The re-election of Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Presidential elections held in Sri Lanka on January 26, 2010, was widely expected, but not the impressive margin of his victory over his opponent Gen Sarath Fonseka, the former Army Chief backed by the opposition parties, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), known for its former empathy for the LTTE, and significant sections of the Muslims. The support of the TNA and sections of the Muslims to Gen Fonseka during the election campaign did not translate itself into votes on the polling day. The voter turn-out from the Tamils at 30 per cent was much lower than expected and, as a result, the outcome was decided largely by the choice of the Sinhalese voters. Their overwhelming preference was for Mr Rajapaksa, who won 57.8 per cent of the total votes polled as against a respectable, but inadequate 40 per cent for Gen Fonseka.
The General, who prematurely left the Army in order to contest the election by cashing in on his perceived popularity because of his leadership of the counter-insurgency campaign against the LTTE, which resulted in a decimation of the dreaded terrorist organisation, has challenged the re-election of Mr Rajapaksa for a second term on grounds of alleged intimidation of his supporters and misuse of the official machinery by the President's supporters in the government. According to the correspondent of the British Broadcasting Corporation, there might have been irregularities and some violence during the campaign, but there was no evidence of vote-rigging. Independent observers feel that the voting was largely free and fair and that Mr Rajapaksa won a fair victory. It could be difficult for Gen Fonseka to question the legitimacy of Mr Rajapaksa's victory, but it might take the Election Commission some days before ruling on the General's complaints.
What should have been a spectacular victory for Mr Rajapaksa was somewhat tarnished by the drama on the counting day. Gen Fonseka and some of his supporters took temporary shelter in a hotel alleging that there was a threat to his life. The government ordered some units of the Army to surround the hotel on the ground that the General was depending on a large number of Army deserters to protect him when he had been assured of state protection for as long as he desired.
The manner in which Fonseka literally para-dropped into the political field after registering a resounding victory over the LTTE last May took off a lot of the shine, which was legitimately his thanks to the determined leadership provided by him to the security forces as a whole in the fight against the LTTE. He was badly advised after he entered the political field. The promises made by him to the Tamils in order to win their support did not carry conviction with large sections of the Tamils aware of his hawkish anti-Tamil stance during the final months of his career in the Army. At the same time, it seems to have antagonised many Sinhalese, who might have otherwise supported him. The way Fonseka played his political cards after deciding to contest the election made him appear as erratic and irresponsible. His wild allegations against Mr Gothbaya Rajapaksa, the President's ex-army brother who, as the Defence Secretary co-ordinated the counter-insurgency campaign, did not go well with the Sinhalese in general and large sections of the Army in particular. Fonseka's bruised image of being erratic in his behaviour and irresponsible in his pronouncements might rule him out of reckoning for any future role in the opposition. Fonseka might find in retrospect in the months to come that he sounded his own political death-knell.
Next to India, Sri Lanka has had the most impressive record in South Asia as a well-functioning democracy. The ill-advised nature of Fonseka's campaign tended to politicise sections of the Army and weaken the image of Mr Rajapaksa as the supreme commander of the Armed Forces. While Fonseka had every right to aspire to be the President of the country, the way he tried to win, not by a well-argued political platform and well-projected ideas on the future of the country, but through wild allegations, insinuations and the like proved counter-productive. One would be watching closely the post-election landscape to see whether his divisive, polarising campaign will have any fall-out on the discipline and morale of the Army. The indications till now are that the Army has maintained its long traditions of political neutrality. If these traditions continue undamaged, the future of democracy in Sri Lanka will continue to be safe.
Mr Rajapaksa has won an impressive endorsement of 57.8 per cent of the voters for his political leadership of the counter-LTTE campaign. It was a joint victory against the LTTE by the political and military leadership. The Army's success under Fonseka was made possible by the steadfast political leadership of Mr Rajapaksa. It was a vote, which expressed not only an endorsement of the past record of Mr Rajapaksa, but also reflected the future hopes and expectations of the voters. The military aspect of the campaign against the LTTE has been brought to a successful conclusion, but the political follow-up to remove the widespread alienation of the Tamils in Sri Lanka as well as abroad is yet to start in right earnest. Mr Rajapaksa sought premature elections in the hope that his success in the elections would strengthen his hands while attempting to undertake the political follow-up. Not only the Tamils of Sri Lanka, but also India, which has a keen interest in internal peace and harmony in Sri Lanka, will be watching with interest the political follow-up measures taken by Mr Rajapaksa to re-integrate the Tamils into the national mainstream.
The other daunting challenge for Mr Rajapaksa would be to reverse the policy of years of low priority for economic development so that Sri Lanka could resume its march towards economic prosperity and a better quality of life for its citizens after having achieved internal peace. There will be competitive offers from China, Pakistan and the West to help Sri Lanka in the execution of its economic development plans, but ultimately it is the availability of the huge market next door in India, which will determine the success of Sri Lanka's economic development plans. Sri Lanka and South India with Tamil Nadu in particular could mutually fuel each other's dash to prosperity. India has already been taking keen interest in helping Sri Lanka in its economic development. This has to be stepped up. South Indian entrepreneurs have to be encouraged by the governments of India and the states of the South to network more closely with their Sri Lankan counterparts in this regard.
A fall-out of the counter-insurgency campaign against the LTTE will continue to haunt the Rajapaksa government. This is the impression in the human rights circles of the world that the entire truth has not been told about the methods followed by Sri Lanka for crushing the LTTE. How skilfully and diplomatically the Rajapaksa government deals with their questions and reservations will determine how fast it is able to leave the past to historians and concentrate on the future.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.