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Sirisena and the 'Rainbow Coalition' take charge in Sri Lanka

Sixty-two year old Maithripala Sirisena stepped out, hands folded in greeting and walked slowly through the crowds, which by now had lost all semblance of order, cellphones being raised high to take pictures of the victor of Thursday's presidential elections.

world Updated: Jan 12, 2015 09:55 IST
Padma Rao Sundarji
Sri Lanka

Sri-Lanka-s-newly-elected-president-Maithripala-Sirisena-takes-oath-as-he-is-sworn-in-at-Independence-Square-in-Colombo-AFP-photo

It was a spectacular sunset to a busy day. At the Independence Square, crowds thronged and milled. There were foreign diplomats, saffron-clad Buddhist monks, dancers in Kandyan hats, drummers and musicians. A modest cavalcade of cars and no stretch limousines drew up to a decorated pandal on the dot of time.

Sixty-two year old Maithripala Sirisena stepped out, hands folded in greeting and walked slowly through the crowds, which by now had lost all semblance of order, cellphones being raised high to take pictures of the victor of Thursday's presidential elections.

After he had placed flowers at a shrine and bowed his head for a minute, Sirisena sat at a table and signed and took his oath as the 6th president of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

While the oath itself was not read out to the public, President Sirisena did address the hundreds who had been waiting patiently for him on the wide greens around the square.

There were two surprise elements to Sirisena's swearing-in ceremony: one a political statement, the other a promise kept.

First, it was not the Chief Justice, as per routine practice, who administered the oath, but a senior judge of the Supreme Court as is constitutionally permissible.

Hindustan Times learned from reliable sources that Sirisena had refused to be sworn in by Chief Justice Mohan Peiris, a political appointee of the previous president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had impeached the then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike because of a series of rulings by the Supreme Court against Rajapaksa's government.

Then, and after donning the mantle of head of state, which Sirisena will - if all goes well - wear for six years, he immediately turned to Ranil Wickremesinghe, hitherto opposition leader and chief architect of the 'rainbow coalition' representing all political hues of the country, and swore him in as Prime Minister - as already indicated, months ago - straightaway.

"Based upon past experiences, there were some concerns that despite naming Wickremesinghe as his future PM, the new President may well do something else, once he is sworn in himself," said Jehan Perera, Director of the Colombo based think-tank and NGO, the National Peace Council. "But Sirisena kept his promise, which is a good start and augers well."

However and outlining imperatives, Perera added once the euphoria dies down, Sirisena would do well to keep in mind that his rival Rajapaksa received an enormous number of votes from Sinhala rural areas and that his government must bear the aspirations of those voters in mind.

"He must also meet the aspirations of Tamils and Muslims, communities that felt left out by the Rajapaksa regime and voted very heavily for him," he added.

The veteran analyst brushed aside concerns about the disparate nature of Sirisena's 'rainbow coalition' which includes Tamil and Sinhalese nationalists, conservative Buddhist monks and Muslims and prefers to see it as a strength instead.

"All these parties represent communities who were neglected by Rajapaksa," he says. "Also, don't forget that they campaigned side-by-side and in face of intimidation over the past two months. That is bound to have led to at least a small amount of personal bonding. And the best thing of all: Sirisena is a modest team player, not an overwhelming personality."

Though Sri Lanka's macroeconomic indicators are doing fairly well, economists point to some urgent issues which Sirisena will have to tackle with urgency.

"Overdependence on private and international capital markets, crony capitalism and borrowing to fund public investment by the previous regime have caused huge external debt," development economist Dr Muttukrishna Saravananthan told the Hindustan Times from Jaffna.

"Further, there was massive corruption - like favoring certain Chinese contractors in many projects in Rajapaksa's home district, Hambantota in the south. There is anxiety over these aspects so Sirisena's government will have to create a level playing field for all investors and industries."

But Saravananthan is not unduly worried that the new government may fail to reverse some, if not all of the damage done.

"PM Wickremasinghe's UNP has a particularly good track record of better economic development in this country and would aim for inclusive growth for marginalized parts of Sri Lanka", he said.

The economist conceded that speedy development of the war -ravaged North and East of Sri Lanka was one of Rajapaksa's undeniable successes, as was his ability to rapidly implement some urgently-needed infrastructural projects that had been languishing in parliament since the late seventies, due to opposition from rights groups and environmentalists.

Where does India stand on the new Sri Lankan president ?

Some leading television editors have been pronouncing all over the airwaves since the election on Friday, that New Delhi - under the Modi regime - hoped and actively encouraged the Rajapaksa regime all these months, to then see its hopes crash at yesterday's outcome.

Government sources in New Delhi were flummoxed by this claim.

"On the contrary," one high-ranking source told the Hindustan Times in Colombo over the phone from Lutyens' Delhi. "You only have to examine the Modi government's official visits. While he visited Nepal, Bhutan and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj paid a call on Bangladesh - all in keeping with Modi's avowed focus on South Asia, Sri Lanka (other than Pakistan for known reasons), which is an all-important neighbour given strategic concerns and the Chinese sprawl in the Indian Ocean, was the only country that was conspicuously absent in that itinerary."

While this was no attempt to snub Rajapaksa either, the Modi regime reportedly didn't go out of its way to woo him, preferring - especially since late last year upon Rajapaksa's announcement of early elections - to await the outcome of Thursday's election, said the source.

India's High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Yash Sinha, told the Hindustan Times that "he looks forward to working closely with the new government in Sri Lanka in further enhancing the strong bilateral ties between the two countries."

Finally, how do the motley players who have supported Sirisena and are now hopeful of cabinet berths, view themselves in the mirror?

"Over the past six weeks, we disparate lot - even the Tamil and Sinhalese groups among us - have realized just how much more we have in common than differences," says Rajiva Wijesinha, who is the sole member of the tiniest Liberal Party, which, along with five other Sinhalese supporters of the former government 'crossed over' to support Sirisena.

"Compassionate governance is our manifesto's tagline. We have to care about people. Whereas the last government only cared about cement."