Turmoil in Sri Lanka: Mahinda Rajapaksa's return poses challenges for India but it may not be a zero sum game

Nearly 24 hours have passed but India still maintains official silence over the dramatic developments in Sri Lanka.

Sreemoy Talukdar October 27, 2018 21:11:03 IST
Turmoil in Sri Lanka: Mahinda Rajapaksa's return poses challenges for India but it may not be a zero sum game

Nearly 24 hours have passed but India still maintains official silence over the dramatic developments in Sri Lanka, where a prime minister has been “sacked” by the president and a new one installed in his place. The US has declared that it is monitoring the situation and asked all parties to remain calm and follow the Constitution.

Mark Field, UK Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, has expressed his “concern” and asked everyone to respect the Constitution and “due political process”.

Yet India, which considers Sri Lanka an inalienable part of its sphere of influence and is keen to guard its turf from encroachments by other powers such as China, has been reluctant to react — except for one reaction from Subramanian Swamy. The BJP MP told ANI that he is “happy” at the turn of events because Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president and the designated prime minister who is seeking to replace incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe, “is a staunch nationalist. He’ll not sacrifice this sovereignty even one bit for any country/terrorist group. India would benefit from good relations with him.”

But Swamy is not known for his reticence and in any case, it is his personal opinion. From the looks of it, India seems to be wary about playing its cards and wants to wait out the volatility till a clearer picture emerges. The Washington Post quoted an official from India’s external affairs ministry as saying New Delhi “is aware of the developments and watching the situation closely.” India’s caution is understandable. The situation is complex, and New Delhi has been sucked into the vortex of Sri Lanka’s domestic politics without wishing to play any role in it.

There is a distinct fear in New Delhi that it has inadvertently become the proverbial straw that finally broke the camel’s back, and India’s cautious response is likely a desperate effort to stay out of the controversy.

The dramatic developments unfolded on Friday when President Maithripala Sirisena finally called time on the unstable coalition by quitting the so-called ‘Unity government’ and ousting Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The coalition was in ICU and its fall was inevitable. Yet the descent into volatility was caused by a few recent events where India plays an unintentional part.

Turmoil in Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksas return poses challenges for India but it may not be a zero sum game

File image of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Reuters

The first event involves Wickremesinghe’s recent meeting with Narendra Modi in New Delhi, after which the Sri Lankan prime minister's office released a curious statement, where Modi was quoted as “unhappy” and disappointed with the delays that various Indian projects are facing in Sri Lanka.

The release from Wickremesinghe’s office, written in Sinhala, stated: “Mr. Narendra Modi has expressed his concern over the implementation of Indo-Sri Lanka joint development projects in accordance with the MoU signed between India and Sri Lanka in 2017…Mr. Modi said he was not satisfied with the response he had received from the Sri Lankan government to his overtures.”

The statement released by India was nondescript. “Both the Prime Ministers discussed the entire gamut of bilateral relations and ways to further deepen the historically close and friendly relations between the two countries. The leaders exchanged views on regional and global issues. They also reviewed the progress in implementation of various decisions taken during high level exchanges in the recent past, including the visit of Sri Lankan Prime Minister in April and November 2017, Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka in May 2017 during the International Vesak Day Celebrations and the visit of Sri Lankan President for the International Solar Alliance Founding Conference in March 2018.”

According to a report in The Hindu, officials from India’s Ministry of External Affairs present at the meeting “said the delayed projects had indeed been the ‘main subject of discussion’, but characterised Modi’s reaction as ‘taking stock’ of progress on the projects rather than ‘disappointment'."

The public declaration seemed to be a thinly veiled attempt by Wickremesinghe to shift the blame for delayed projects on to Sirisena, with whom he ran into major differences over the East Container Terminal in Colombo port. Wickremesinghe was keen on the port to be run by an Indian company but “under Sirisena’s direction, the terms of deal with the bidders were changed to keep the Indians investors away.”

Amid these differences, the controversy over an alleged assassination plot complicated the situation further. Sirisena was quoted as saying in a recent report by The Hindu that Indian intelligence services had hatched a plot to kill the Sri Lankan president, keeping Modi in the dark.

Both Sirisena and the Indian government later denied the allegation and dismissed the report, and Sri Lankan police later held a news conference to declare that no evidence of such a conspiracy was found but Sirisena, while denying India’s role in the plot, nevertheless reportedly felt that Wickremesinghe government wasn’t giving the matter its due importance.

Recent media reports also indicated that President Sirisena was under “tremendous pressure” from a section of his Freedom Party members to pull out of the coalition with Wickremesinghe’s United National Party and appoint a “caretaker government” with Rajapaksa as the prime minister.

We see that while India was a factor in the deterioration of relationship between the coalition partners, the larger logic behind Sirisena’s action was a recognition of the altered ground situation. The economy, led by the Wickremesinghe government, is under-performing. Sri Lanka’s $87 billion economy had reported a sluggish growth of 3.3 percent last year from 4.4 percent in 2016. The 16-year low was blamed on “tight monetary and fiscal conditions, droughts and floods.” Meanwhile, former president Rajapaksa, whom Sirisena had defeated in the presidential elections in 2015, came back in reckoning with a thumping victory in recent local elections.

Sirisena’s actions in sacking his prime minister and giving the job to the former president, therefore, looks like an attempt to stave off popular discontent and mend the relationship with Rajapaksa, who is widely expected to win the presidential elections in 2020.

The problem, however, is that Sirisena’s move unilateral move has come under challenge from the incumbent prime minister. Wickremesinghe insists that he is still the prime minister and that Sirisena’s move is unconstitutional. He continues to occupy Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister, and in a letter to the president has demanded that Parliament be reconvened so that he can immediately prove his majority. Wickremesinghe has also vowed legal action and claimed that he can only be removed by the Parliament, which was due to meet on 5 November.

Wickremesinghe has reasons to be confident. The Rajapaksa-Sirisena combine has little less than 100 seats while Wickremesinghe’s UNP has 106, just seven short of majority. “As far as the prime ministership is concerned, the person who has the majority support in parliament has to be the prime minister, and I have that majority of support… When a motion of no confidence was moved (in the past), we defeated it, showing that the house has the confidence in me,” Wickremesinghe said in a news conference.

Reacting to his move, Sirisena has suspended the Parliament till 16 November in an apparent attempt to deny Wickremesinghe the chance to prove his majority on the floor of the House and also to help Rajapaksa buy some time. Sirisena would have noted that Tamil, Muslim parties and many lawmakers are still firmly behind Wickremesinghe.

This deepens the political crisis. However, under the Sri Lankan Constitution, the president has the power to remove the prime minister and it seems likely that the battle will move to the judicial arena. Sri Lankan courts have kowtowed before power earlier and it is possible that they may not be able to prevent Rajapaksa from returning to power.

Namal Rajapaksa, a lawmaker and the son of the former president, was quoted as saying in The New York Times that “we have more than 130 seats in Parliament, definitely.”

India therefore must proceed with the assumption that Wickremesinghe, with whom New Delhi had a good equation, may be ousted. This complicates the turf for New Delhi, which has been grappling with the swift changes in the Indo-Pacific strategic dynamic due to China’s aggressive courting of Indian neighbours. Rajapaksa, the strongman who served for 10 years as Sri Lanka’s president till 2015, had single-handedly pivoted the nation towards China.

He had engineered an economic run fueled by opaque Chinese investments and plunged Sri Lanka into a debt trap that led to, among other things, the island nation handing over the strategically located Hambantota port and nearly 15,000 acres of land around it to China on a 99-year lease. Though the lease was authored after Rajapaksa was voted out of office, the Sirisena government had little choice. The port gave China a toehold in a critical freight and military pathway.

Sirisena’s move to bring Rajapaksa back into the power game may have been rooted in political reasoning, but it may add more spice to the geopolitical power game between India and China.

Shailesh Kumar, Asia director at political risk firm Eurasia Group, was quoted as saying in a Business Standard report that Rajapaksa has many friends in China and handled most of the Chinese inflow and “this transition will ensure that China can once again prevail over Sri Lanka’s economy as they have a friend in the prime minister’s office — in contrast to Wickremesinghe.”

An investigative report in The New York Times relates how China pumped money into the Hambantota port despite adverse feasibility studies and how, little by little, it tightened the noose around Sri Lanka in a textbook case of debt-trap diplomacy. As Rajapaksa took on a mountain of Chinese debt under unspecified terms to build large infrastructure projects, the country’s economy sank under the debt burden. At recent estimates, roughly 80 percent of the country’s $14.8 billion goes towards Chinese debt servicing, the terms of which are turning progressively onerous and may end up undermining the island nation’s sovereignty.

While this happened at a rapid pace under Rajapaksa’s watch, Chinese firms pumped in large amounts to money towards financing the former president’s electoral campaign.

According to the newspaper, “During the 2015 Sri Lankan elections, large payments from the Chinese port construction fund flowed directly to campaign aides and activities for Mr. Rajapaksa, who had agreed to Chinese terms at every turn and was seen as an important ally in China’s efforts to tilt influence away from India in South Asia. The payments were confirmed by documents and cash checks detailed in a government investigation seen by The New York Times.”

China had also defended the Rajapaksa government from UN wrath due to alleged human rights violations during the civil war and had described the UNHRC resolution as a move to “impose pressure”.

India, therefore, would have its work cut out. China is reportedly also expanding its footprint into Sri Lanka’s Northers province and central highlands, where India enjoys huge influence due to the ethno-linguistic and cultural ties with the Tamil majority. China’s state-run China Railway Beijing Engineering Group has secured a $300 million contract to contrast 40,000 houses in Jaffna district in the Northern Province, while Beijing is also planning to invest Sri Lanka’s plantation industry, which, according to a report in The Diplomat, is “just a fraction of investment planned in this sector.”

The theatrics in Sri Lanka present a set of challenges for India, but it may be unwise to see the developments through a monochromatic prism. Rajapaksa, in recent times, has been trying to mend fences with Delhi. He had accused India of engineering his ouster in 2015 but later met Modi in 2017 when the Indian prime minister had been on a visit.

The former Sri Lankan president came to India in September this year to attend an event and met Modi again, signaling a thaw in relations.

While India navigates the choppy waters in its backyard, it may do well to remember that its security interests cannot be the sole motivating factor for its South Asian neighbours who have their political agency and will act in accordance with own interests. It is not a zero sum game.

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