Rajapaksa and the reality of South Asian politics
A pedestrian walks past a sign announcing the return of ousted former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who ended his self-imposed exile in Thailand and returned to the island, in Colombo on September 4. — Agence France-Presse/Amal Jayasinghe
NOTHING gladdened many hearts in many parts of South Asia then to see the mob enter the Presidential Palace in Colombo and ransack it. They were happy to see the crowd dive into the presidential pool and stroll inside the once super secure location. It was a symbol of crowd power.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the palace and eventually fled Sri Lanka in a humiliating manner. However, the army facilitated his safe exit and a new political “dawn” is declared to have arrived.
Within a week, even as Rajapaksa sought safe sanctuary abroad, several members of the mob were arrested for theft committed inside the palace and nearly all state institutions rallied against “the public anarchy” or mob power that has been exposed.
The massive crowd in Colombo dispersed soon after, as the police and army together deactivated it and parliament elected a new leader – Ranil Wickremansinghe.
After just about a month, Rajapaksa returned home and was taken to safety. He is not publicly visible but it is obvious that his supporters are more powerful than the crowd, more around. The reality is that mob power is ideal for breaking into the symbolic citadel of the establishment, but it cannot change the power equations as some would like to think.
Playground of powers
SRI Lanka was, and has now become, a major source of regional power rivalry between India and China. And this is decisive.
Some would think the mob was also part of this rivalry, but the takeover of ordinary activists by Chinese-backed radicals was essential. It was these radical groups – strong among students and unions – that were supposed to be responsible for the chaos that drove the movement into producing establishment resistance. The burning of palaces and other acts are attributed to them.
As the radicals took power, ordinary Sri Lankans were less and less visible. Regional politics was at stake here as China wanted Rajapaksa out and the radicals were supported by China.
It is the beginning of a new type of Chinese engagement in Sri Lanka that has become directly linked to political activities that go beyond strategic loans and financing. However, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis created a new opportunity for India to step into the picture and it has done well ever since. Today, the Indo-Sri Lankan rivalry is the greatest political reality of all.
IMF loans and ports
WHILE China was busy trying to dislodge Rajapaksa, India slipped in more deftly as the scenario changed. It has provided critical loans and support worth billions of dollars, which has been well received by ordinary people. This has significantly boosted India’s stock in Sri Lanka. China has provided no assistance and this has tarnished its image as a “friend in time of need”. This is apart from its 10% high interest rate Lankan debt that the anti-Chinese media has taken advantage of.
Sri Lanka did not forget their lessons, however, and so began to play against each other, partly out of desperation. The opposition to the entry of the Chinese ship, which was finally granted, was offset by the signing of the contract with the Adani group, which was getting heavier.
A flaw in the Indian movement is the Adani Group itself which seems to have become hyper-leveraged. Its track record in the Indian financial world has been somewhat tarnished by stories of excessive borrowing, making it a bit vulnerable. In Sri Lanka, the Indian government and even the Indian Prime Minister are said to support the Adani venture because it is as much a financial investment as it is a strategic one.
The Adanis do not buy an already built port but build one from scratch, which is a new track for them. The other is the inevitable competition it will have to face from the port already built by China, which is doing very well. Another obvious rivalry is going on.
While IMF bailout funds have been secured, the government faces political opposition from special interest groups as subsidized utility tariffs, labor laws and free access to services will have to be reduced. But unless they happen, the economy will be too expensive to maintain. However, cost-cutting measures will certainly not be popular. And these opponents of the IMF are mostly backed by China and have also opposed the bailout of the IMF.
It was in the midst of this in Sri Lanka that Rajapaksa returned.
Will Rajapaksa return?
IT will not return to power immediately, but the structure that produced it exists, including the Sri Lankan army defeating the Tamils and the political party. Its beneficiaries are all there too. Above all, the political establishment has never left and, within a few days, it reigns.
With the exception of the Chinese-backed radicals, none wanted the violence, and the same groups now oppose the reforms without which IMF money cannot be spent. Therefore, the unpopularity of the radicals and their supporters can be certain.
Rajapaksa will now be supported by India because of his anti-Chinese position, which is now unavoidable. And as the rivalry escalates, the future will be about finding a balance between Sri Lanka and not what the crowd feels and does.
The big political reality in South Asia is that mob power is temporary and establishment is not. And regional rivalry is a major factor in national politics, whether it involves the mob or the president.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.