Dissolution of Sri Lankan Parliament extends political uncertainty in Colombo, but it has likely simplified things for New Delhi

The developments in Sri Lanka are worrisome and push the island nation further into political instability. However, President Maithripala Sirisena’s move to dissolve parliament and call for snap elections on 5 January—almost two years ahead of schedule—might in a strange way suit India’s long-term strategic interests. There’s nothing like elections to clear up a constitutional crisis. Given the bad script unfolding in Colombo, an election might help India avoid choosing between two difficult options and solve its policy dilemma.

File image of Sri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena. Reuters

File image of Sri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena. Reuters

This is not to say that questions around the legality of Sirisena’s decision are invalid. The Sri Lankan president seems to have breached provisions in the 19th amendment of the Constitution that took away presidential powers of dissolving parliament within four-and-a-half years of its convening. A president may do so only if the decision is backed by two-thirds of its members. This fail-safe was inserted into the Sri Lankan Constitution to safeguard its nascent democracy from being manipulated by authoritarian rulers such as Mahinda Rajapaksa who removed the mandatory two-term limit for presidents during his tenure. Rajapaksa, a popular yet controversial figure, is once again on the ascendancy, backed ironically by Sirisena—his one-time rival—who proved to be no less capable in misusing the powers of his office.

The Sirisena camp claims that the president invoked Article 33(2) c of the Constitution, which gives him the authority to prorogue and dissolve parliament, but he is on weak legal ground and his decision will likely be challenged by Renil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) and other civil society groups in the Supreme Court. According to The Hindu, UNP will also move an impeachment motion against the president.

Wickremesinghe’s finance minister Mangala Samaraweera called dissolution of parliament an “illegal” and a “desperate move” by a “desperate president” and urged all Opposition parties “who cherish democracy, decency and rule of law” to “rally around and defeat the emerging tyranny.” His words were mirrored by Tilvin Silva of the leftist People's Liberation Front (JVP), suggesting a consolidation of Opposition bloc.

Rival consolidation is the primary motivation behind Sirisena’s issuance of an extraordinary gazette on Friday to dissolve the House from midnight and avoid a parliamentary resolution of the crisis. With sacked prime minister Wickeremesinghe and his camp holding on to the numerical advantage in a 225-seat Assembly despite strong-arm tactics and bribery attempts to lure away lawmakers, Sirisena’s prime ministerial pick just didn’t have the numbers to prove his majority.

This was, in fact, admitted by the new government. Keheliya Rambukwella, a spokesperson of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance, on Friday said the Rajapaksa government was eight shy of the 113-mark needed for simple majority. The decision to dissolve parliament and call for snap polls came soon after. Rajapaksa will now serve as the caretaker prime minister till the new parliament convenes on 17 January, unless the electoral process is successfully challenged in Supreme Court. The development has invited international opprobrium. The US, UK, Australia, United Nations and the European Union have all expressed their concerns with the US stressing on respecting “democratic institutions and processes” “to ensure stability and prosperity” of Lankan people.

 

Australia’s foreign minister was quoted by AFP as saying that Sirisena’s action “undermines Sri Lanka’s long democratic tradition and poses a risk to its stability and prosperity”. Importantly, India has so far chosen not to react to the dissolving of Lankan parliament. It released only one statement since the crisis began unfolding weeks ago. India’s silence, though, must not be construed as inaction. It has been working behind the scenes ever since Sirisena fired prime minister Wickremesinghe on 26 October and triggered a constitutional crisis.

India’s concern lies in a policy dilemma that has arisen due to the unique circumstances of having to deal with two claimants to the Lankan prime minister’s chair. Rajapaksa, the controversial former president whose proximity to the Chinese has caused a rift between New Delhi and Colombo and plunged his country into a debt-trap, has mass backing and presents the new axis of power. His party SLPP (a faction of Sirisena’s SLFP) returned with good results in recent local elections. Rajapaksa is touted to be the front-runner in upcoming general elections.

On the other side is Wickremesinghe. The sacked prime minister—who still holds the numerical advantage in 225-seat Assembly—is largely seen as a pro-India figure who has been trying to get Indian participation in a host of Sri Lankan infrastructure and connectivity projects.

India’s role as a balancer in the power equation of Indo-Pacific is incumbent on taking decisions that go towards upholding the rules-based order and strengthening democracy and democratic institutions in South Asia. Yet this is not an absolutist position. Well may the US focus on upholding democratic institutions and processes in its reaction to Lanka’s constitutional crisis, as a key player in South Asia, India might be getting into a geopolitical blind spot if it refuses to engage with the Rajapaksa-Sirisena front and risk landing on the wrong side of public opinion in the neighbourhood.

This might appear to be the more pragmatic option to counter China’s influence (the only nation to have recognized the Rajapaksa government) and yet it may affect India’s long-term strategic interests. The sidelining of Wickremesinghe, who has clearly lost popularity and yet has legitimate claims over the prime minister’s chair, risks undermining India’s own goal of upholding democratic institutions and processes in south Asia.

As Brookings India fellow Constantino Xavier wrote in Hindustan Times, “In the short term, New Delhi is tempted to close its eyes to the extra-constitutional moves that allowed President Sirisena to appoint Rajapaksa as prime minister. In the long run, however, New Delhi also realises that such blind engagement will legitimise this weekend’s ‘soft coup’, weaken Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions, and bolster China’s divide and rule tactics to convert its economic leverage into political and security influence across the Indian Ocean region.”

India has, so far, been trying to follow the middle path. In its sole official statement—where it professed to “closely following the recent political developments in Sri Lanka. As a democracy and a close friendly neighbour, we hope that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected. We will continue to extend our developmental assistance to the friendly people of Sri Lanka”—there was an obvious stress on “democratic values” and “constitutional process”. India, a democracy, was trying to brand itself differently vis-à-vis an authoritarian China. The effort to reinforce the nature of India’s ties with Sri Lanka was also to be noted.

What the electoral transfer of power does is take away India’s imperative of having to choose between two sides and presents a more straightforward script. If Wickremesinghe comes out as winner, the task for India is simpler. Even if he loses to Rajapaksa, India will put in a quiet diplomatic effort to develop a working relationship. It has reasons to believe that Rajapaksa, too, is keen on a reset.

To sum up, while Sirisena’s move might extend the political uncertainty in Lanka, it has probably made things simpler for India.


Updated Date: Nov 10, 2018 21:01 PM

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