The constitutional and political crisis unfolding in Sri Lanka may not augur well for India. Political instability, constitutional and legal wrangling coupled with the return of former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister of the island state will stymie India’s efforts to pursue its strategic and economic interests in the South Asian region as there is a fear that the new leadership could lean more towards China.
However, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party, who was removed by president Maithripala Sirisena in dramatic circumstances on October 26, staged a comeback of sorts on Sunday when the country’s speaker Karu Jayasuriya recognised Wickremesinghe as the prime minister saying he was the one who had obtained a mandate to secure democracy and good governance. The speaker also questioned the decision to suspend the Sri Lankan Parliament till November 16 – that was after the UNP leader refused to vacate the official prime ministerial residence and called for an emergency session to prove his majority – saying it would have serious and undesirable consequences on the country even as he noted that the prorogation of Parliament ought to have been done in consultation with the speaker. For the record, Wickremesinghe holds a slight edge in numbers over Rajapaksa in Parliament even though neither holds a majority in the House.
Any situation that could contribute to civil unrest in the country could harm Indian interests. And this is the danger that comes from Sirisena’s decision. Given that Wickremesinghe’s UNP continues to hold the edge in the country’s Parliament, the midnight coup of sorts has the prospect of violence. There are now signs that things could be gradually spinning out of control. On Sunday, bodyguards of cricketer-turned-politician Arjuna Ranatunga, a loyalist of Wickramasinghe, fired at Rajapaksa’s supporters during a confrontation at a public function, leaving one person dead.
Under the 19th amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, Wickremesinghe’s removal could be challenged in court as it was ordered without a floor test. That apart, Rajapaksa’s return to power as prime minister may not be in sync with the people’s mandate. Wickremesinghe’s UNP and Sirisena’s UPFA had together got into power saddle after people rejected Rajapaksa’s internal security and economic liberalisation policies that mostly favoured China. After sacking the UNP leader Sirisena said in an address to justify his actions, “There was a huge gap in policy agreement between the two of us. I believe the cultural and policy differences between us contributed to this political and economic crisis.” The impending chaos signals tougher times for the large Tamil population that suffered when Rajapaksa was president. Rajapaksa’s core Sinhalese constituency had welcomed the repressive measures against Tamils.
Given Rajapaksa’s open dalliance with the Chinese, India’s task is cut out. New Delhi will have to tread cautiously after having invested a lot of goodwill, resources and linkages in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Securing the country’s interests in the peninsular region of the Indian Ocean should be a concern. Chinese investments totalling to over $15 billion in Sri Lanka and evolution of closer military ties between the two countries are a sore point with New Delhi. What needs to be seen is if India offers tacit support to Wickremesinghe to retain power in Sri Lanka. There are several options before India on how to deal with the sudden developments in the island nation but none of them will be easy. India has little option but to wait for matters to settle down before making any move. India has for now only said it is closely following the developments but it would be hoping for the problems to blow over sooner rather than later.