The Rajapaksas are back: 5 years have gone by, but India remains apprehensive
New Delhi, Nov 18: There was a time when four brothers controlled a nation. Mahinda Rajapaksa was president, Gotabaya, the defence secretary, Basil took the economic decisions and Chamal was speaker of the Parliament.
Today, the scenario in Sri Lanka is somewhat similar. Gotabaya is the president and there is talk that he would choose Mahinda as the prime minister as Mathripala Sirisena is likely to step down.
The developments are being watched closely by South Block. For India, the election in Sri Lanka is the coming of a full cycle. In 2014, both Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had Gotabaya, then the defence secretary that they had taken a stern view of Sri Lanka allowing Chinese naval ships into Colombo.
The relations between India and Sri Lanka were never a smooth affair when Mahinda was in power. There were allegations made by Sri Lanka that India had meddled in the previous elections which led to the defeat of Rajapaksa.
It has been a good five years since all that happened and one would think that the two countries have moved on. Rajapaksa had even said in 2018 that it was time to move on. However, with the Rajapaksas back in the hot seat, India would still remain apprehensive.
What India is worried about is the tilt towards China. Gotabaya had said during an election campaign that he would like to stay out of regional politics.
The China tilt is not India's only worry. The dealing of the Tamil speaking areas of Sri Lanka's Muslim dominated areas and the north of the country is what would be India's concern. Gotabaya is not popular for his role in the war against the LTTE. In Sunday's election, he was defeated in all of the Northern Province's five districts and in the three districts in the Eastern Province.
Rajapaksa had vowed to "restore relations" with Sri Lanka's top lender, China, if he wins the election, despite international concerns over the island nation's financial debt to the Asian superpower.
Premadasa, meanwhile, was considered leaning more towards India and the US.
He conceded the presidential election to his rival even before the official results were announced and also stepped down as the Deputy Leader of the ruling United National Party (UNP) with immediate effect.
"It is my privilege to honour the people's decision and congratulate Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his election," Premadasa said.
"I am grateful for our citizens who voted for me. I am humbled that you placed your faith in me. Your support has been a fountain of strength throughout my political career," he said on Twitter.
Rajapaksa, who was the top defence ministry bureaucrat for 10 years, swept the poll in the Sinhala majority districts while Premadasa garnered most of the votes from the Tamil dominated north and east and the Muslim community, including the tea plantation workers of Indian origin.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Rajapaksa and said he looks forward to further deepen relations between the two nations.
Rajapaksa thanked the people of India and Modi, saying he looks forward to strengthening the friendship and meeting him in the near future.
The turnout in the election was more than 80 per cent.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who cannot be removed unless he steps down, is expected to resign.
The current Parliament cannot be dissolved at least before February next year.
It is believed that Rajapaksa, after taking over as the President, would appoint his elder brother and former strongman Mahinda as the Prime Minister.
Issuing a statement, Mahinda said one of the first tasks of the new government is to study the 19th amendment to the constitution adopted in 2015.
"We will be studying the provisions of 19A and planning our immediate program of action accordingly," he said.
The 19A introduced a three-time bar to contest the presidency and made key areas such as elections, judiciary and public service independent of political influence.
Rajapaksa senior took to Twitter to congratulate his younger brother on election victory.
"I Congratulate @GotabayaR for his success at the #lka #PressPolls2019. The long campaign trail to serve our motherland again is worth it. Commiserations to @sajithpremadasa for a well hard-fought election. Above all, thankful to the citizens for facilitating a peaceful election," he said in a tweet.
President Sirisena termed Rajapaksa's win as "historic".
"My heartiest congratulations to the President-elect @GotabayaR on his historic victory!," he said on Twitter.
Premadasa, the son of assassinated president Ranasinghe Premadasa, is a seasoned politician with an experience of more than 25 years in the power corridors.
The Rajapaksa senior's legacy of ending the Tamil separatist war has made him the darling of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Gotabhaya was his top defence ministry official who supervised the military operations against the LTTE. While doing so, he acquired the reputation of a ruthlessly efficient administrator.
Rajapaksa's victory marks the return of the family to the pinnacle of power in the island after they were surprisingly ousted in the previous presidential poll.
According to observers, with pro-China Rajapaksa winning the election, the result will have a bearing on India's presence in the Indian Ocean region where Beijing is increasingly making inroads.
China, which has acquired Sri Lanka's Hambantota port in 2017 as a debt swap, has been ramping up its ties with the island nation and expanded its naval presence in the Indian Ocean with an established logistics base in Djibouti.
Beijing in July gifted a warship to Sri Lanka, in a growing sign of its deepening military cooperation with the strategically located island nation in the Indian Ocean.
The Lanka election took place nearly seven months after the Easter Sunday attacks that killed 258 people, seriously hitting the tourism industry, one of the main forex earning sectors of the country.