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Gotabaya wins, his camp reaches out: ‘India closest friend’

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka elections, Sri Lanka president, President of Sri Lanka, World news, Indian Express
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka elections, Sri Lanka president, President of Sri Lanka, World news, Indian Express Gotabaya Rajapaksa after the results, in Colombo. (AP)

BY THE time friends and family members started thronging his two-storey house, away from the heart of Colombo, the verdict was clear. Around noon Sunday, visitors were told that he was taking a nap after staying up the entire night to track the results. Finally, in the afternoon, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stepped out to reach the election commission.

By then, the former wartime defence secretary, and younger brother of ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, had been officially elected as the new President of Sri Lanka with about 52 per cent of votes. “All Sri Lankans are part of this journey,” he said.

His camp, meanwhile, was quick to reach out to India — and convey that while China will be a “trade partner”, India remains “our relative”.

As a symbolic first step, the President-elect chose Anuradhapura, the World Heritage City and ancient capital known for its traditional links to India, for his swearing-in ceremony Monday — instead of the traditional Independence Square in Colombo.

In Delhi, the PMO posted on Twitter that Prime Minister Narendra Modi “telephoned” the President-elect and congratulated him on his victory. “PM Modi extended an invitation to Mr Rajapaksa to visit India at his early convenience. The invitation was accepted,” it said.

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Sources close to Gotabaya told The Indian Express that he will be a “healthy partner” for India. “With the current government, India imagined that its interests will be protected. But it failed to protect Sri Lanka’s interests and did nothing for India. A strong president in Sri Lanka will make sure that India is the closest friend while protecting the independence and autonomy of his own country,” sources said.

In 2015, Mahinda had alleged India’s role behind his electoral defeat at a time when Sri Lanka was perceived to have grown close to China.

In an interview with The Indian Express in 2018, Gotabaya alleged that India had been indifferent to the Rajapaksas. This time, however, sources said India has “changed a lot” over the last year.

“There is a healthy relationship now. Earlier, Indian officials in Colombo were reluctant to meet us. Now there is a warm relationship between Gotabaya and Delhi. He will follow the same policy that we followed earlier — China is a trade partner, while India is a relative,” sources said.

Palitha Kohona, former foreign secretary, said Gotabaya will maintain a “most cordial” relationship with India. “We are in a hurry to develop (the country). Anyone can invest here. If our first priority is to maintain a special relationship with India, we are also prioritising our trade and investment relationships with every potential partner, such as China or US or European countries,” he said.

“Gotabaya was one of the three appointed by the then President Mahinda to communicate with India during the war. He has a strong network in Delhi among bureaucrats and politicians. His role in strengthening the bilateral relationship with India was well appreciated as it helped us finish the war. He will maintain very cordial relations with India and ensure that Lankan soil will never be used against another country,” said Kohona, who is a key consultant for the Rajapaksa family on foreign affairs.

Bernard Goonetilleke, former diplomat and chairman of think-tank Pathfinder Foundation, said Lanka’s proximity to China is only about development. “No other country has such resources. It cannot be compared with our longstanding ties to India, which are culturally and historically rooted,” he said.

With 83.73 per cent of the population casting their votes Saturday, Gotabaya’s victory came on the back of overwhelming support from the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community.

With the country holding elections just seven months after the Easter Sunday terror blasts, which led to social and economic unrest, Gotabaya’s stress on national security worked in his favour.

Experts said the security plank came in stark contrast to the public perception of government apathy under President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Initial region-wise poll data shows that Gotabaya secured over 60 per cent support from Sinhalese strongholds, especially in the southern areas such as Hambantota and Matara. In contrast, Premadasa won 70-80 per cent votes in the Tamil and Muslim populated areas to the north and east, including Jaffna, Vanni, Trincomalee and Batticaloa.

Gotabaya, a former Army general, took up the position of defence secretary during the civil war with the LTTE. Soon, he came to be described as the most powerful and dreaded man in the country. He also found himself at the centre of controversies, including the disappearance of critics, and alleged support for Bodu Bala Sena, the radical Buddhist organisation linked to violence against minorities in 2014. He even faced charges of war crimes from the UN Human Rights Council.