The impact of last week’s dramatic political developments in Sri Lanka, which took a dramatic turn on October 26 when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and swore in former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he had defeated in the 2015 election, are yet to be fully realised, both within and outside the island nation. Mr Wickremesinghe had objected on constitutional grounds as the 19th Amendment made in 2015 to Sri Lanka’s constitution, barring any future President from accruing power like Mr Rajapaksa during his 2005-15 term, forbids a Prime Minister’s sacking. Conforming now to the Westminster form of parliamentary democracy, a Prime Minister can only exit either by resigning or after losing majority or defeat on the House floor.
President Sirisena then adjourned Parliament till November 16, giving Mr Rajapaksa ample time to prove his majority. The principal powers with serious stakes in Sri Lanka are India, China and the United States. The US reacted sharply, saying it “continues to follow developments with concern”. It also demanded Parliament’s immediate reconvening after consultation between the President and the Speaker, the latter insisting that Mr Wickremesinghe is still the Prime Minister. India’s milder formulation sought a return to democratic values and the constitutional process, but avoided any outright condemnation. China, on the other hand, showed great alacrity as President Xi Jinping felicitated Mr Rajapaksa, thus granting legitimacy to a constitutional coup.
The issues that arise are whether India saw it coming, how it impacts Sri Lanka-India relations and what India must do to retain its influence in Colombo. President Sirisena was elected in 2015 promising to bring to justice defence personnel who had committed war crimes and possible genocide against the Tamils in the civil war that had ended in 2009. He also promised to locate the Rajapaksa clan’s illicit wealth and prosecute the guilty.
Mr Sirisena’s rethink appears to have begun when Mr Rajapaksa swept the local elections in February. Furthermore, the economy has been slowing down due to high oil prices, to which the island nation is particularly vulnerable. The GDP, growing at 5.0 per cent in 2015, decelerated to 4.5 per cent next year and then to 3.1 per cent in 2017. It has picked up somewhat, but Mr Sirisena needed a scapegoat and turned his own Prime Minister into one, even though the Sri Lankan debt crisis, with payments of interest and principal of $4.28 billion in 2019, is due to Mr Rajapaksa’s tango with China.
The danger signals were visible for some time. New Delhi, perhaps reading them, ensured that all three dramatis personae visited India this year. President Sirisena arrived to attend the International Solar Alliance meeting in March and was followed by Mr Rajapaksa in mid-September, ostensibly for a private function of member of Parliament Subramanian Swamy. Mr Rajapaksa thus cunningly signalled home that he was no longer persona non grata in New Delhi. Whether India realised that he had an immediate gameplan, in which President Sirisena was complicit, seems highly unlikely.
The danger to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s position emerged two days before his three-day India visit on October 17. Suddenly President Sirisena alleged a RAW conspiracy to assassinate him. The bizarre charge, although swiftly retracted, left New Delhi astounded. It, however, indicated political turbulence in Colombo. When Mr Wickremesinghe returned to Colombo on October 20, his political assassination five days later was final. In New Delhi, he had reviewed stalled Indian projects for which a memorandum of understanding had been signed a year earlier during his last visit. Sri Lanka had not yet handed over to India, as earlier agreed, the management of airports near Jaffna and Hambantota port. Apparently serious differences between him and the President were the cause. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told him that India valued relations with Sri Lanka and that is why he announced a Rs 500-crore grant for rehabilitation and reconstruction in the aftermath of the civil war in 2009. India had also agreed to make 50,000 homes for internally displaced persons.
Mr Rajapaksa’s reincarnation as Prime Minister, like Russian President Vladimir Putin alternating between the top two posts to dodge a restriction on consecutive terms, has caused tremors in Tamil Nadu. DMK leader M.K. Stalin and the ruling AIADMK voiced concern as Mr Rajapaksa is a known Sinhala nationalist who thinks a “homegrown” solution and not as earlier agreed devolution of power is needed for settling the Tamil issue. Fringe Tamil parties are even seeking Indian intervention. His return to power forecloses the possibility of bringing alleged war criminals to justice.
It is unlikely that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa partnership will last beyond the 2019 presidential election. Mr Rajapaksa would like a captive President to keep the seat warm till he amends the constitution to allow him another presidential term. The China-Pakistan combine will fully support him. In the 2015 presidential election, China allegedly funnelled funds to Mr Rajapaksa through its port development budget. More suitcases with money may be en route to facilitate defections now. Mr Wickremesinghe may yet emerge victorious due to public sympathy in the next election or, less probably, retain his parliamentarians now.
Can India and the United States step up to counter the challenge to Sri Lankan democracy? India missed the bus in the Maldives, although gradual pressure has brought that country back on the track. Similarly, leading from behind may or may not work in Sri Lanka, as China simply cannot be countered by replicating the Chinese strategy consisting of unquestioning financing of mega-projects that suit China’s Belt and Road Initiative vision more than the local economies. The Indian Tamil parties, however, need to remain calm as fist-pumping would only strengthen Mr Rajapaksa. The counter has to be a mix of carrot and stick. The US under President Donald Trump will only lead from behind. India should get Japan on board for a development push, combined with subtle support to pro-India elements. After all, as Mr Rajapaksa told Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, he had turned to China only when India rejected the projects. Rajapaksa 2.0 may yet surprise India by rebalancing his old China tilt.