November 19, 2019 3:15:37 am
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as President of Sri Lanka was foretold on Easter Sunday this year, when suicide bombers professing loyalty to the Islamic State blew themselves at churches and hotels killing hundreds of people. That horrific day rekindled Sri Lanka’s collective memory of the years of terrorist violence by the LTTE, and the long military failure to defeat the Tamil insurgency — until in 2007, when then president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, gave his brother Gotabaya carte blanche against the Tigers. In two years, a freshly armed, retrained, and self-believing Sri Lankan Army, had crushed the LTTE. “Gota” was seen as the architect of that victory. Ten years later, when Sri Lanka faced another national security crisis, nostalgia for the Rajapaksas touched a new high, especially after it became clear that the “national unity government” that replaced the Rajapaksa regime in 2015 had failed to prevent the bombings.
Even before this, as the president and prime minister fought each other for supremacy, almost from the get-go and the work of governance ground to a halt, Rajapaksa’s authoritarian ways began to be compared favourably. This was evident from his sweep of the local bodies elections in 2018. To be sure, there was no pan-country longing for the Rajapaksas. It was a majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist sentiment, and this is clear from the election results too. Indeed, this is possibly the most ethnically polarised result in Sri Lanka over the last three decades, other than the Tamil boycott of the 2005 presidential contest enforced by the LTTE. Post-war Sri Lanka’s failure to address allegations of war crimes against Tamils, blame for which was laid at Gotabaya’s door, as well as the paralysis on constitutional reform, meant the Tamil community preferred to vote for the rival candidate, Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party. The new president’s well-known and documented association with a Buddhist extremist organisation, which has been held responsible for fomenting violence against Muslims, meant that Muslims too did not vote for him.
There is little doubt that Gotabaya is the only new face for Rajapaksa family rule. India, whose relations with Sri Lanka went through a troubled patch during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency due to his proximity with China, now faces the challenge of rebuilding ties with the brothers. While doing so, Delhi should not lose sight of the reality that an ethnically divided and unstable Sri Lanka is not in India’s interest.
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