Chaos in Sri Lanka, China’s long shadow and rise of anti-democratic forces complicate India’s security challenge

In January 2018, Freedom House, the US-funded NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights, came out with a startling revelation. Democracy is in retreat around the world. Marking the 12th consecutive year in decline of global freedom, 71 countries have suffered net erosions in political rights and civil liberties in 2017. Only 35 have registering gains, it said in ‘Freedom in the World 2018’ report. The latest edition of its annual report said political rights and civil liberties have worsened to their lowest ebb in a decade.

File image of Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Reuters

File image of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Reuters

In this context, the developments in Sri Lanka add an extra layer of worry for democracies around the world. The worry is heightened for India. Considering the geostrategic location of the island nation—straddling key maritime routes through which more than 60,000 ships ply annually—its civilisation links and geographical proximity to India, Colombo remains vital to India’s economic and security interests.

Turmoil in Sri Lanka affects India’s nerve centres, and its descent into authoritarianism may hold threats to India’s strategic interests, not the least because the island nation has become the latest theatre for a geopolitical fight between India and China. In the Mahinda Rajapaksa decade, Colombo tilted so far towards Beijing that its repercussions are still being felt. China considers Sri Lanka a critical component of its multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative and has been working behind the scenes to extend its military and political influence.

Beijing has already made Colombo hand over a port and 15,000 acres of land around it on a 99-year-lease to a State-controlled firm and has pumped in billions of dollars as loans on opaque terms to push infrastructure-hungry Sri Lanka towards a debt trap, rendering Colombo vulnerable to equity and ownership for Chinese firms. Beijing has used this playbook elsewhere in Asia and even Africa to gain a strategic foothold.

As an article in The New York Times on how China got Sri Lanka to cough up the Hambantota Port points out, “The debt deal also intensified some of the harshest accusations about President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative: that the global investment and lending programme amounts to a debt trap for vulnerable countries around the world, fueling corruption and autocratic behavior in struggling democracies.”

It is precisely this worry that will keep Indian policymakers sweating till a measure of stability returns to Sri Lanka. It is natural for smaller countries to balance their interests with larger neighbors, sometimes playing one against the other to secure better deals. As an assertive China seeks to supplant India’s influence in New Delhi’s own regional sphere, the trouble for India lies in dealing with the speed and gamut of China’s strategic intrusion. As it remains encumbered with slow policy and decision-making and even slower execution, China is making swift inroads.

This challenge will become more complicated if the smaller nations in India’s sphere of influence reject democratic rule and descend into authoritarianism, which may align them further with China. This provides an uncomfortable backdrop to mess in Colombo where the parliament reconvened nearly three weeks after it was prorogued by President Maithripala Sirisena, and promptly sacked Rajapaksa, the ‘new’ prime minister handpicked by the president.

This deepens the crisis and adds to the instability. On Tuesday, in a landmark verdict, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court stayed (till 7 December) on Sirisena’s decision to order a snap general election on 5 January, and ordered the Election Commission to refrain from preparing for the polls. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister who was ‘sacked’ by the president on 26 October but had refused to vacate Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister, welcomed the verdict.

“Today we have witnessed a resounding victory for the people’s franchise,” Wickremesinghe said. “The powers of the president are limited and he must act according to the law. He is not above the law.”

The drama intensified on Wednesday when 122 MPs of Sri Lanka’s 225-member parliament handed over a motion to the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya saying they have no confidence in the new Cabinet headed by Rajapaksa.

Defeated by a voice vote, Rajapaksa now has to vacate his seat, but this does not mean an automatic reinstatement for Wickeremesinghe. Though the ‘ousted PM’ still holds the majority in parliament, Sirisena retains the power to pick the next PM, and he may just wait for the court to review the order in December, leaving Sri Lanka in a power vacuum.

While Wickremesinghe’s party UNP claims their chief is still the prime minister, Rajapaksa’s son Namal, a lawmaker in his father’s United People Freedom Alliance party, told The Associated Press they “don’t accept this verdict” and will continue as the government. As confusion reigns, China has seized the chance. Even as its ploy of being the only major international power to “recognise” the Rajapaksa government fell flat, allegations have surfaced that Beijing is funding its lackey Rajapaksa in buying legislators: a charge China denies. 

India has, so far, played a cautious hand in Sri Lanka, not willing to make a commitment till a clearer picture emerges. India’s concerns, however, lie in the way anti-democratic forces are gaining ground in its backyard.

As geostrategist Brahma Chellaney writes in Nikkei Asian Review, “Sri Lanka illustrates that free and fair elections, by themselves, do not guarantee genuine democratic empowerment at the grassroots level or adherence to constitutional rules by those in power. In fact, Sri Lanka is a reminder that democratic progress is reversible unless the rule of law is firmly established and the old, entrenched forces are held to account for their rapacious past.”

There is no clear way of tackling the problem except patient diplomacy and wise decision-making. India cannot afford to take its eye off the ball in Colombo.

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Updated Date: Nov 14, 2018 21:06:13 IST

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