Chinese even at the cost of annoying India.
Chinese projects popped up almost everywhere in the island and Chinese workers/experts were seen all over, either carrying out the infra projects won from Colombo or shopping with families at large malls. The Chinese take-over of Hambantota harbour in Mahinda's hometown became a classic example of India losing ground to the Dragon in the crucially important Indian Ocean neighbour.
The Saturday poll, consequently, will witness the two biggies carrying out their own shadow boxing to keep control of Sri Lanka. The island nation is important for China to protect its sea routes for transporting to factories at home the ore and other natural wealth taken from Africa; while India is bound to work hard to keep whatever control it still has over the southern neighbour for the sake of maintaining regional security.
The raids carried out by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on suspected ISIS operatives in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, have a Lankan connect. It would not help India, particularly the southern parts, if the China-Pakistan axis gets an additional player in Colombo....