The odd thing about Mahinda Rajapaksa, who will be stepping down from the Sri Lankan presidency after a shock upset on Friday, was that he was never afraid of the Tamil Tigers returning to the island. Even though Rajapaksa won his popularity by vowing to end the decades-old civil war between Sri Lanka’s Tamil north and the rest of the country, a promise he kept through the use of tremendous violence, the president was never worried about the Tamil terror outfit coming back.

This is because he always knew that his primary voter base, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority, would quickly rally and unite against a group that they see as terrorists. Instead, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Rajapaksa was always more worried about an Occupy-style popular uprising built on the back of economic discontent.

Occupy Sri Lanka

That isn’t quite what happened in this week’s elections, with opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena winning 51.3% of the vote and ending a decade-long rule during which the Rajapaksa family began to stick fingers in every industrial and government pie. Yet even if there was not an Occupy-style uprising, the lesson of Sirisena’s win is not entirely one of cultural and ethnic reconciliation.

Instead, the opposition’s entire campaign was centred around the excesses of the Rajapaksas, widely seen as nepotistic and corrupt. Sirisena, who defected from the ruling party to become the united opposition candidate right after Rajapaksa called for polls two years ahead of schedule, made it clear that he did so because of the alleged corruption.

“I came out because I could not stay anymore with a leader who had plundered the country, government and national wealth,” he said, at a rally.

Yet the final results also show that, even though he was acting defence minister in the final, most brutal months of the civil war in 2009 and, despite the support of right-wing Buddhist parties, Sirisena managed to win upwards of 70% of the votes in the areas with a lot of Tamils and Muslims.

Furfur/Obi2canibe/Wikimedia Commons 

It can often be facile to compare the political trajectories of countries, although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a comparison magnet, with commentary on him often making reference to everyone from Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. To a certain kind of Indian liberal, Rajapaksa was almost directly analogous to Modi, both because of his authoritarian tendencies and also due to his use of violence, in the civil war, to gain majoritarian favour.

On the other hand, the opposition in Sri Lanka has explicitly mentioned having taken inspiration from Modi’s campaign to fight an allegedly corrupt family that had taken over the state, not unlike the way many see the Nehru-Gandhis. In fact, an opposition leader said that they not only were inspired by Modi but also took advice from firms that worked on his campaign.

So, is there a lesson that Indian politicians ought to take from Rajapaksa’s fall?

Lesson for Modi:

Rajapaksa nurtured and fanned the flames of Buddhist nationalism to ensure support as he turned the screws on the Tamil Tigers in the final years of the war. As a result, right-wing groups, like the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddha’s Army), began taking on the Muslims, Sri Lanka’s other large minority which had previously not been opposed to Rajapaksa, and increasingly seemed beyond the ruling alliance’s control.

The defeated president also brooked no dissent, with his government becoming famous for using white vans to abduct dissidents, and attempted to exercise complete control over the government and formerly independent institutions. Among the promises by Sirisena are a roll-back of the constitutional amendment that struck down the two-term limit for presidents and to make institutions like the Human Rights and Election commissions properly independent again.

Lesson from Modi:

Sirisena fully leveraged the Rajapaksas' reputation of having arrogated all power in the country into one family. Unlike in 2010, the opposition this time captured the urban centres in Sri Lanka’s south west, including Colombo, in addition to the minority-inhabited Northern and Eastern provinces, suggesting that the corruption and nepotism had enough of an impact on the electorate that they voted it out.

The opposition campaign also took literal lessons from Modi. The New York Times reported that the opposition took advice from firms that worked on Modi’s campaign, while the Hindustan Times pointed out that national security adviser Ajit Doval met Sirisena last December to help shape the campaign against Rajapaksa.