Thursday’s Presidential election in Sri Lanka was perhaps one of the most keenly fought ones in the past two decades. Tamil Nadu was watching the poll closely as the result may impact the future of its brethren, the Lankan Tamils. No country has a greater stake in ending the Sri Lankan Tamil problems than India, because of the manner in which the issue echoes in Tamil Nadu. However, despite the convergence of strategic, economic and trade interests as well as appeals by Tamil Nadu-based political parties, New Delhi cannot apply too much pressure on Colombo on the issue.
Although Sri Lankan-watchers predict that the result may be close, there is not much to choose from for Sri Lankan Tamils, as both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his main opponent , Maithripala Sirisena, backed by nearly 40 political parties and groups, did not make any big election promise to them. While Rajapaksa has asked the Tamils to vote for the “known devil”, Sirisena has promised to fight corruption, implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and repeal the 18th Amendment.
The Tamils resent the de facto military rule in the Northern Province, and the continued impunity for human rights abuses and alleged war crimes during the civil war. Rajapaksa has refused to honour agreements with the Tamil National Alliance, broken promises to India and other world leaders, and not implemented constitutional provisions for minimal devolution of power to Tamil-speaking areas of the North and East. There is a huge trust deficit between him and the Tamil population.
As for Sirisena, he has made it clear that he will not be soft on Tamil hardliners, withdraw the military from the North or agree to a division of the country. He was Defence Minister in the final fortnight of the war. Yet the TNA has supported him instead of Rajapaksa. Tamil leaders believe that under him at least some genuine reconciliation is possible.
Domestically, Sirisena’s principal challenge will be to create conditions towards reconciliation with Tamils, bridge the trust deficit, protect the rights of Muslims and evangelical Christians and address the concerns over corruption and concentration of power. Given the voting patterns, Rajapaksa can win without Tamil votes but Sirisena cannot.
Should Rajapaksa win the poll, he will create a record but has many challenges in the post poll scenario. He has to find ways and means to satisfy the international community on the devolution of powers, war crime investigations, reconciliation and reconstruction in the Northern Province. He will also have to work hard to build his image at the international level. Going by the reports, he might win by a thin majority instead of the landslide he had expected.
So, what is the stand of New Delhi, which is keeping a close watch on the election? The Modi Government is getting ready for the post-poll scenario.The official view that it will deal with whoever comes to power, as it has been doing all along. Did not New Delhi even deal with General Pervez Musharraf when he took over as the military dictator of Pakistan? The BJP has already sent party delegations, led by Subramanian Swamy in these past seven months. Modi’s chemistry with Rajapaksa has been good. The release of five Tamil Nadu fishermen, sentenced to death by the Sri Lankan courts, is seen as a friendly gesture. So this neutral approach is considered good. On the Tamil issue, even though Rajapaksa has not implemented the 13th Amendment, he has at least allowed the Tamil Provincial Council to function.