It is a measure of Sri Lanka’s return to “normal” democratic politics that conspiracy theories are once again resonating in Colombo.
Compared to the situation just three years ago when “politics” continued to centre on the 30-year-long bloody civil war that mercifully came to an end in May 2009, the sub-text of political discussions today is the presidential election, due some time in early-2015.
It is not that the unending tensions between the Central government in Colombo and the Provincial Council in Jaffna have become so drearily routine that they cease to excite the public imagination. The Tamil National Alliance-controlled local administration in the Northern Province has reverted to the constitutional brinkmanship that marked Jaffna politics in the days before the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s conquest of the province. The loquacious Tamil politicians now in charge of the provincial administration know that they owe their return to the centrestage to the total decimation of the Tigers by the Sri Lankan Army five years ago. Yet, such are the charms of posturing that it is obligatory for them to pretend that the three lost decades were just a footnote.
When I was in Sri Lanka exactly 13 months ago, the conspiracy theory centred on President Mahindra Rajapaksa’s “secret” plan to either avoid provincial council elections in the Northern Province altogether or rig the results in favour of the pro-government Tamil parties. At that time TNA leaders were quite vocal in insisting that the so-called hardliners in the Rajapaksa government would never allow democracy in the Tamil areas.
Predictably, the conspiracy theory turned out to be spurious. Elections were held in the Northern Province as per the President’s commitment; there was a high turnout of voters and no suggestion of electoral malpractice; and the TNA won a resounding victory.
Since then, there is an ongoing cold war between the TNA and the government in Colombo over Jaffna’s claim for unhindered powers over land and police — the 13th Amendment controversy. Colombo is adamant that it cannot afford to relax its guard and allow any possible revival of terrorism in the province. The TNA feels that this is tantamount to reneging on a sovereign commitment given by President J.R. Jayawardene to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and enshrined in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. It believes that India must use its muscle power to secure something akin to the “special status” of Article 370 for the Lankan Tamils. New Delhi, which is understandably wary of over-involvement in Sri Lanka after the Indian Peace Keeping Force experience of the late 1980s, isn’t too keen to meddle beyond a point and would rather that the matter be resolved within Sri Lanka. The TNA, however, loves to play the India card to replenish its bargaining clout with Colombo. The progress has been zero but the use of a foreign power to resolve domestic disputes has created complications for the larger relationship between New Delhi and Colombo. It has also created the conditions for China to cosy up to a country that is anxious for deepening economic engagements without strings attached.
The election of the Narendra Modi government has created a mood of anticipation in Colombo. First, there is satisfaction that a BJP government with a majority of its own will not have to accommodate every unreasonable demand from Tamil Nadu on the course of bilateral relations. There is an expectation that the unfortunate situation of India voting against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Commission and Manmohan Singh’s boycott of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo won’t be repeated.
Secondly, given Mr Modi’s own unfortunate experiences with the global human rights industry, it is expected that India will be more understanding of Sri Lanka’s position on the collateral damage of the civil war. The belief is that India will endorse Sri Lanka’s growing impatience with NGOs and multilateral bodies that use the cover of human rights and reconciliation to carry out a political agenda. Certainly, India will have reason to be concerned about the precedents being set by the UN office in Colombo. Last month, for example, the UN attempted to conduct “voter education” workshops in a country that had universal adult franchise even before India and where voter turnout has always been extremely high. My own interaction with UN staffers leave me in little doubt that the local outfit sees itself as a facilitator for a type of politics that in Lanka’s context is decisively anti-Rajapaksa.
Thirdly, the BJP has had a more rounded view of India’s civilisational links with Sri Lanka than some of those who saw the relationship through an exclusively Tamil prism. Since the time Syama Prasad Mookerjee took an active role in the Mahabodhi Society and the return of Bodh Gaya to Buddhist control, the Sangh fraternity has cherished both the Nallur Kandaswamy temple in Jaffna and the Buddha tooth shrine in Kandy. These ties have been supplemented in recent years by exchanges with the Madhya Pradesh government and Colombo’s support for the preservation of the “Ram setu” linking the two countries.
Maybe it is because of an expected shift away from big-brotherly condescension to a more civilisational-cum-economic relationship that the conspiracy theories are certain to multiply in Colombo. There are certain to be suggestions of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh link with the extremist Bodu Bala Sena that many people feel was responsible for the recent attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka. More fanciful suggestion will hold that defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is behind a sinister plot to ensure a Hindu-Buddhist alliance in Colombo and the Central Provinces to counter an exaggerated Muslim cultural separatism.
There will be many more theories that will be lapped up by an impressionable media for whom President Rajapaksa is just another version of the dreaded Mr Modi in India. Like in India, the foreign media and NGOs in Sri Lanka believe that it is their responsibility to ensure natives vote according to the high moral standards set by the West.
Asian Age, July 25, 2014