`Modi’ vs `Modi’ in Sri Lanka

By T S Sudhir in Colombo
I was in Sri Lanka on holiday in the last week of December. At a fair distance from work and the Indian political discourse. Or so I thought. On December 31, when I was in Sigiriya, a good 170 km from capital Colombo, I received this text message on my temporary Sri Lanka number.
`Sirisena copied Modi’s clothes and actions. Copied Mahinda’s budget. Now copied Mahinda’s website mahinda2015.com. Choice is yours. Visionary leader or puppet?’
Narendra Modi, I realised, is pretty much a factor in the high stakes presidential contest on January 8. Because Maithripala Sirisena, the combined opposition candidate does wear Modi-ism on his sleeve literally, the Modi jacket a permanent fixture in his wardrobe.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa who would have thought Modi was on his side, when he wished him good luck for the electoral contest at the SAARC conclave in Kathmandu, also does a Modi on his cutouts, banners and posters that are all over Lanka. His bright shirts and animated pose, a match for the bright kurtas and jackets Modi showcased during his election campaign in India.
“He is like the King,” said our tour guide sarcastically, referring to Rajapaksa. “Look at how he poses for the photographs.” The Lankan President, indeed, stresses his macho image, buttressed by the manner in which his Army annihiliated the LTTE, killing Tiger V Prabhakaran in 2009. That remains to date, Rajapaksa’s biggest achievement from the Sinhalese point of view, an indication of his ability to take the enemy head on, planning. A la 56 inch chest.
That chest however, has shrunk a bit now, with Sirisena, who was till November 2014, Sri Lanka’s Health minister and the general secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (the party Rajapaksa heads) doing a Trojan Horse to Rajapaksa. A contest is very much on now.
But it is not just the sartorial aspect that `Modi-fies’ the Rajapaksa vs Sirisena contest. Both candidates belong to the Island nation’s ethnic majority and the minority Tamils and Muslims look at both of them with more than a touch of suspicion. More so, Rajapaksa, given his regime’s “human rights record vis-a-vis Tamils and religious violence targeting Muslims.” Since Sirisena was part of Rajapaksa’ dispensation till two months back, he cannot absolve himself of the same taint though he would hope that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former PM Ranil Wickremasinghe’s company would soften the anti-minorities feeling.
And much like the Indian elections of 2014, corruption is at the heart of the Lankan Presidential battle. Rajapaksa clearly believes that the family that governs together, stays together. So his two brothers run the Defence and Economic ministries, a third brother is the Speaker and son Namal an MP and widely believed to being groomed to take over from dad Rajapaksa. Nepotism is definitely an issue for the people in the urban pockets of Lanka and Sirisena, son of a World War II hero and the challenger to the throne, will hope that the voters reject the first family’s rule on Thursday.