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The Politics Behind Indian Media’s Coverage Of 2019 Sri Lankan Presidential Election

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Note: The article has been written with Abhijit Anand, Asst. Prof. Law, Karnawati University, Gujarat.

The eighth presidential election of Sri Lanka was held on November 16, 2019. The results were announced the day, declaring Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) victorious.

Sri Lanka and India have shared a dynamic relationship and a legacy of intellectual, cultural, religious and linguistic interactions for more than 2,500 years. In recent years, the relationship has been marked by close contacts at all levels.

Both countries share a broad understanding of major issues of international interest, including assistance projects for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and disadvantaged sections of the Sri Lankan population. The armed conflict between the Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE, and the rights of Tamil civilians have been part of political discussions between them.

The given context demands a timely inquiry about the coverage of the recent Sri Lankan presidential election in the Indian media. What does the victory of Rajapaksa reflect upon the India-Sri Lanka relations? This review looks at selected commentaries, editorials, op-eds from mainstream media in India such as The Hindu, The Times of India, The Pioneer, Firstpost, Business Standard, Business Line etc. to briefly analyse and highlight the issues and events during, before and after the Sri Lankan elections published by the Indian mainstream media.

As compared to India, China has managed to come over the past challenges by consisting delivering projects on time. | Image credit: Twitter/Mahinda Rajapaksa

Pre-Elections

After the Easter bombing, the then Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena vowed to “eradicate terrorism” and bring stability before a presidential election, adding that the elections cannot be postponed. An editorial titled ‘Running for President: On Sri Lanka polls’ gave a historical account of the party politics in Sri Lanka.

Sajith Premadasa announced his candidature from the United National Party (UNP) whereas Mahesh Senanayake announced to contest from the National People’s Movement (NPM). The incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena, meanwhile, decided not to take part in the Presidential elections.

T Ramakrishnan compared Sri Lanka’s relations with India and China. As compared to India, China has managed to come over the past challenges by consisting delivering projects on time. The current leadership’s sincere approach can strengthen the ties between India and Sri Lanka. It was also reported at the time that due to the high number of presidential candidates, the cost of elections was set to increase between USD 22 million to USD 28 million. The voters could mark their preferences for three candidates.

The Hindu additionally gave a detailed account of Sri Lanka’s changing party politics amid the elections, as the announcement of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) pledged support to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the candidate from Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Basil Rajaspaksa said that Sri Lanka understands the challenges it has and is ready to ensure that no international actor interferes in the elections.

Sri Lankan Army Chief General Silva appeared in support of the SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Election Commission sought an explanation from the Defence Ministry on this issue. Quoting Kolathur Mani, leader of the Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam, The Hindu wrote that the Sri Lankan-Tamil issue is no longer a poll factor, even though it keeps appearing in the popular discourse.

The paper also wrote how the voters were divided between Gotabaya and Sajith, as the former’s past image attracted many but not all. The period of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency brings back the memories of “brutal state repression an unmistakable intolerance to dissent”; whereas Mr Premadasa got approval from within the UNP over party leader Wickremesinghe. His political message was not in line with his own party’s. The third camp did not seem strong enough to have much influence in the elections.

Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)’s manifesto promised to have better relations with India and other regional cooperation organisations such as SAARC and BIMSTEC. Five Tamil parties jointly demanded the presidential candidates, seeking their support for:

“evolving a political solution through a federal arrangement, with a recognition of a ‘separate sovereignty’ status for the Tamils and their right to self-determination; conducting an international probe of war crimes; repealing the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act; stopping Sinhala-Buddhist ‘colonisation’ of the north and east; and enabling investments from Tamil diaspora to enhance development in the war-affected areas.” (Srinivasan)

The United National Party’s candidate Premadasa promised to complete the constitutional reform process started by his government. Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) said they would support the country’s ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa in the upcoming presidential election. The paper’s same reporter, Meera Srinivasan, also covered the voters’ perception in the Eastern part of Sri Lanka about the candidates in the wake of recent Easter bombings and their aftermath.

Srinivasan argued that the northern Tamil population is careful in assessing its choices for the Presidential candidate, given the background and history of SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Fifteen other political parties supported Gotabaya Rajapaksa, taking the number to 40.

In the eastern districts of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara, elections are considered crucial as they might impact the local multi-ethnic population dynamics. Srinivasan also reported on the concerns of fake news spreading on social media platforms as well as appearing in the mainstream media. She recorded the prospective and issues concerning the voters. For Gotabaya supporters, security and infrastructure were crucial issues whereas Sajith’s supporters wanted to see something different. Emphasis on manifestos of political parties was also mentioned by the voters to make a choice.

NDTV ran stories calling Rajapaksa a ‘terminator’, giving the details of the victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Meanwhile, The Hindu argued that anti-Muslim riots in Kandy in March 2018 and the Easter bombings were some of the factors that might affect the voting patterns of the minority voters. Author Lasantha Wijeratne, whose book criticises Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was stabbed and injured before the elections.

The period of Mahinda’s presidency brought back the memories of brutal state repression whereas Premadasa got approval from within the UNP over party leader Wickremesinghe (in pic). | Credit: Getty Images

Multiple papers (India Today, The Times of India, Business Line, Business Standard, Economic Times, Scroll) reported that the Presidential elections in Sri Lanka would be held on November 16.

During Elections

The National Elections Commission said that almost 80% voter turnout was recorded in the Sri Lanka presidential elections on November 16 at 12,845 polling stations that were set up for 15.9 million voters across the country (the news was reported by publications News18, Business Standard, The Times Of India, India Today, Firstpost).

Many media houses (Business Line, Hindustan Times, India Today, News18, Business Standard, Economic Times, Scroll, The Times Of India, The Pioneer, Firstpost) also reported the fire opened by gunmen on a convoy of buses carrying minority Muslims who were travelling from Puttalam to Mannar to vote in Presidential elections in Sri Lanka. During the incident, stones were also pelted but no casualties were reported.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory over Premadasa was thoroughly covered by the media houses. Gotabaya Rajapaksa secured 52.25% votes while Premadasa received 41.99% of the total votes polled. (Business Line, India Today, The Times Of India, Business Standard, News18, Economic Times, Hindustan Times, Scroll, Firstpost, The Pioneer, The Hindu). Gotabaya showed an inclination towards cash-rich China earlier but then wanted to remain neutral by not taking sides in international issues.

Indian PM congratulated Sri Lanka’s President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his victory. Gotabaya, in response, thanked the PM. This exchange was also covered by all big media houses (India Today, Business Standard, NDTV, Hindustan Times, The Times Of India, Firstpost, News18 (a), Scroll, The Times of India, News18 (b), The Pioneer). 

Gotabaya Rajapaksa swearing-in ceremony as Sri Lanka’s President and appeal to minority Tamils and Muslims was also reported by all major media houses (Economic Times, NDTV, The Hindu, Business Line, News18, Business Standard, Times of India, India Today, The Pioneer).

Jaffna legislator and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman MA Sumanthiran said that Sajith Premadasa secured 80% of the vote share in the Northern and Eastern Provinces; this shows that Tamils and Muslims of the regions rejected Gotabaya. Increased fear in the minds of Muslims, especially after the Easter attacks, was reported by The Hindu.

Ahilan Kadirgamar (2019), Senior Lecturer at the University of Jaffna, wrote,

“While the minorities, worried about their future, voted overwhelmingly against presidential candidate and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sinhala political base, built by the Rajapaksas, has brought them back to power.”

PMK leader S Ramadoss and MDMK general secretary Vaiko also expressed concerns for Sri Lankan Tamils. In an op-ed that year, The Hindu gave a historical analysis to show the Indo-Sri Lanka relations and the impact of the China factor since the Mahinda regime. Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s unannounced visit to Colombo to meet the newly elected President was covered by The Hindu. The media house also covered the resignation of Ranil Wickremesinghe post-election.

Tamil Maanila Congress president GK Vasan asked the Government of India to hold talks with the newly elected Sri Lankan President to ensure “the growth and security of Tamils, Christians and Muslims” alongside “the development and growth of the Sinhalese population.”

The National Elections Commission said that almost 80% voter turnout was recorded in the Sri Lanka presidential elections on November 16, 2019.

Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda of the University of Colombo, in an opinion piece in The Hindu, commented that the vote share and voting patterns indicated the polarisation in Sri Lankan society. Gota received “overwhelming backing of the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community,” whereas Sajith Premadasa “received the support of a majority of Tamil and Muslim voters” and was rejected by the Sinhalese voters. The third front failed to secure even 4% of the total votes. Easter bombings were seen to have been an important factor in creating such polarisation.

Post-victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Parliament Speaker Jayasuriya suggested three options: the dissolution of Parliament on March 1 next year to pave for a snap Parliamentary poll in April; dissolving Parliament immediately by providing two-thirds Parliamentary support to dissolve the Assembly; or allowing the new President to form a caretaker Cabinet by the resignation of the current Prime Minister.

Senior Tamil leader R Sampanthan said, as covered by The Hindu, that was is wrong to say that many Tamils did not vote for Rajapaksa because he is a Sinhala-Buddhist. Premadasa as a Sinhala-Buddhists, with regards to minority issues, was later more forthcoming. After his victory, Gotabaya Rajapaksa urged the minorities to work with him to build the country. He repeated that Sri Lanka would remain neutral in its foreign relations.

the Indian Ministry of External Affairs was quick to issue a statement, showing India’s willingness to work closely with the newly elected Sri Lankan government. The Hindu, in two of their pieces, wrote about the man Gotabaya Rajapaksa, controversies surrounding him, and his recent success to become the President of Sri Lanka.

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked the newly elected President to maintain Sri Lanka’s “commitments to security sector reform, accountability, respect for human rights, and non-recurrence of violence,” because of Sri Lanka’s leaning towards China as that was causing a sense of concern for US-Lanka relations.

Kalyani Shankar (2019) gave a detailed account in The Pioneer of the war between the Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil Tigers. Gotabaya has been accused of human rights violations and war crimes because of his role in this war. The newly-elected Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya accepted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s invitation; this was covered by some of the major media houses (The Times Of India, NDTV, News18, Business Standard, Business Standard).

This coverage was followed by the announcement by Sri Lankan President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of naming his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new prime minister after Ranil Wickremesinghe announced his resignation (The Times of India, News18, India Today, Economic Times, Hindustan Times, Business Standard, NDTV, The Pioneer).

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (R) swears in his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa (L) as Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister. | Credit: Getty Images

Post Elections

The Hindu’s editorial titled ‘To the Power of Two’ (2019m) reiterated that the Rajapaksas must ensure that democratic processes in Sri Lanka remain preserved. The Tamil population would be treated with equality, justice, peace and dignity. Mr Gotabaya said that he would be frank and upfront with India to avoid any misunderstandings of the past and assured that on the issues of Sri Lankan relations with China and Pakistan, there would be no problem “that creates suspicions amongst Indian authorities.”

He added that Sri Lanka “had a purely commercial agreement with China. I want to tell India, Japan, Singapore and Australia and other countries to also come and invest in us and help us grow.” 

There have been concerns among the Tamil leadership about Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s leadership, as he has been called “responsible for the genocide of Tamils.” Srinivasan, in The Hindu, reported about the visit of the newly elected Sri Lankan President and the kind of issues that might come up in the bilateral talks between both countries.

Supriti David wrote in The Hindu about a drastic dip in the Sri Lankan tourism industry due to the Easter bombings. That is why relations with India are very crucial for Sri Lanka for the development of the tourism business in Sri Lanka. The media house also covered the visits of the Indian Minister of External Affairs to Sri Lanka, followed by an invitation to the newly elected President Gotabaya to show the Modi government’s Neighbourhood First policy. Furthermore, both countries must try to overcome the tensions of the past, and the new government shall treat its minorities in an equal and just manner.

The swearing-in of Mahinda Rajapaksa and PM Modi’s applaud for his appointment as the Sri Lankan Prime Minister was again covered extensively by major publications. In response, Mahinda Rajapaksa talked about promoting the shared partnership for peace and prosperity for both our countries and the region (The Hindu, NDTV, Business Line, The Times of India, The Pioneer).

Later, the meeting between EAM and Sri Lankan President was reported in The Pioneer. India offered USD 450 million in aid to fight terrorism. It had helped Sri Lanka with intelligence and counter-terrorism earlier. The Easter Bombings gave a hint to Sri Lanka to rethink its national security strategy, which includes better cooperation with India.

India is also helping Sri Lanka with the housing project, which involves building 46,000 houses for the internally displaced in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka (The Hindu (a), The Hindu (b), The Hindu (c), Hindustan Times (a), Hindustan Times (b), Business Standard (a), Business Standard (b), Economic Times, India Today, Business Line, The Times of India).

The appointment of Sajith Premadasa as the leader of the Opposition was reported by The Hindu. The publication also reported on the promise of the freedom of press by the newly elected President Gotabaya, given the record of the journalists that were killed and persecuted during the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The review showed how the Indian media stream covered the recent Sri Lankan presidential Elections, highlighting the issues and concerns that different media houses focused on.

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