Mahinda’s RAW Bogey

September 24, 2018

By Rasika Jayakody

Over three-and-a half years after he fell out of power, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to be on a desperate mission to mend his relations with India

The war-winning President’s relations with India ran into ‘turbulent weather’ during his second term, mainly due to his strong economic and business connections with China. It has now become evident that China has stepped beyond the boundaries of diplomacy to support Rajapaksa and his family.

After the current government came to power in 2015, several investigations were launched into Chinese companies that allegedly financed the former President’s election campaign and his affiliated organizations. Although these investigations have gone nowhere and no judicial process has commenced, substantial evidence against these companies, such as copies of several cheques they issued to support the Rajapaksas, has come to the public domain.

India’s ire, therefore, is understandable.

The cold war between the Rajapaksas and India hit a new low in the run-up to the last Presidential election. It was an inside joke among political writers in Sri Lanka that India knew who the ‘Common Candidate’ was even before Maithripala Sirisena did. Be that as it may, it was clear that the Rajapaksas suspected India for surreptitiously engineering a defection within their own camp.

This suspicion was manifest in a famous statement Rajapaksa made in May 2015, three months after his famous election defeat. In an interview with South China Morning Post, Rajapaksa accused India’s spy agency, RAW, of orchestrating his defeat.

Ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa said both the US and India had used their diplomatic missions in Colombo to bring him down.

Rajapaksa’s opinion of India saw a 180 degree turn when he spoke to the Indian press during his visit to New Delhi, this month. This time he advocated enhanced partnership with India and stronger bilateral ties in many sectors including trade. Whenever his earlier references to RAW’s involvement in 2015 election was brought up, Rajapaksa categorically said he did not want to talk about it. “Let bygones be bygones,” he said, on several occasions.

This ostensible shift in Rajapaksa’s India policy signals his future political intentions.

When Rajapaksa lamented about RAW’s involvement in his election defeat, he was a hopeless ex-President who did not see any prospects of returning to power. He did not have the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna backing him, nor did he have the majority support of the SLFP. A surfeit of bribery and corruption investigations against him and his family members seemed to be dragging them towards a political quagmire. Perhaps the former President thought it was India and the West that plunged him into a hellhole. The bitterness, therefore, was understandable.

This month, when Rajapaksa visited India, he was in a much better, and safer position.  Neither the SLFP nor its leadership mattered to him anymore as he now has a fully-fledged political party backing him. In addition,the majority of SLFP MPs have also aligned themselves with him. His group has already won the Local Government election and his return to power now seems a strong possibility.

This sets the background for Rajapaksa’s attempts to mend his relationship with India. He clearly understands that India’s support is vital to the success of his comeback bid in 2020. Dr. Subramanian Swamy, a BJP MP and the facilitator of the former Sri Lankan President’s visit to New Delhi this month, seems to be the ‘conduit’ between Modi and Rajapaksa. Moreover, Rajapaksa’s meeting with the Congress leaders suggested that the former President wanted to cover all his bases, this time around.

But why would India trust Rajapaksa? – this remains the most important question.

Rajapaksa famously backtracked on two promises that he had given to India before 2015. One was his well-known promise to give a ‘13+’ solution to the North & East, and the other was his move to allow Chinese submarines to dock at Colombo Port. Rajapaksa’s failure to keep  to these promises coupled with his strong leaning towards China, prompted India to quicken the former President’s downfall.

However, the ‘Yahapalanaya’ (Good Governance) government which replaced Rajapaksa rule has done very little to allay India’s ‘China fears’ over Sri Lanka. Over the last three-and-a-half years, China has systematically increased its influence over Sri Lanka by throwing money generously at Colombo’s economic woes – partly created by their own administration. This, unsurprisingly, had earned India’s consternation, and by initiating a dialogue with Rajapaksa, New Delhi has officially conveyed its concerns to the Sri Lankan government, in a political language.

Does this mean India can now trust Rajapaksa? Absolutely not. It strains credulity to suggest that Rajapaksa will adopt a new policy on China, if and when he returns to power. China has positioned itself in Sri Lanka in such a way that Colombo’s reliance on Beijing will remain immune to changes of government. In other words, Sri Lanka’s economy has been swallowed to a great degree by China’s massive investment projects and the strategic planning of the Belt and Road initiative. Therefore, from India’s standpoint, it is a choice between a relatively weak, fragile China-friendly government and a seemingly autocratic and unruly China-friendly government. This writer cannot see one good reason to believe that India will prefer the latter over the former.

It would be naïve on the part of the Rajapaksa supporters to believe that New Delhi would fully support the former President’s comeback merely because the latter called for stronger ties with India. It is the ‘game within the game’ that matters in geopolitics and an ounce of action is often worth a ton of words.  If the former President is serious about drawing India’s support, he has to determine how he can strike a balance between the conflicting interests of Beijing and New Delhi. The absence of such an approach will make him wake up in the morning one day– maybe two years from now – blaming the ‘RAW’, or some other bogey, for standing in the way of his return to power, which at one point seemed mere cakewalk



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