South Asian countries are often accused of having multiple power centres, but the current situation in Sri Lanka takes that situation to an extreme. As of Sunday evening, the island nation has two prime ministers. Late-night developments on Friday saw the country thrown into a constitutional crisis, as President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister instead. Wickremesinghe says this move is unconstitutional. It took India nearly two whole days to come up with a boilerplate response saying it is “closely following” the situation. With the situation still looking unsettled, New Delhi will have a hard time deciding how to proceed.
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe came to power in 2015, forming a national unity government that India hoped would reverse the autocratic and China-leaning policies of Rajapaksa, who had presided over the violent massacres of Tamil people towards the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009. At the time, the national unity government was seen as quite the victory for New Delhi, with Rajapaksa openly blaming the Research & Analysis Wing, India’s foreign intelligence agency, for engineering his defeat.
Over the past year, however, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have been growing apart, even as Rajapaksa used the time to build up public support against the unity government. Local body elections held in February saw Rajapaksa’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, register a thumping victory over Wickremesinghe’s United National Front and Sirisena’s United People’s Freedom Alliance. The two coalition leaders blamed each other for the loss and Sirisena even insisted that Wickremesinghe should resign, even though his party had fared much worse. But the prime minister survived a no-confidence motion in Parliament soon after, giving him some breathing room despite the drift in the coalition.
On Friday night, after a few weeks of the infighting getting even louder, Sirisena suddenly announced that his United People’s Freedom Alliance was withdrawing from the coalition government, and that he was appointing Rajapaksa prime minister instead. Supporters of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna quickly attempted to move into all state institutions, and even pressured local news organisations not to take any news about Wickremesinghe.
According to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, the president has the power to appoint as prime minister the person who is most likely to command majority in Parliament. As it stands, it is unclear whether Rajapaksa can do so, which probably explains why Sirisena also “prorogued” – effectively suspending – Parliament until November 16, presumably hoping Rajapaksa’s party would be able to get the numbers by then. Wickremesinghe has insisted that all the moves were unconstitutional and insists he is not going anywhere. On Sunday, the Speaker of Parliament said he still recognises Wickremesinghe as the prime minister. Regardless, Rajapaksa plans to announce his Cabinet of ministers and begin work on Monday.
India in a bind
The European Union and the United States quickly moved to put out statements expressing concern about the developments. China congratulated Rajapaksa soon after his swearing in. But it took New Delhi until Sunday to issue a statement, in which it said that it was “closely following the recent political developments in Sri Lanka”, and that it hopes “that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected”.
This is a far cry from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s moves in the neighbourhood early on in his tenure, when the government was quick to respond to political developments in Nepal, Maldives and elsewhere, often to see initial gains disappear quickly. The difficulty for India is exacerbated by the very real possibility that Rajapaksa will be able to pull off this “constitutional coup” and return to power, with elections on the island due next year.
Rajapaksa does not get along well with New Delhi and his return to power will surely mean that China’s influence in Sri Lanka will grow again, as Beijing’s hurry to congratulate the “new” prime minister makes evident. It is true that of late Rajapaksa has tried to soften his stance towards India, even visiting the country to meet Bharatiya Janata Party MP Subramanian Swamy at an event, and telling journalists that he was ready to move on. But there is no forgetting that he did blame the Research & Analysis Wing for his electoral loss three years ago, and New Delhi did not do much to dispel the notion.
It does not help that the current situation may have also been precipitated by Sirisena claiming, at a Cabinet meeting in mid-October, that the Research & Analysis Wing was planning to assassinate both him and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother and a former defence minister. When news of this leaked, both sides of the now-dead coalition – Sirisena and Wickremesinghe – tried to patch things up with New Delhi, insisting that India had not been accused of such a thing. But those meetings also made it clear to the Ministry of External Affairs that things were not well with the coalition, as did Wickremesinghe’s press officers saying that Modi had expressed unhappiness with the state of Indo-Sri Lanka projects, even though the Indian statement said no such thing.
Sri Lanka’s democracy is in some ways still fragile, with the civil war having ended less than a decade ago. Memories of the state’s excesses under Rajapaksa’s rule are still fresh, especially for the Tamil population in the North and East of the country. But the infighting and incompetence under the national unity government, particularly with rising fuel prices and a faltering economy, have made the current leaders unpopular. In some ways it is surprising to see Rajapaksa make his move now, since many indications suggested he would comfortably return to power in elections next year. Others have suggested that Wickremesinghe might have hoped to use corruption investigations to stymie any Rajapaksa effort to return to power.
Regardless, if the Sirisena-Rajapaksa gambit is successful, it seems quite likely that New Delhi will be faced with a genuine strategic challenge, one that it struggled to combat in the years after the civil war, when China moved into Sri Lanka in a big way.
Modi came to power promising that his government would carry out a Neighbourhood First policy, seeking to improve relations with other South Asian nations first. But the past four years have seen ties with Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan seriously tested, with India both trying to be involved while also attempting to avoid being accused of undue interference. The less said of the permanent bugbear that is Pakistan, the better. With Sri Lanka also drifting back into Chinese influence, through dubious constitutional contortions no less, New Delhi has its work cut out to keep a handle on the neighbourhood.