The new President elect of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is only a week into his administration, but he has already hit the turbo gear and is on full throttle. The president expects everyone in his governance mechanism, including his two 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 same pace with which he is cruising.
Sri Lanka is experiencing an unprecedented political transformation that many Sri Lankans have been yearning for in the backdrop of the abysmal failure of the good governance regime that was promised by the previous government. This article is not an analysis of the domestic political shaping of the new presidency, instead it attempts to explain the rise of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a symbol of a much larger global political phenomenon.
The South Asian Trinity
In 2014, a then little-known political figure in the rest of India – despite being Chief Minister of Gujarat for nearly a decade – became the BJP nominee for premiership during the Lok Sabha elections. Narendra Modi, who was seen by Western powers as a key figure in the 2002 Gujarat riots, was shunned by the Western world for a long time. He, however, broke all historical conventions and political narratives to become India’s undisputed strong man. Even since becoming prime minister in 2014, he has 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 center of the world stage and with confidence realise its full potential. He promised a ‘New India’, a 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 the United States under President Trump yet zealously guarded and empowered by China – had its Modi moment during its general election in 2018. A leader emerged out of a new political grouping, defying the two traditional political parties which have exchanged powers for decades since Independence. A cricketing hero, championing Pakistani national interests, defying Western powers and riding on a massive wave of support from urban, rural and tribal Pakistan, Imran Khan ran and won on the promise of a ‘New Pakistan.’
Voters in India and Pakistan were both wooed by a common message, a calling that broke from past political narratives. This was 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 diasporans globally; he won his second term in 2019 with an increased mandate from the first. In Pakistan, political analysts were skeptical of an Imran 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. The country today is flexing its muscles across the region and has a clear plan for its global role. As Professor 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 the trinity. The tech-savvy and innovative Indian Prime Minister, the modern and sophisticated Pakistani leader, and an action-driven no-nonsense President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from Sri Lanka, complete an iron triangle of political leaders spearheading change in the South Asian political landscape in the 21st century.
Regional and Global leadership
Xi Jinping, since his ascendancy first as the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and President of China in 2013, has helped China shed its long-time self-constraints of external engagements. Modern China and its prosperity are attributed to its enterprising leader, the late Deng Xiaoping. Deng transformed a China that was rural, poor and low tech into a vastly urbanised society with massive infrastructure development projects making up the backbone of China’s massive empowerment drive.
China’s domestic developmental success through infrastructure 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.
Xi Jinping belongs to the new breed of leaders who are self-made change agents. He 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 which demonstrates his ambition to lead China’s transformation into a ‘fully developed nation’ by 2049. President Xi has set this as a policy goal to celebrate the centenary of the creation of modern China.
From President Erdogan in Turkey, President Maduro in Venezuela, President Putin in Russia, President Macron in France, Prime Minister Abe in Japan to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, all of them 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 these self-made leaders and their policies are setting up a chain reaction of disruptions that are transforming global politics and creating an alternative set of new political realities in the 21st century.
There are many factors why global politics and their local manifestations are shaped by new leaders or established leaders taking new trajectories. The causes range from decay in legacy systems, liberal institutionalism and liberal internationalism reaching its limits and strategic blunders of liberal powers. These 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, as it is not merely the technologies but the platforms and narratives as well. Today, if a leader can use the technology strategically, he or she will build formidable networks of power. In a recent article in the online journal Foreign Affairs, Professors Daniel Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack argue, ‘The information revolution has given rise to the super-empowered individual and the super-empowered 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 Rajapaksa is seen as a tech-savvy individual and he has encouraged many in both the civilian and security sector to invest in technologies for national security, and later urban planning and development, while functioning as the secretary of defense during the 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. 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 co-exist in parallel universes, making the job of any national leader challenging, this 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 his lack of political experience, of not holding political office. This was one of the main critiques before and during the election campaign with which the Opposition targeted Mr. Rajapaksa. But one interesting observation here 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 work out responses. It also helps them to be very honest and forthcoming in diplomatic dealings and interactions with diplomats and other global leaders.
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 this leader and enable interactions that preserve and advance our national interests.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has emboldened these universal values within the Sri Lankan political psyche, while his brother – former president and newly sworn-in prime minister – Mahinda Rajapaksa has used his charm for political appeal. Gotabaya’s mantra of meritocracy, apolitical institutionalism and national security enhancement as the pillars on which a new Sri Lanka can stand is a message that all Sri Lankans are emphatically embracing. The new president will face many domestic and global challenges, yet Sri Lanka looks confident in its outlook. From people to markets there is a resurgence of hope and confidence. How this will pan out in the future? Time will tell.
— Reprinted with permission from the Daily Mirror
The author is Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) in Colombo. Views are personal