By Kumar David –
Lankans boast that their country is located at an Indian Ocean cross-point and strategically placed between East and West. “Our position is hugely important; India, China and America are falling over each other to buy our favours” we preen like pimps. But every coin has two sides and the other side of this one is that the rest of the world tells a small country how to behave in matters that affect their interests. India and China have abiding concerns, the former more than the latter, in ensuring that we ‘behave’ ourselves in strategic matters and in making sure that an out of control dictator inimical to their interests does not surface. Who the next president of Lanka will be and our political stability if they approve, and destabilising him/her if they do not, are contingent on great power considerations. The first step is the choice of candidate.
There was no concern of ‘moral hazard’ regarding the sovereignty of a puny nations when nuclear weapons or missiles were at issue in Cuba in 1962 and North Korea in 2017-18. Ditto for us; a Chinese naval base in Lanka will be so repugnant to India that it will intervene or destabilise the offending regime. Likewise one can imagine sovereign actions of a Lankan government that could trigger Chinese or American responses. Indian or American trade or financial disruption will starve or cripple us, respectively, within months; if China gets tough on debts we will be bankrupt within two years. It is still early days so we can only speculate in broad outline how externalities may affect our electoral future. I will first comment on how the US can influence our presidential election, if it wishes to, and then move on to present to you some interesting correspondences I have been engaged in.
The background assumption is that America, to the extent that it bothers at all, will have a preference for the UNP and Ranil over the Rajapaksas. This is for the reason that from long ago the UNP was pro-business and pro-West and in the JR days in the 1980s a participant in the now discarded neo-liberal experiment. More recently, the US is not and cannot be pleased with Rajapaksa swaggering into the global ‘Chinese camp’. What the Americans can do to bugger the works for the Rajapaksas is to craft delays if Gota attempts to renounce US citizenship. Gota can move the courts and heaven and earth but the State and Justice Departments can spoke legal wheels to delay a determination beyond nomination date. I am not aware whether Gota feels enthused to rediscover his love for his land of birth, so we have to wait and see. US Tamils need to be on the alert and move the courts to block any attempt by Gota to surrender US citizenship. My point is that the US has room to put a spanner in the works if it feels bloody minded.
India the regional giant
The interesting thing is that Modi, notwithstanding his sizable domestic political clout has been more reluctant to project Indian power over Lanka than his decades ago predecessors Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Indira played on the international scene more than the domestic, Modi is the reverse. Except the iconic Nehru and controversial Indira, he is India’s sturdiest post-independence leader. His primary agenda is domestic; balancing between populism to help India’s poor and alleviate their deprivations, and the need to maintain rapid economic growth which requires class compromise. But come 2019-20 Delhi will get interested in the little drop at the tip of its southern extension.
Recently, I have been engaged in lively e-mail exchanges with about a dozen people and here is an input from someone called Randolph who has an inside seat in domestic politics and international exposure, but also has a soft corner for the left:-
QUOTE: “You guys are crazy to think any left candidate will survive this mad world of SL politics. You are also ignoring the role of China and India in the final selection of the candidate be it RW, MS or a Rajapaksa. The BJP never liked RW for being part of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord and because of his direct ties with the US. MS is yellow-livered; Indians listen to CBK because she is a rougher. Anyway Modi will not be able to sell RW to the domestic audience. Mattala is an empty gift to India to balance what RW did by coming to a deal with China.”
“The Indian choice is crucial and it will be a very short campaign as the candidate will be selected in agreement with RW and CBK from a hurriedly established short list. Mangala and Karu may have a chance at that stage. If Sirisena wanted to play a political role he could have overridden RW but he chose to play a game to destroy the UNP and all chances for RW.” END QUOTE
I asked what made Rudolph think that Mangala and Karu were in the loop, to be told: “Karu has made himself a Maduluwawe Sobitha reincarnation. He venerates the late monk in public and is getting hunky-dory with liberals and NGOs. In an internal seminar in parliament Ariyarathna openly asked him to lead the country. Mangala lost ground earlier but, he has now been made a Deputy Leader of UNP and is CBKs favourite. She will play a role eventually with foreign countries”.
That CBK favours Mangala, despite the fact that he undercut her in 2005 and supported Mahinda, does not surprise me, but I inquired again why in Rudolph’s opinion, India is fed-up with Ranil right now. The explanation was: “The reason Indians dislike him is that he is playing a hawkish game with China via Singapore and is upsetting Indian plans for SL. Another reason is that being an unvarnished market-capitalist, he prefers China money to Indian Rupees”.
I don’t expect anyone to agree with all this at face value, but what is important is that it initiates a discussion of a neglected – by all sides – aspect of discourses about the next election; the importance of foreign, that is Indian, Chinese, US and to a lesser degree European influences, in Lanka’s internal decision making. I do not share the view that India has decided to dump Ranil but am interested to learn that a knowledgeable person is of this view. I also feel that Washington will plum for Ranil over Karu, Sajith or Mangala, whatever that brain dead imbecile Trump may tweet. As for the domestic morons who wring their hands and weep “Aiyoo how bad for outsiders to interfere in out sovereign affairs”, I respond: “Grow up stupid, get real! Welcome to the real world!”
The mechanisms by which India can influence the choice of a UNP candidate are palpable. Apart from CBK and a small group loyal to her in the SLFP, there are the Upcountry parties which have strong ties to India, business houses (not only Tamil or Colombo based) which are pressure points, and social connections to the High Commission or Delhi or Madras. In addition, whether Mattala provides India with another pressure point I don’t know. How China can pressurise the UNP on candidate selection is unclear though many politicos have been invited to the Middle Kingdom and wined and dined. China’s stranglehold on Sri Lanka is the economy; that is the mountain of debt that the Rajapaksa rogues wrote into the nation’s balance-sheet. This is an elephantine problem which goes far beyond pigmy concerns like candidate selection in either UNP or poropaya.
Muddying these waters is uncertainty about Provincial Council elections dates. If they are today my sense is that poropaya will win the South, Sabaragamuwa and Wayamba PCs and I think the NCP, but electoral alliances may have an effect in the last case. A UNP alliance will win the Western and maybe the Central provinces while Uva will the shared. The North and East will go to Tamil and Muslim parties. Psychologically, this will be a setback for the UNP. On the other hand, a delay of PC elections is likely if the government argues that time is needed to change the electoral system and to enact a new constitution requiring a referendum. I would be amazed if this cowardly government and its PM and President could deliver a constitution so that strategy would be an election delaying scam only. Major constitutional change entails moving beyond 13A and including something for the Tamils. If yahapalana is capable of defying racist monks, Sinhala chauvinists and the Mahinda-Gota cavalcade of proto-fascists and delivering a new constitution, well, I am a monkey’s uncle!
A more purposeful government would have prosecuted mega-crooks; Basil for one would be savouring hira-bath or the salubrious comforts of Merchant’s Ward at state expense. This botch led to shipwreck on 10 February. Unless a family member is put behind bars and others threatened with the same fate Mahinda has no incentive to cut a deal. This lily-livered government won’t do that; instead it has squandered a useful political weapon in its armoury; turning SF and his pack of hounds loose on the family.