The first red flag that Sri Lanka was spiralling into a constitutional meltdown, a free fall, came when India’s friend-turned-smiling-foe, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, arrived in New Delhi in September, followed closely by a grim Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, signalling that a shift in the balance of power was underway in the island nation.
The events that followed thereafter set off alarm bells in New Delhi as the frosty acrimony between Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe spilled into the open. But Delhi could do little as the India-leaning United National Party leader was sacked as Prime Minister, and Mr Rajapaksa was quickly sworn in. Parliament was suspended, and as of Friday, now stands dissolved, five days before a crucial floor test that would have embarrassingly shown up the Sri Lanka Freedom Party as short of a majority in the 225-seat House, with none of Mr Sirisena’s and Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s attempts to woo Opposition members from Rauf Hakeem’s Sri Lanka Muslim Congress or for that matter, the Tamil National Alliance, succeeding thus far.
On Sunday, Mahinda Rajapaksa made his final move, executing “a counter coup within a coup”, by pulling 44 loyalists out of the SLFP, the mother party, part-founded by his father and the Bandaranaikes, as he, along with a rising star, his son Namal, joined the Sri Lanka Podujana Party, launched by his brother Basil. Mr Sirisena’s hollowed-out SLFP, left with a rump that supports former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who had forged the unlikely alliance with the UNP to cut Mr Rajapaksa to size in 2015, has now been reduced to complete irrelevance. Mr Sirisena, who set out to sack a PM who wasn’t to his liking, got outmanouevred by the canny Rajapaksas.
With speculation that Mr Sirisena had been deliberately cut out of the picture over his insistence that he wanted to stay on as President, this was part of the Rajapaksa grand plan to take back the leadership of the political formation he had been robbed of, and adroitly sidestep any court ruling that may or may not go against him, given that four of the judges were appointed by him in the first place.
The brunt of Mr Wickremesinghe’s court appeal hinges on whether Mr Sirisena was within his constitutional rights to dissolve Parliament and call for elections in January 2019, a full year before these were due. The bigger danger to the UNP, if Sri Lanka does head for parliamentary elections, is the return, not just of the powerful Rajapaksa clan itself, but Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reinstatement as President; if, he has the numbers to revoke the two-term presidency limit. Local body polls are no real indicator on whether he can pull in the numbers nationwide.
Long-term Sri Lanka watchers say Mr Rajapaksa’s India visit was to prepare Delhi for just such an eventuality. And yet Delhi will see a token, if long-overdue, visit to the Maldives by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mark former President Mohammed Nasheed’s protégé, Ibrahim Solih’s ascension to the presidency, but no special envoy sent to Colombo to reopen communication lines to a nation whose internal politics have a critical impact on Delhi as well as its southern underbelly, the state of Tamil Nadu.
New Delhi, admittedly, is in an extremely awkward position. It cannot be seen as openly meddling in the polity of the island nation, although it has repeatedly done so in the past, albeit covertly. Sri Lanka, and by extension, the Maldives, form the cornerstone of Delhi’s Indian Ocean neighbourhood policy in the face of a rising China, which only this week added the Myanmar port of Kyaukpu to its “string of pearls”, an India chokehold that includes the Sri Lankan ports of Hambantota (in Mr Rajapaksa’s hometown), Galle Face in Colombo, and the Pakistan port of Gwadar in Balochistan.
Yet, our blinkered conduct of national security in recent times has been marked by a clear distraction of the internal — the CBI and the Reserve Bank — and a focus on Washington, AfPak and China, and a dialling back on Colombo even when it was all too obvious that the India-leaning Mr Wickremesinghe’s unnatural marriage of convenience with Mr Sirisena’s SLFP was rapidly fraying at the edges; the bad blood centering on Mr Wickremesinghe’s laidback governance not sitting well with Mr Sirisena. Did New Delhi not pick up on his signal to India that he wasn’t going to go quietly when he raised the issue of being targeted by India’s spy agency Research and Analysis Wing?
If that was an error in judgment, critics aver that the bigger blind spot is the required domain knowledge of the pulls and pressures that mark the complicated relationship between Sinhala nationalists, the Buddhist clergy, the stubbornly pro-India Tamil and Muslim political leadership and the liberal Western-educated Colombo elite that has seen India not react as proactively as it should have done. The language and the cadence that marks out Sri Lanka’s political fissures have always been easily understood by India, in the past.
Were we quick enough to pick up that Mr Wickremesinghe, whose track record in governance and turning the economy around this time fell short, unlike his previous stint? That his fractious relationship with son of the soil Sirisena was unraveling? His inability to stall Mr Rajapaksa’s return to the political centrestage when he swept local body polls should have been the next indicator that the man that India worked closely with, to wipe out the LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and then foolishly abandoned as he grew closer to China in the face of Indian foot-dragging on investment, was plotting a comeback.
Either way, as the West demands a return to democratic norms, India must now use this opportunity to ensure it reopens communication channels to the powerful Rajapaksa clan, particularly Gotabhaya and Basil, and second-generation UNP leaders like Sajith Premadasa, son of Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated by the Tamil Tigers, and the curiously newly-aggressive Tamil leader, the Colombo import to Jaffna, Wigneswaran, as the discredited powerbrokers of old play out their hand. Sitting on the sidelines of the Sri Lankan pond is no longer an option.