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India will begin hard bargaining soon

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In the corridors of power in Sri Lanka, it is honeymoon time. In the first flush of victory, President Maithripala Sirisena is the man everyone wants to please. Mahinda Rajapaksa, seemingly invincible a few months ago, appears to be history as opponents and supporters rally around the new President.

It is, of course, too early to pass judgment on President Sirisena’s political acumen but in just over two weeks, he has appointed a Prime Minister from the United National Party (UNP) and gained control of his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The Cabinet has been derived largely from the UNP.

President Sirisena will soon face many obstacles, as he attempts to drive through his ‘100 day’ plan. That itself should not pose a problem as the SLFP has pledged to support it, as has the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

Forming a government will be challenging in a post-election scenario, after Parliament is dissolved late in April and general elections are held in June. At that critical juncture, the President’s loyalties will be divided between the SLFP that nurtured him and the UNP which swept him to power.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/images/2015/01/04/Main/this-my-nation.jpgThe political forces of the country will re-align themselves many times between now and then. And, in the scramble towards the general election, while the SLFP has the advantage of more sitting parliamentarians, the UNP will be keen to impress the masses in their first three months in power.

A key platform cry in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign against President Sirisena was raising the specter of “selling out to the Eelamists”. Even after the election was concluded, Rajapaksa loyalists continue to argue that Sirisena was elected only because of votes from the North and the East.

The Sirisena manifesto promised a better dialogue with minority groups, India and internationally too, especially in relation to the ‘war crimes’ charges that are pending. This is easier said than done and the new government’s conduct is being keenly observed for a hint of the stance it may adopt.

That hint came this week when newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, addressing Parliament, said that the government would advocate implementing the 13th Amendment ‘subject to the unitary character of the Constitution’. He did not elaborate further on what this exactly meant.

Across the Palk Straits, the response has been generally positive because it is well known that India is very keen for the 13th Amendment - born out of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord - to be implemented in full. Successive Indian governments led by Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi have insisted on it.

Newly appointed Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera has already been on his first visit to New Delhi. The Indians were keen to upgrade what was initially billed as informal visit to an official one and Samaraweera met not only his counterpart Sushma Swaraj but Prime Minister Modi as well.

Samaraweera is very upbeat on his return describing the visit as “India…welcoming back after many years of absence, a dear and old friend”. These are diplomatic niceties that nations indulge in and the hard bargaining will begin soon enough. This is what the new government will have to deal with.

The direction Sri Lanka opts to take will be a pointer towards who exactly is controlling the new government, comprising as it is of the UNP, sections of the SLFP and even the more nationalist JHU. All these parties will also have an eye on the general elections which are likely to be held in June.

None of these parties would want to be seen as “selling out” to the Eelamists. Neither would President Sirisena, as it would justify the Rajapaksa campaign’s slogans against him. On the other hand, the President would also be obliged to the TNA, which delivered him a bulk of the votes in the North.

Politically it is a tough balancing act to perform. A reasonable strategy would be to evolve a dialogue with the TNA with a view to arriving at a compromise that would be acceptable to all parties and that could lay to rest the concerns of the international community and the Tamil Diaspora as well.

This is easier said than done. In what is a move to win over the TNA, the Governor of the Northern Province G. A. Chandrasiri was replaced by Siri Palihakkara, a much respected diplomat who is a former Foreign Secretary. Despite such gestures, the 13th Amendment is a difficult knot to untangle.

With political parties eyeing the polls and the President pushing his 100 day plan, the political arena will be exciting in the coming weeks. If, at the end of it, the principles of good governance and a framework for ethnic reconciliation can be established, it will be a great leap forward for the nation.

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