India has now got to countenance with yet another pro-China neighbour. The huge, though not unexpected, victory of the Rajapaksa clan in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary poll marks the return of the Sinhala majoritarian rule to the island- nation. Brothers Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksas, the prime minister and president respectively, are much wiser now from their past experience with China. It is unlikely the two will write out blank cheques to the neo-imperialists in Beijing who use their billions for gobbling lands and shipyards or other such valuable assets in third world countries at bargain-basement prices once the borrowers are unable to service the debt. In his earlier stint as president, Mahinda Rajapaksa went out of his way to facilitate the Chinese economic imperialism, resulting in the lease of the security-sensitive Hambanthota port and 15,000 acres of land to the Chinese for 99 years following failure to repay the debt. Hopefully, the Rajapaksas will not fall into the Chinese debt trap this time. The port, incidentally, poses a strategic threat to India. Though the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the family-controlled party of the Rajapaksas, was expected to win, but it was hard to predict that it would end up getting nearly two-thirds of the seats in the 225-member House. The ruling party can now easily muster the support of five members to nullify the provision limiting the number of terms for presidency to two and putting other curbs on the executive president. The 19th Constitutional Amendment was one of the achievements of the previous government. However, the President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe having together defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 election failed to present a united front while in power. Economic conditions worsened under them but the last straw came when in spite of a clear intelligence input from India about the Easter Sunday Islamist bombings, the Government failed to take effective counter measures. This resulting carnage outraged public opinion, virtually ensuring the return of the Mahinda Rajapaksa who had earned a reputation as a strong leader after he had mercilessly eliminated the Tamil Tigers in 2009. The return of the Rajapaksas was also paved by the virtual decimation of the once popular Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party. Former prime minister Wickremesinghe failed to retain his seat while his party won but only one seat. The breakaway faction of UNP led by Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, in fact fared much better. Surprisingly, the Tamil National Alliance too did not do well, with the ethnic Tamil vote choosing not to put all its eggs in one basket. Instead, it may have decided to give other parties a chance in the hope that their neglect and isolation will be addressed if they tried a Sinhala-dominated party. In any case, the split in the Tamil vote ought to encourage the new rulers to look after the welfare of the largest minority in the country who have been penalised long enough for its identification with the now defunct Eelam cause.
It is speculated that Mahinda still covets the office of the President and might replace his brother Gotabaya, the former army chief who had led the war against the Tamil Tigers, once the two-term limit on holding that office is nullified by the new parliament. In any case, this is a matter between the brothers. Ordinary Sri Lankans will be keen for them to improve their economic well-being, address the lingering internal security threat from nascent Islamic terror groups, and, above all, steer an independent path in foreign affairs. The pro-China tilt of the last Rajapaksa regime had brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, causing apprehensions in New Delhi and other global capitals which are beginning to see the Chinese militaristic adventurism and expansionism as a grave threat to world peace. Having realised first-hand the pitfalls of relying on the Chinese funds for developmental works, and having mended his fences with New Delhi during the time out of power, it is hoped that he would adopt an independent stance vis-à-vis China and pursue a Sri Lanka-centric foreign policy. Unlike Nepal, where Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli desperate to save his chair from a fellow Communist challenger has bartered away his country’s sovereignty to Beijing, Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksas is set to steer an independent course both domestically and internationally.