India has so far maintained a discreet silence on the unfolding political crisis in Sri Lanka triggered by President Mathipala Sirisena’s dismissal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremansinghe and appointment of former President Mahinda Rajapakshe in his place and suspension of Parliament till November 16.
Unlike the United States and Britain which commented on the Lankan drama urging all the parties in the island nation to adhere to the Constitution, India is yet to issue any formal statement. India has instead chosen to adopt a wait-and-watch approach and is treading cautiously in dealing with such political crises in its immediate South Asian neighbourhood.
What complicates the matters in Sri Lanka is that the drama in Sri Lanka is still evolving and there is a possibility that Wickeremasinghe may move to the Supreme Court against his sacking as under an amendment brought in to the Constitution in 2015, the Prime Minister cannot be removed by the President if he commands majority in parliament. So, it needs to be seen if the issue is taken to the apex court and which way its verdict goes. Under the circumstances, India obviously would not rush to take sides in Sri Lankan politics and would hedge its bets, analysts said.
What makes New Delhi doubly cautious when it comes to dealing with Sri Lanka is that it is a strategic island in the Indian Ocean where China is becoming increasingly assertive both economically and militarily.
When Rajapakshe was President, he had a clear pro-China tilt in his foreign policy and leased the key port of Hambantota to China for its construction. There were other infrastructure projects, including the Colombo port, which his government had given to Chinese companies. It was during Rajapakse’s stint as President that Sri Lanka signed on to China’s Belt and Road initiative, raising concerns in India.
When he lost the elections in 2015, Rajapakse had blamed India’s external security agency for his defeat. Very recently, media reports in Sri Lanka quoted Sirisena as having said at a cabinet meeting that an Indian security agency was involved in a plan to kill him. However, he later went public denying this and took the unusual step of making a phone call to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this month to make the denial.
Certainly, India does not want to be dragged into the internal politics of Sri Lanka just because it suits the political interests of one party or the other there. Another reason for the Modi government’s circumspection is that political developments in Lanka tend to roil the politics in the southern state of Tamil Nadu since ages as exemplified by the decades of Tamil guerrilla insurgency led by LTTE in the island nation.
Already, parties across the political spectrum in Tamil Nadu have voiced concern over the return of Rajapakse as Prime Minister as he was considered by them as “anti-Tamil” during his tenure as President and the battle against the LTTE. Parties like ruling AIADMK and opposition DMK in Tamil Nadu have accused Rajapakse of having massacred “innocent Tamils” during the fight against the LTTE and thereby want him to face trial as a “war criminal.” Both the parties want India to intervene into Sri Lanka but New Delhi is not hurrying into a conclusive stand, as of now.
A measure of India’s importance in Sri Lanka as the sole South Asian power can be the fact that the three prominent players — Sirisena, Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe—had been in touch with New Delhi.
Sirisena met Modi on the sidelines of the last BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu in August and this was followed by Rajapakse’s meeting with the Indian PM in New Delhi in September. Interestingly, Modi had during his two visits to Sri Lanka after becoming the PM met Rajakpakse despite the latter’s image as a pro-China leader. In October, Wickremesinghe met Modi in Delhi, just a few days after Sirisena called up Modi.
Of late, Sirisena, Rajapakse and Wickremasinghe have in their own sayings tried to warm up relations with India. The latest instance is that a few days before his visit to Delhi in October, Wickremasinghe reversed a decision to award a $300m housing deal to China in favour of a joint venture with an Indian company.
Pallab Bhattacharya is New Delhi Correspondent of Bangladesh Post