As Sri Lanka votes in what promises to be a surprisingly close presidential contest on Friday, India is watching closely. Officially, it has no preferences and can do business whoever is elected to power. But sources indicate that a structural change in the Sri Lankan polity may well open up the space to look at contentious issues from a fresh perspective, albeit this will not be a smooth process.
Till a few months ago, it was unthinkable that President Mahinda Rajapaksa - with his strong grip on the state apparatus - could lose. But his own colleague and health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, quit to become the opposition candidate. Many leaders defected. Sirisena now has the support of key Tamil and Muslim outfits, besides the main opposition party. He has campaigned against the Rajpaksa family authoritarianism and promised abolition of the executive presidency.
India is watching the process closely with observers recognising this could be a 'turning point'. Given Rajapaksa's seeming reluctance to move on devolution to Tamils and his proximity to China, would India want him to lose? A top official who has dealt with Sri Lanka rebuts this perception, "It is entirely upto the political process there to throw up an outcome. We have dealt with Rajapaksa and we can deal with a new government. We are staying out." But would progress be easier with a new government? He said, "Things can unravel too since the broad opposition is too heterogeneous. Sirisena can't necessarily deliver everything. Let us not get too excited and wait and watch."
He added it will all boil down to polling day an how far Rajapaksa will allow a fair election. And this is perhaps why the establishment is playing its cards close to the chest. It is still not clear who will win, and if Rajapaksa wins, it will not benefit India to be seen with the losing side. Even it Sirisena wins, there could be a backlash by Rajapaksa and it is best not to burn bridges even if he is not a favourite.
Outside observers are not as circumspect. JNU professor emeritus and regional expert S D Muni, who has been awarded Sri Lanka's highest civilian award for a non-national, says, "Not too many tears will be shed if Rajapaksa loses because of both the lack of movement on devolution and the China factor. There may be no jubilation either since Sirisena is a bit of a mystique and his politics is not clear." The opposition candidate, to cater to the Sinhalese vote, has said he will not compromise on security in Jaffna. He has not made any real commitment on devolution either.
But Muni believes the fact that Sirisena has support of liberal Sinhalese elements like former president Chandrika Kumaratunga who have an understanding of Indian sensitivities; and that he has the support of Tamil parties which will require a quid pro quo will mean he will have to be more accommodative.
C Raja Mohan, a veteran expert at the Observer Research Foundation, too said, 'Irrespective of the outcome, this promised to be a watershed moment. It will offer an opportunity to look at the relationship with a fresh prospective, and more purposefully."