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opinion

The word "serendipity" comes from Serendip, the name Persians gave a large and beautiful island off the southern tip of India, long before it was colonized by the Portuguese, who renamed it Ceilão, and then by the Dutch, and then by the English, who changed it to Ceylon. After it finally won independence from colonialism in 1948, it became Sri Lanka.

As if returning to its origins, Sri Lanka began this year with a serendipitous occurrence: After a national election, the island's long-standing president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, agreed to step down and allow his opponent, who won 51.3 per cent of the vote, a peaceful transition. Nobody expected that. Mr. Rajapaksa, who after winning the long and awful civil war against Tamil-speaking separatists, had governed as a Buddhist supremacist, consolidating power around himself and his Sinhalese-speaking inner circle.

With this, Sri Lanka's new president, Maithripala Siresena, faces a historic decision. Should he continue to govern using the politics of the postcolonial era, or put an end to that era and its decades of poisoned politics? There is a postpostcolonial politics emerging – we've seen it in Tunisia and Cambodia and Bangladesh and much of South America – that looks to the future instead of the past. In Sri Lanka, India and dozens of other places, this is a moment of choice.

It does not really matter whether Mr. Rajapaksa willingly ceded power – as he has insisted on Twitter – or if he tried to organize an election-night coup but was rebuffed when his cabinet and military turned against him. In either case, Sri Lankans and their institutions agreed to switch to Mr. Siresena, who won the strong electoral support of Tamil-speakers, Christians, Hindus and Muslims – all groups that had been excluded, sometimes harshly, from the fruits of the postwar peace.

What Mr. Rajapaksa chose to do, and what we can hope his successor will choose not to do, was to pursue the politics of postcolonialism. When, in the 20th century, scores of countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas won their independence, there was at first great hope for a new, independent democratic politics. What emerged instead, in too many places, was a reaction to the cultural wounds of colonization. Many states responded by adopting the totalizing ideologies of communism (Tanzania, Cuba) or right-wing authoritarianism (Chile, South Africa). Others turned to one-party rule (China) or strongman dynasties (many of which still hold sway in Africa) – all of it backed by the argument that it was an autonomous antidote to the mechanisms of empire.

The most potent form of postcolonial rule, after 1989, has been the politics of ethnic and religious retribution. Indeed, many of the initial postcolonial dictatorships justified their strongman rule on the grounds that the alternative would be ethnic and religious extremism.

Sri Lanka's Buddhist fundamentalism exemplified this. Under British colonizers, the minority Tamils became the favoured ethnic group. After independence, the Sinhalese-speaking majority seized power, and belittled the Tamils. What began, in response, as a Tamil civil-rights movement evolved into a Mao Zedong-influenced independence movement, and an awful war that, among other things, popularized the act of suicide bombing.

At the moment, the Buddhist fundamentalism we saw under Mr. Rajapaksa is sweeping across the "Buddhist crescent" of Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka (only Buddhist-majority Cambodia seems exempt). Mr. Siresena, the new president, could continue this reactionary trend (his coalition includes a Buddhist-extremist party), or put an end to it, and govern as a postpostcolonial, inclusive leader, attempting to create a politics of cross-ethnic and multilinguistic consensus. His country, which should be an economic success story, would surely profit if he did.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands at a similar crossroads. His Bharatiya Janata Party is a classic postcolonial entity, born of Hindu nationalist politics. He has promised to reform and modernize India's economy – but to make that work, he needs to become postpostcolonial and govern Sikhs and Muslims as well as Hindus. He has so far failed to speak out strongly against the Hindu-extremist elements in his party, and it's costing India – but it's not too late for him to change.

The Islamic extremism of al-Qaeda and Islamic State is the quintessence of classic postcolonial politics – and autocrats in Egypt and Syria and Bahrain, and their supporters, justify their own form of impoverishing postcolonialism in reaction.

In Sri Lanka and India we see the seeds of a new possibility, of a world that is neither colonial nor postcolonial, of a regime that governs not in reaction to the past but in preparation for the future. If only the new leaders have the sense to seize it.