December 10, 2019
By Dr. Harinda Vidanage
The new President-elect of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a week into his administration has already hit the turbo and is on full throttle. He expects everyone in his governance mechanism, including his elder siblings irrespective of the fact that one was a two-term President and the other the eldest brother in the family to deliver results at the pace he is cruising.
Sri Lanka is experiencing an unprecedented political transformation many Sri Lankans were yearning for at the backdrop of the abysmal failure of the good governance regime. This article is not an analysis of domestic political shaping of the new presidency instead it attempts to expose the rise of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a symbol of a much larger global political phenomenon.
In 2014, a little-known political figure in India, who was the CM of Gujarat for nearly a decade became the BJP nominee for Premiership during Lok Sabha elections. Narendra Modi, who the Western powers saw as a key figure of the 2002 Gujarat riots hence was shunned by the Western world. He broke all historical conventions and political narratives to be India’s undisputed strong man Prime Minister in 2014 and within half a decade since his election, steered India into a formidable regional and global standing.
Modi’s meteoric rise was heralding a new political era in India, the so called, Third Republic that would propel it further into the centre of the world stage and with confidence for realizing its full potential. Modi promised a new India, this was the slogan that won the hearts and minds of his followers. Today his track record is open to debate, yet it does not change the fact that Modi was the turning point in India’s recent political history.
India’s traditional nuclear rival Pakistan, plagued by political instabilities, hounded by United States under Donald Trump, yet, zealously guarded and empowered by China, had its Modi moment during the 2018 General election. A leader emerged out of a new political grouping, defying the two traditional political parties which has exchanged powers for decades since independence. A cricketing hero, championing Pakistani national interests, defying Western powers, riding a massive wave of support from urban, rural and tribal Pakistan, ImranKhan ran and won on the promise of a new Pakistan.
Voters in India and Pakistan both were wooed by a common message, a calling that broke from the past political narratives a message not just of hope but of a new beginning. For Indians and Pakistanis living under circumstances of incremental change as a result of political transitions since independence, the promise of renewal from Modi and Khan was a game changer.
Modi is riding a wave of popularity not just within India but among Indian diaspora globally, he won his second term in 2019 with an increased mandate than the first. Political analysts were skeptical of a Khan premiership, it was deemed a failure, yet today he hangs in and seems to be making headlines locally and globally for being the change agent he promised to be.
India’s foreign policy and global posture has broken its Nehru-Gandhian framework which was pretty much the status quo, since 1947. India today is flexing its muscles across the region and has a clear plan for its global role. As Prof. Raja Mohan eloquently writes in his book Modi’s World, Modi has managed to expand and strengthen India’s sphere of influence, thus India’s present and foreseeable future is and will be Modian by design.
With last week’s presidential election outcome in Sri Lanka, South Asia completes a trinity. The technology savvy and innovative Indian Prime Minister, Modern and sophisticated Pakistani leader and an action-driven no- nonsense President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa from Sri Lanka to complete an iron triangle of political leaders spearheading change in the South Asian political landscape, in the 21st Century.
Xi Jinping since his ascendancy first as the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and President of China in 2013, China has shed its long-time self-constraint of external engagements. Modern China and its prosperity are attributed to its enterprising leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng transformed a China that was rural, poor, low-tech into a vastly urbanized society with massive infra structure development projects making the backbone of China’s massive empowerment drive. China’s domestic developmental success through infra structure development has become the key driver of current President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) which is a planetary level strategy of connecting China with the rest of the world.
"Modi promised a new India, this was the slogan that won the hearts and minds of his followers and was the turning point in India’s recent political history"
Xi Jinping belongs to the new breed of leaders who are self-made change agents, Xi has broken China’s self-imposed isolation when it comes to foreign policy and its regional and global ambitions. He has clearly outlined China’s global ambitions demonstrates clear ambitions to lead China’s transformation into a fully advanced society by 2049, President Xi has set as a policy goal to celebrate the centenary of the creation of modern China.
From Tayyep Erdogan in Turkey, Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Premier Abe, to Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salam have become change agents and are challenging the contextual intelligence of International relations scholars who have pitted their belief on global governance and global institutions as factors that shape leaders. The rise of self-made leaders and their policies are setting a chain reaction of disruptions that is transforming global politics and are creating alternative set of new political realities in the 21st century.
There are many factors why the global politics and their local manifestations are shaped by new leaders or established leaders taking new trajectories. Causes range from decay in legacy systems, liberal institutionalism and liberal internationalism reaching its limits and strategic blunders of liberal powers have all created a popular revulsion of traditional politics, institutions and leaders who are products of such systems.
This has been exacerbated by the rise of information economics and cyber politics, it is not just merely the technologies but the platforms and narratives. Today if a leader can use the technology strategically,they will build formidable networks of power. In a recent article on the Journal, Foreign Affairs Professors Byman and Pollack argues that ‘The information revolution has given rise to the super empowered individual and the supreme-powered state and pitted them against each other’. Sri Lanka’s new presidency needs to be understood from this global context not exclusively from the domestic frameworks.
President Gotabaya is seen as a tech savvy individual, especially he encouraged many in both civilian and security sectors to invest in technologies for national security and later urban planning and development while functioning as Defence Secretary during Mahinda Rajapaksa administration.
When It comes to Sri Lanka’s global projection and our foreign policy initiatives, the new president will seek to adopt a pragmatic foreign policy which he is compelled to do so. We are moving into an era of intense geopolitical rivalries, breakdown of global governance mechanisms and alternative forms of international cooperation. Thus,in a time where both completion and collaboration coexist in parallel universes, making the job of any national leader challenging, that demands strategic vision to penetrate the distortions of contradictory global forces.
When it comes to the current Sri Lankan President, there have been concerns regarding the lack of political experience, of not holding political office which was one of the main critiques before and during the elections campaign that targeted Mr. Rajapaksa. One interesting observation is that when you are not clouded by political interests and lenses, it provides a fresh leader with limitless clarity to see the world and workout responses. It also helps them to be very honest and forthcoming in diplomatic dealings and interactions with diplomats and other global leaders.
"Gotabaya joins his Indian and Pakistani counterparts to complete a triangle of political leaders spearheading change in the South Asian political landscape in the 21st Century"
Western and Non-Western Ambassadors have already commented on this aspect regarding the new President of Sri Lanka. Thus, when things are so complicated and complex in the global political scenario: clarity, honesty and transparency can boost the X factor of the leader and enable interactions that preserve and advance our national interests.
He has emboldened a universal value within the Sri Lankan political psyche, while his brother, the former President and newly sworn-in Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa used his charm for political appeal. Gotabaya’s Mantra of meritocracy, apolitical institutionalism and national security enhancement are the pillars to a new Sri Lanka, which is a message that all Sri Lankans are embracing emphatically. The new President will face many domestic and global challenges, yet Sri Lanka looks confident in its outlooks from people to markets, there is a resurgence of hope and confidence. How this will pan out in the future? Time will tell.
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