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The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt, recently in Colombo
Can India trust the Sri Lankan President?
July 28, 2006
On November 18 last year, then Sri Lankan prime minister Mahinda Rajapakse got a rather pleasant 60th birthday gift: News that he had been elected as the President of the island nation.
Just two years before that, he was not even counted among the important candidates in the race for the top post.
Sri Lanka Freedom Party supremo and then president Chandrika Kumaratunga never helped Rajapakse's career. But he bagged the coveted post with a combination of circumstances, his hawkish stance against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and solid backing from the Buddhist monks' party Jathika Hela Urumaya and the Marxist-nationalist party Janatha Vimukti Peramuna.
In just one year, Rajapakse is at the centre stage of the 23-year-old ongoing struggle against the LTTE for supremacy in North and East Sri Lanka.
The world's eyes are on President Rajapakse, because his nation again wants neighbouring India to help cage the Tigers, once and for all.
In the presidential elections, the support of voters in south Sri Lanka was crucial to Rajapakse defeating United National Party candidate Ranil Wickramasinghe, a former prime minister.
Plugging into the hawkish mood of his core voters, Rajapakse took the help of some nationalist Sinhala Buddhist monks, who are ever ready to vehemently oppose the LTTE and its leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran.
Rajapakse did token campaigning in Tamil areas like Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka, but his focus was on popular Sinhala sentiment.
Southern Sri Lanka is a stronghold of Sinhala chauvinists who have become impatient with the LTTE's terror politics. These Sinhala chauvinists want a full-blown war. And they are asking India to lend its military might -- mainly sophisticated radars and fighter jets -- to crush the LTTE.
"You can't expect us to fight a first-rate war with a third world army," a Rajapakse confidante admitted to rediff.com
In the last six months, 3,500 Tamil refugees have arrived on Indian shores from Sri Lanka.
New Delhi is debating whether Rajapakse, the politician, can be trusted; and to what extent.
President Rajapakse has not even completed a year in office. So, it is too early to arrive at a final judgment. But some pointers have emerged, which make it clear that New Delhi's task of dealing with Sri Lanka's ethnic problem, which is of great strategic concern to India, will continue to be fraught with hurdles.
The rise of Rajapakse
Rajapakse's rise signifies the 'capture' of power within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party by the lower strata of Sinhalese society.
He is neither a member of the Kandy-based powerful elite nor from the Bandaranaike clan who have had a grip over Sri Lankan politics and business for nearly half a century.
Rajapakse -- who was born in south Sri Lanka's Hambantota district, whose voters are engaged by nationalist leaders of all hues -- is a Left-of-Centre political leader.
His father D A Rajapakse was a friend of then Sri Lankan prime minister S W R D Bandaranaike and a cofounder of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
D A Rajapakse was elected to parliament from Beliatta in Hambantota between 1947 and 1965. Mahinda Rajapakse has been winning from the same area since the 1970s.
Then president Chandrika Kumaratunga made him a minister in 1994 and 2001, but he did not get any high-profile job. Between 2001 and 2004, he was the leader of the Opposition.
In April 2004, after the United People's Freedom Alliance won a parliamentary election, Kumaratunga appointed Rajapakse as prime minister.
Rajapakse's political strength is his mass base; he is a street-savvy politician who can connect with voters.
He is aware that his strength lies in his distance from the ruling elite. His campaign slogan was 'Apey Mahinda' (Our Own Mahinda).
His grassroot politics helped when his day of reckoning came in 2004. He outran Lakshman Kadirgamar in the race to the prime minister's post.
Unlike then President Ranasinghe Premadasa's temporary success in the United National Party, Rajapakse is more ambitious to leave his mark on Sri Lankan politics.
The other President
Rajapakse's profile has some interesting facets. The Vishwa Bharati university in Santiniketan, West Bengal, has honoured him as Professor Emeritus for his active participation in human rights issues.
He was a regular visitor to the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, a human rights non-governmental organisation in Dehradun, Uttaranchal.
For a while now, Rajapakse leads the Sri Lankan Committee for Solidarity with Palestine. He had close ties with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. When Rajapakse met an Indian media team at his home on July 20, he expressed pain over Israel's bombings of Lebanon and complained that the West was silent over the killing of innocents.
Indirectly, he pointed out that if he had emulated Israel's offensive on the Hezbollah bases and gone to war with the LTTE to weed them out of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, India and European countries would have protested strongly and intervened.
It is obvious that he will have to deal with India before he 'finalises' his plan and approach to deal with the LTTE.
The hawk versus the dove
Because he has won election after election from the strongholds of Sinhalese chauvinism, he has to take those people along in his course of action vis-a-vis the LTTE.
In this grave time of undeclared war in his country, he has already risked his credibility and neutrality by appointing H L de Silva, a hardliner lawyer, to chair the 15-member multi-ethnic experts' panel.
H L de Silva is also appearing for the Marxist-nationalist party JVP to plead the case in the Sri Lankan supreme court against the temporary de-merger of the North and East as a single administrative unit. The merger of the North and the East is one of the basic demands of the Sri Lankan Tamils and was accepted in the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord signed by then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and then Sri Lankan President J R Jayawardene.
At same time, the lure of power compels President Rajapakse to become flexible, reasonable and serve the larger interest of Sri Lanka. The factors working against that is his dependency on the JVP and the Buddhist monks' party JHU. That is the challenge before him.
India is taking its time to weigh the situation before taking sides.
Indian diplomats are aware that right now, Rajapakse is not in a position to take bold steps in seeking a solution to the LTTE problem. Both supporting parties are capable of derailing any process.
Some leaders belonging to the elite within Rakapakse's party would like him to see him fail.
Many observers in Colombo believe the president is toying with the idea of dissolving the assembly -- where he is dependent on these hawkish parties -- and trying to cash in on his goodwill to get a majority.
Aware of his limitations, Rajapakse has impatiently reached out to Prabkhakaran with all sorts of mediators, including two Sri Lankan Tamil editors.
Rajapakse's prime demand to India is to bring Prabhakaran out of his hideouts. The day Prabhakaran sits across his table, the LTTE supremo's mystique and his clout will vanish, the president reckons.
Rajapakse's initial approach has not left Sri Lanka's well-wishers happy. Since he took over as president, about 750 civilians, LTTE men and security personnel have been killed.
His critics describe him as an irreversible hawk and blame him for the deadlock in the Norway-facilitated peace process. During his election campaign he openly advocated that the Norwegians should quit the peace talks, the critics complain.
In person, the president doesn't look a hardliner. He gives the impression of a man with reasonable flexibility. His positive vibes with India may be born out of necessity, but even Prabhakaran had to concede that the president is a practical man.
Importantly, Sri Lankan Tamils have noticed that Rajapakse is not talking about a federal set-up. Most observers agree that such a set-up -- which India strongly advocates -- would be the ideal solution for the island nation.
Before the election, Rajapakse was talking about a 'unitary' constitution to unite divided Sri Lankans.
As an Indian diplomat pointed out, India is the only country seeking for a federal solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic problem. All other regional players and well-wishers are not concerned about the long-term outcome. Most European countries are trying for peace in the short term.
Here lies the weak link of Rajapakse's politics.
He advocates a solution in Sri Lankan colours, which would be acceptable to all communities -- the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims. Now, he has appointed an All Party Committee which will decide what could be offered to Prabhakaran so that he ends the bloody conflict with his own nation.
Many experts believe that it is a time-consuming process and there is only a very remote chance of Rajapakse succeeding in arriving at a consensus.
But that does not mean he will not try. He is young (by heads of State standards), active and would like to spring some surprise on Prabhakaran.
When the Indian media team met President Rajapakse in Colombo, he tried hard to convince the Indians that he is a man conscious of history who can deliver enduring peace -- if India remains on his side.
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