It was the victory of a good tactician, whose manifesto reflected the concerns and interests of the Sinhalese majority, without any gesture of a healing touch towards the Tamil minority -- whether it be in respect of their demand for a greater political role in a genuinely federal set-up or their expectations of an early finalisation of a joint mechanism for the equitable distribution and utilisation of the funds pledged by international donors for those affected by the Tsunami tragedy of last December.
The defining characteristic of his electoral alliances with the Sinhalese hardliners as represented by the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the manifesto outlining the policies he would follow if elected and the various statements made by him and his supporters during the election campaign was a determination to go back on the various concessions to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) towards a federal solution agreed to by his own former President Chandrika and Mr.Ranil Wickremasinghe, his opponent in the Presidential elections and the former Prime Minister belonging to the United National Party (UNP).
Chandrika and Ranil both had a strategic vision for their country. Both realised the importance of an early solution to the problems of the Tamil minority. Despite the LTTE's reputation as one of the world's dreaded terrorist-cum-insurgent organisations, they knew that an acceptable solution, which would preserve the unity of Sri Lanka and at the same time, provide the Tamils with a greater and more meaningful role in the governance of the country, had to be negotiated with the LTTE, without letting the Sinhalese hardliners hold the country to ransom by opposing any major concessions to the Tamils.
Progress was made in the search for a modus vivendi ever since the ceasefire agreement was concluded in February, 2002, which has been by and large observed by both sides, despite periodic breaches by the LTTE. This search came to a halt ever since the LTTE came out with its proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) in October 2003. It wanted to be installed in power in the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces as the exclusive interim ruler to the exclusion of other Tamil and Tamil-speaking Muslim formations before it would negotiate a final solution.
It wanted to negotiate a final solution with the Sri Lankan government as the legitimate, world-recognised interim ruler of the Tamil provinces and not as an organisation designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the US and other countries. Ranil appeared to be inclined to accommodate its request, but came to a parting of the ways with the the then President Chandrika, who insisted on a parallel, two-track approach----with the Government and the LTTE negotiating simultaneously the contours of an interim as well as a final solution. Chandrika's political manipulation to bring about the exit of Ranil from power and her hardline on the LTTE's ISGA proposals brought the peace process to a halt.
The anti-Prabhakaran revolt in March,2004, of Karuna, the legendary Eastern commander, who accused his leader of following discriminatory policies towards the Eastern Tamils and the Tsunami tragedy of December,2004, added to the complexities of an already complex political situation Ever since it came on the scene in 1983, the LTTE had distinguished itself both as a conventional professional army, which could stand up to the Sri Lankan Army in any battle as well as an unconventional and ruthless terrorist group, specialising in suicide terrorism and covert actions of maritime terrorism.
Karuna was the architect of its conventional fighting capability and Prabhakaran of its covert terrorist capability. The two capabilities worked in perfect unison till the revolt of Karuna. His raising the banner of revolt against Prabhakaran, possibly with the blessings and encouragement of the Sri Lankan military intelligence, caused a dent in the effectiveness of the LTTE as a conventional force. The Tsunami damaged the covert capability of the LTTE, particularly its Sea Tigers.
There has so far been no accurate estimate of the erosion suffered by the LTTE as a result of these two developments. There definitely was an over-estimation by the Chandrika Government, leading to a hardening of its attitude towards the LTTE, under the impression that it was now in a position to dictate terms to the LTTE. Mahinda and his supporters have come to power under a belief, which can turn out to be a delusion, that the denting of the capabilities of the LTTE now gives them an opportunity to change the rules of the political game--by rethinking the role of Norway as the facilitator of the peace process, the rules of disengagement under the ceasefire agreement and the acceptable (to the Sinhalese majority) contours of a political solution.
Mahinda talks of his quest of a "new Sri Lanka" and his readiness for negotiations with the LTTE, without specifying the terms and objective of the negotiations. The Tsunami caused a severe damage to the fighting capabilities of the Free Aceh Movement of Indonesia too. A far-sighted Indonesian leadership wisely refrained from taking undue advantage of this damage. The result: A political solution.
The post-Chandrika leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as personified by Mahinda and his followers shows no signs of such far-sightedness. Its calculation that now is the time to drive a hard bargain with the LTTE could prove to be wrong, taking the country back to the days of political violence and terrorism. The Northern Tamil leadership headed by Prabhakaran has not yet been able to fully recover the lost ground in the East, but its self-motivation and its determination to achieve its political objective of a Tamil Eelam remain as strong as ever.
The assassination of Laxman Kadirgamar, Chandrika's Foreign Minister, showed that the capabilities of the LTTE's covert and terrorist wing remain as strong as ever--even in Colombo. If Mahinda does not play his cards with wisdom, he might take his country back to the days before the ceasefire.
Mahinda would suffer from a political handicap, which neither Chandrika nor Ranil had. They had a good equation with the political leaderships of India, the US and other Western countries, which were supportive of them. Mahinda is still an unknown quantity to these countries and may not be able to count on their support if he lets himself be used by the Sinhalese hardliners for their own chauvinistic political objectives.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, institute For Topical Studies, Chennai