By Rajan Philips –
Last week was a long time in politics, to a paraphrase a famous quip by one of the more popular British Prime Ministers of the twentieth century, Harold Wilson of the Labour Party. It took a long time until last week for one of the more unpopular British Prime Ministers, Theresa May, to call it quits over her bungled leadership of the Brexit misadventure. Her resignation is not going to solve Britain’s agonizing indecision over Brexit. It is tough to make any decision by any British Prime Minister, or government, when the country and its parliament are deeply divided about either leaving Europe with or without a deal, or remaining in Europe with or without conditions. It may not be the end of the world for Britain, but it has been quite a stumble for what was once an empire with no apparent sunset. While Britain, the old imperial power has become a spectacle for indecisiveness, the empire’s once prized possession, India, last week decisively demonstrated its clarity of purpose in its elephantine national election.
A convincing majority of the 600 million voters, marking a high 67% turnout, who trekked to the polls in India, have elected Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a second term as India’s Prime Minister. Modi’s second election victory is even bigger and more substantial than the stunner he sprang in his first national election in 2014. What are the implications of the global and regional developments and tumults for Sri Lankan society and politics? That is the question facing Sri Lanka as it enters its election home stretch, the last South Asian country to have elections in the current election cycle. Every South Asian Country except Sri Lanka has had its periodical election over the last one and a half years. Sri Lanka has also earned a notoriety for monkeying with the timing of elections, with incumbent government governments opting to postpone some and advance others to suit their political whim and fortunes.
In the current round of elections in South Asia, pro-China communists have won power in Nepal. Imran Khan is Pakistan’s new Prime Minister not because of his cricketing prowess but because the Pakistani military allegedly favoured Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party over Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League party. A new government has also been elected in Bhutan, while in Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheik Hasina has won another term for her Awami League government. Bangladesh has registered impressive economic growth over the last decade with Sheik Hasina as Prime Minister, although politically the country is being viewed as becoming increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent.
Hasina’s main rival, leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is serving a five-year jail term over charges of corruption, and the opposition forces had to contest the last two elections leaderless and handicapped. In the Maldives, on the other hand, the voters were able to oust a wannabe dictator and restore constitutional democracy. In effect, Maldivian voters made short work of an adventurous government that was dragging the islands into a state of dependency on China for cash and the Saudis for Wahabi theocracy.
Modi’s second win
Against this South Asian backdrop, Modi’s victory is resoundingly remarkable in every electoral metric. Modi and the BJP won 303 out of 542 Lok Sabha seats, 21 more than what they won in 2014. The second and third place finishers are miles behind, with the grand old Indian National Congress scraping the national barrel for 52 seats (eight seats more than last time), and the regional Tamil Nadu party, the DMK, winning 23 seats all in Tamil Nadu and decimating its Dravidian twin, arch rival and the currently governing party of the State, the ADMK. The BJP alliance, really the BJP and its minions, has won a total of 349 seats, while Congress alliance won 97 seats, virtually doubling the Congress tally of 52 seats. The remaining 96 seats are shared by score of political parties, a handful of them winning in the low twenties and the vast majority of them, including the once formidable Communist Parties (CPM and CPI) winning only in single digits.
While failing yet again to get a foothold in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, the BJP did well in Karnataka and held on to the northern and western states it swept in the last election. BJP also made impressive inroads in the eastern states of Odisha and West Bengal, that has for decades on end been the bastion of the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPM) and lately of the Trinamool Congress, a regional Bengali Party and now the governing party in the state. The Congress Party was wiped out in 13 of India’s 29 states. The BJP’s victory is really a referendum win for Modi and his leadership, not to mention his not at all subtle promotion of a ‘muscular’ Indian nationalism to outmuscle all minorities, especially the Muslims. The Muslims are 14% of India’s population, but have only 26 Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha, or less than 5% of the legislature. The BJP alliance has no Muslim MP within their large contingent of over 300 MPs.
Modi’s second win is perhaps the most substantial democratic victory for an unabashedly (economically) rightwing, (socially) regressive, (religiously) exclusionary and (politically) anti-minority party and government in today’s world politics. Political populism encompassing these attributes is a common phenomenon in many countries, but in no other country has such a movement or party been so electorally successful as Modi and the BJP were last week. The victory is all the more stunning after the BJP’s setbacks in recent state elections and the anticipations of pundits that Modi and the BJP will win but with a reduced majority and will face a strengthened Congress opposition. The people have sent a different message to the pundits.
After the elections, there is much handwringing among Indian commentators over the future of Indian secularism and the Nehruvian legacy itself. The truth of matter is that secularism in India has become the opium of the elites, and Modi has found a way to unleash the anger of the masses against the elites in two successive elections. He has more credibility as one of them than any of his rivals, and while his record as Prime Minister is not at all unblemished, his rapidly delivered concrete measures to alleviate the people from their misery – opening bank accounts in the villages, rural electrification, and the construction of 100 million toilets, have resonated well enough with the voters to give him a strong second term. The elites have only themselves to blame for resting on the abstract laurels of secularism for over sixty years, while letting the Congress bury itself in corruption and the progressives bury themselves in hopeless infighting and brinkmanship.
Sri Lanka’s turn
Which way the electoral winds will blow in Sri Lanka? The question is of interest not only to political watchers and voters in Sri Lanka, but also to outsiders who have made more than a habit of meddling in Sri Lankan politics ever since the island’s economic gates were famously opened to “let the robber barons come.” More than the robber barons, it is the political meddlers who have gatecrashed. Even before Modi’s victory in India, China and the US seem to have been sending signals about their preferred presidential candidates for the upcoming presidential election. Last time Modi won, the Rajapaksas were in power and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, along with other South Asian leaders, was invited to Delhi for Modi’s inauguration. But within a year Mahinda Rajapaksa called an election, lost it and was out of office. This time, there is no love lost between Modi and Sirisena, and Sirisena is hell bent on staying as President as long as he can, and is in no rush to hold the next presidential election.
Will Modi invite Sirisena to his second inauguration, now that President Sirisena has rushed to China and returned, apparently on China’s invitation over concerns about the growing presence of western intelligence agencies in Sri Lanka following the Easter bombing tragedies? Few Sri Lankans were amused when President Sirisena, who was sojourning in Singapore when bombs went off on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, suddenly took off again to attend a conference on Asian Civilizations in Beijing, even as anti-Muslim violence was breaking out in the Kurunegala and Chilaw areas. Now it is news, since no one has called it fake, that the President rushed to China in response to a sudden message from the Chinese President Xi Jinping asking Sirisena to come to Beijing. And he took off, just like that, with no apparent cabinet, or inner cabinet, consultations. There is no cabinet government anyway, so everything goes.
The President is again all over the map on national security and international diplomacy. On his watch, and he cannot claim that these things happened unbeknownst to him, Sri Lanka has strengthened its formal military ties with the US. These ties, including the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the United States, did not begin after 2015, but are extensions from as far back as 2007, when the initial agreement was signed by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as Defence Secretary and Robert Blake Jr as the American Ambassador. A second agreement, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is apparently in the works now. We do not know what version of the ties with America that President Sirisena gave his hosts in Beijing, and no one, and not even the mighty Joint Opposition seems to have raised questions in parliament about the President’s visit to Beijing, its purpose and its outcomes. We know from news stories of the President’s request for 100 jeeps and rupee grants to beef up national security. I cannot think of a former Sri Lanka Head of State or Head of Government ever doing anything that the current President is doing.
It seems that Mr. Sirisena’s real motivation for the China trip may have been to find a powerful outside sponsor for his struggling presidential candidacy in Sri Lanka. Not that the President can take China, or anybody, for a ride, but it is the President’s way of reassuring himself of his own political potency at home. The trigger may have come when foreign leaders, including the American President, called Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and not President Sirisena to commiserate over the Easter tragedies. Then came a double blow to both the President and the Prime Minister, when the former American Ambassador Robert Blake delivering a lecture in Colombo on the 8th of May, struck quite a few notes of political import especially in an election year and in the wake of the Easter tragedies.
Blake’s main message was that Sri Lanka is well-placed and should take advantage of the competition between the US and China for “influence in the Asia-Pacific.” Along with this neutral advice, he made a plea for his own country indicating his satisfaction that the “military to military relations” between Sri Lanka and the US are back in focus after they had been unfortunately sidelined by human rights concerns that arose during the last stages of the war. Then came the clincher. In a public advice to the current Sri Lankan government, the former Ambassador said that it should follow the example of what the former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa did during the war to co-ordinate intelligence operations across multiple agencies. Mr. Blake’s advice may have gone unnoticed if Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is not a candidate for the next presidential election. In fact, he is the only self-announced candidate at this time. So, the Ambassadorial obiter went on to trigger much speculation whether the US is ditching Ranil Wickremesinghe for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. And not to be left out of reckoning altogether, President Sirisena took flight to China hoping for his own sponsors.
All hell would have broken loose if Mr. Blake has said something favouring Ranil Wickremesinghe or anyone else from Mr. Wickremesinghe’s alliance. Put shots were taken by patriots when Samantha Power, academically far more established than Blake, flew in to felicitate Mangala Samaraweera for completing thirty years in politics, but nothing disparaging has been said about Blake’s praise of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The difference between Blake and Power, over human rights and military co-operation, is indicative of the shifts in American foreign policy under President Trump. Kiron Skinner, an African American and Republican academic, is now the new director of policy planning in the State Department. And she seems to be creating arguments for Trump the way Jean Kirkpatrick created them for President Reagan.
Ms. Skinner recently raised eyebrows in Washington with her characterization of America’s competition with China as “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before.” The competition with the Soviet Union, added Ms. Skinner, was “a fight within the Western family.” In China, the West for the first time has “a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” Perhaps, the observation is objective because it comes from an African American!
Where does that leave India’s Modi and other purported Asian allies of America? Will Modi vie with China and America for his own proxy in Sri Lanka, or will he tag-team with either of the two competitors? The real question for Sri Lankans should be if the island should take sides at all in this great power bickering? “Imperialism and its running dogs,” was a standard line in every Maoist political litany. Quite a few Sri Lankans would still be familiar with its usage by local Maoists in this country until the Gang of Four took over China and changed the direction of geopolitics. Not quite the change, the cynic would argue; only the labels have changed, and not the powers encircling Sri Lanka. Their games around Sri Lanka now seem to be changing, however, though not for better and for how much worse – it remains to be seen.
Until now, even Sri Lanka’s worst critic, local or foreign, would not have called Sri Lanka a running dog of anybody. Even the ‘Anglo Mania, India Phobia’ UNP governments after independence maintained due cordiality with India, and opened the rice-rubber bilateral trade swap with China, all the while boasting strong ‘Yankee Dick’ loyalties at the highest levels. An ethos of non-alignment pervaded all governments – it doesn’t matter if it was out of opportunism, enlightened selfishness, or simply the Buddhist Middle Path, or a healthy mix of all three ingredients. Now there are new path finders. Sri Lanka is still no dog, but there are poodles for picking by the encircling foreign powers.