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Whose Trump? – Analysis

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy

It’s surprising that much of America and all of the rest of the world seems surprised at Donald Trump’s election as the next US President. Barring party-partisan Americans, there should have been no surprise at the result. Either it had to be America’s first woman President, or had to be an ‘unconventional’ man who appealed to all-American inherent sense of insecurity, often buried deep in the façade of being a super-power, hence super-humans.

‘New America’, ‘middle America’ and the ‘white America’, all rolled into one, voted the latter, retaining still the inherent reservations to send a woman even now beyond the barrier of a primaries victory. Yet, all this was only after the US had conditioned itself through systemic campaign to think differently from 1992 and voted the first Afro-American in incumbent Barack Obama.

It’s now for the ‘unconventional’ Trump to prove if he can carry the party and people together, as he has promised to do in his acceptance speech, and win a second term, as Obama and George Bush Jr. had done before him. Either President Trump yields space to the Republican Party establishment and also the conventional American administration wisdom, or surrounds himself with hawks of every kind as the two Bush, father and son, did, to fight and win wars externally, for them to win elections, nearer home.

The script for a Trump victory might have been written as early as 1992, when billionaire independent Ross Perot made waves with a near 20 percent vote share, and without the care and comforts that a party establishment offered. All America and all Americans declared that “we will not allow that to happen again.” Saddam Hussein and Osama bin-Laden ensured that the nation looked inwards, even as candidate Obama offered a respite for the nation to look outwards — at least, outwardly.

Watershed 2015

After Perot and Obama especially, Trump was waiting to happen. If Trump had not come up, America would have invented one, just now. So would have America discovered another woman candidate, or someone else whose nonconformist background would have stuck out in some other form — if Hillary did not happen this time, too, after her own early exit in 2004.

Trump thus was the right man at the right place at the right time. He went to the cadres, over the head of the Republican establishment, and to the people over the head of the party. The neighbourhood comparison would be India’s incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As the long-term elected Chief Minister of native Gujarat State, Modi at least had the acknowledged experience of being a ‘vikas purush’ (development man).

Trump did not have any such positive image about him, but shared only more controversies than Modi had done, the latter’s name having been identified with the infamous Gujarat riots (2002). Yet, like Modi, Trump ended up having the party eat out of his hand than the other way round. A stage came in the electoral careers of both — sooner than later — that the party needed them more than the other way round.

In a world without street revolutions in the era after the two great wars in the past century, the angst of the new generation in the democratic world has found expression in the ballot box, especially if militant initiatives have failed them. In Sri Lanka itself, post-JVP, post-LTTE, elections 2015 marked that watershed.

The comparison should end there, though. It now remains to be seen, how the two fare as the leaders of the world’s ‘greatest’ democracy and the largest democracy.

They have connecting points where they can work together, especially for the betterment of larger democratic world, Sri Lanka included. There are even more areas, where they have espoused tougher positions. Jobs and immigration is only one of them.

Sri Lankan ‘holiday’

Given Sri Lanka’s own current priorities in terms of a new Constitution and attendant issues of ‘ethnic reconciliation’ and ‘power-devolution’, corruption cases and economic crises, invented or inflicted, the US could be taking a ‘holiday’ on major policy initiatives for a while before a clearer picture emerges. Ahead of his 20 January 2017 Inauguration, the American President-elect would be busy putting together a team of trusted aides with a global vision (of whom there are not many), on a host of issues from geopolitics to regional priorities to economic policies.

There is thus a period when Obama’s is a lame duck presidency, and the new President would not have taken over office and settled down. It’s another matter that every new President in the US of A ends up appointing anything up to 4,000 officials, and will have to pick and choose the right man for the right job.

The top guns among his administrative aides, starting with the Secretary of State, Defence Secretary and National Security Advisor, would have to clear congressional approvals. That’s to say, until mid-2017, Trump & co. may not have time for anything else, starting with America and Americans. Sri Lanka may have to wait.

Long list of grouses

As has been the custom, President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were among the first world leaders to congratulate Trump on his historic election. It should not also go unnoticed that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa too has sent his congratulations to the American President-elect. Conventions and traditions — and non-tradition of the Rajapaksa kind apart — it remains to be seen what Trump’s America does to, for and with Sri Lanka.

On the immediate score, the new US administration would have to decide on Sri Lanka’s ‘accountability probe’ at UNHRC’s March 2017 session. The Obama administration has taken a keen interest in other aspects of ethnic reconciliation, power devolution, and hence possibly, Constitution making. Senior Obama administration officials, starting with Secretary of State John Kerry have been meeting with Sri Lankan leaders, including opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA), in the two countries and elsewhere too. Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal also met diaspora leadership of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) in London.

So did Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera some months earlier. But now, for instance, the GTF too has complaints that the experts panel on Constitution making has not even included their memorandum in their working papers. Already, ‘nominally’ TNA Chief Minister of Tamil exclusive Northern Province C.V. Wigneswaran has a long list of grouses which are as much administrative as they are ethnic-centric.

The ‘Sri Lankan holiday’ vis a vis the American Administration may be a two-way street for now. It gives time for the Maithiri-Ranil twin leadership to either does a pause-and-muse over what needs doing or fast-track a unilateral package before America gets ready and America’s allies get used to the idea of a Trump administration, with all its pluses and minuses, ups and down — in their collective and selective perception(s).

The UNHRC March too may be among the collective Euro concerns. However, it may or may not be their immediate priority for a new American administration at its start. Instead, their collective and/or selective geopolitical and geostrategic primacy could continue to be China. America’s European allies and Asian friends would be keen to readjust themselves to Trump’s China policy after eight long years of Obama’s Indo-Pacific Pivot, improvised from original Asia-Pacific Pivot. At the same time, a Republican America could still go back to the good ol’ days of Bush, especially under a radical thumb, and target global terrorism, all over again and instead.

If the US is going to be ambivalent on China, at least in the interim, Sri Lanka too would have to readjust itself to either, or both. Foreign Secretary Esala Weerakoon did a great diplomatic balancing act by summoning Chinese Ambassador Yi Xianliang without actually summoning him. By telephonically telling the Ambassador not to discuss bilateral issues of the loan-and-interest kind in public when both were very much in Capital Colombo, F.S. Weeerakoon may have avoided embarrassment for both sides. Needless to say, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, the Sri Lankan party to this episode, too, might have learnt not to talk ‘interest’ in public, and against Chinese interests in Sri Lanka.

Ignored invitations

The US-Sri Lanka relations had suffered a huge set-back under Rajapaksa, especially in the UNHRC context and more, especially after Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris ignored repeated invitations from then American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit Washington for further discussions. In the geostrategic context, the Rajapaksa Administration got closer to China, adding to the discomfort, not only of the US of A, but also the Indian neighbour.

A Hillary victory thus would have meant a few things, positive and not-so-positive, for Sri Lanka under the Maithiri-Ranil leadership. It does not mean that even a Trump White House would poll-time animosities and angularities above America’s ‘supreme national self-interest.’ If anything, with Rajapaksa out of the politico-administrative picture, the US too can breathe easy about Sri Lanka, especially if Trump wanted it so. The original question could resurface, if the evolving Sri Lankan situation throws up a new picture, either on the ethnic front or the Rajapaksa front, or both. That’s when Trump may be called upon to take a closer and quicker look, even if as closely as others might want to believe.

Evaluate, act upon

It could mean even more — or, less — for the country if a Trump America focuses more on global terrorism, including in it that of the LTTE kind. It may have answers for Sri Lankan prayers, especially under the Rajapaksa regime, on the pro-LTTE TGTE front, whose leadership is based in the US.

Whether the twin leadership in Colombo, jointly or severally, would want to ‘exploit’ such an American approach, if any, remains to be seen. Or, would they be crowing the very same Rajapaksa tunes, especially after the security forces have now arrested three members of the pro-LTTE ‘Avva’ militant group, operating still in the war torn North?

It’s yet another question that the Sri Lankan stakeholders, both in government and outside, would have to evaluate and act upon, apart from taking baby-steps all over again viz China, and at times the US. It would have to be so, at least under the Trump ideology on Xi Jinping’s China on geostrategic and economic immigration fronts become clearer.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Leader.


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Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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