India’s Policy Dilemma in Sri Lanka – Caught between Rock and Hard Place | Security Risks Asia Made with Humane Club

India’s Policy Dilemma in Sri Lanka – Caught between Rock and Hard Place

Published Oct 30, 2018
Updated Jun 22, 2020

Supporting constitutional propriety, a deeply divided polity with fears of  a pro China tilt and appeasing domestic lobbies in Tamil Nadu and Delhi has created complex policy challenges for India given current political developments in Colombo over the past few days.

President Maithripala Sirisena who heads the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and also the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) decided to leave the National Government formed with the United National Party (UNP) on 26 October a Friday importantly when the Courts are closed for the weekend thus an immediate legal challenge to the decision was not possible.

Even more surprising to many was the fact that the President appointed former President and Kurunegala district parliamentarian Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister after removing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe whose position had become untenable given the collapse of the coalition which had tasted success in the elections on 8th January 2015. Sri Lanka has an executive presidency with the prime minister nominated who is also the leader in the parliament.

The move by President Maithripala Sirisena remains controversial given the interpretations of the Constitution where he does not have the powers to dismiss a Prime Minister.

According to the Article 42 (4) of Sri Lanka Constitution the President “shall appoint as Prime Minister the Member of Parliament, who, in the President’s opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament.”

With 106 seats, Ranil Wickremesinghe led UNP continues to hold a majority in the parliament whereas the UPFA, including supporters of Mr. Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) have only 100 seats.

In case a no confidence motion is called in the parliament and voting goes as per present strength than there is likely to be an embarrassment for the President.

India supported the national unity government in 2015 as the same was based on popular mandate of the people of Sri Lanka though then President Mahinda Rajapaksa blamed and continues to do so even now Indian agency RAW for his electoral defeat.

None the less the ideological and legacy differences between the SLFP and the UNP required highly mature handling as the country was facing complex challenges on a number of fronts – reconciliation with the Tamils in the North, implementation of the UN Human Rights Council strictures for investigations of alleged war crimes in the decades long insurgency and civil war in the North, rising Sinhala chauvinism in the South, weak economy and a mounting Chinese debt.

A sulking Mahinda Rajapaksa the strongman who had led to the defeat of the LTTE was lurking in the background while the state of the economy and thrashing of the SLFP and UNP in the local elections [24 municipal councils, 41 urban councils and 275 divisional councils) in the country] held in February 2018 widened differences.

There were massive ego clashes between the President and the Prime Minister who were as per media reports hardly on talking terms.

The tipping point came with leak of a cabinet meeting in which the President alleged that Indian agency RAW was planning to eliminate him though this was vehemently denied by Mr Sirisena in a phone conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This incident was immediately followed by visit of deposed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to India which may have raised concerns in the President of a political coup by the Prime Minister with Indian assistance.

To sustain President Sirsena’s decision the newly appointed Prime Minister Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa is required to prove his majority in the parliament.

 President Maithripala Sirisena has dissolved the cabinet of ministers and suspended the parliament thus Mr Ranil will not be able to prove his majority.

A new Cabinet of Ministers was sworn in on 29 October before President Maithripala Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo.

Sri Lanka’s former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sensing there was a disquiet in the public on the political twist and turns which was constitutionally controversial continued to stay in the official residence the Temple Trees in Colombo and held a press conference on 29 October appealing for unity. He also quoted the Constitution and said, “According to article 42(4) of the Constitution the Member of the Parliament who commands the confidence of the house should be appointed as the Prime Minister. Accordingly, I wish to express my regret to President Maithripala Sirisena declaring that he nominated the Prime Minister who has no command of the majority of the House. He is talking of assassination plots to cover up his misdeed. He tells stories even a kid would not believe”.

In the interim The United Kingdom also joined the United State, European Union and other countries to mount pressure on Sri Lankan President to reconvene the parliament immediately to resolve the crisis before it turns violent and plunge the country into an economic abyss.

China after initially welcoming its favourite Mahinda Rajapaksa said the constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka is a domestic matter and expressed hope that Sri Lanka can resolve the same through dialogue.

India has given a muted response and the Minister of External Affairs Spokesperson in response to queries regarding recent developments in Sri Lanka said on October 28, 2018, “India is closely following the recent political developments in Sri Lanka. As a democracy and a close friendly neighbour, we hope that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected. We will continue to extend our developmental assistance to the friendly people of Sri Lanka.”

Media reports indicate that some powerful backers in India of the new Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have reached out to him given his legacy of heavy China tilt in the expectations that in case he succeeds to cling to power, then India’s interests will be protected.

At the same time India cannot afford to abandon Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe who appears to be on the right side of the constitution as well as is protecting Indian interests by balancing with China against Rajapaksa’s tenure when he seemed to have been unmindful of New Delhi’s concerns.

On the other hand if the trend in the local elections shows, Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP may not be able to regain majority in the Parliament if the results of the local elections are a gauge of the mood of the people going on to the next polls due in 2020. But that may seem uncertain.

Sensing the same, the wily Mr Rajapaksa has called for early elections.

Sri Lanka’s Speaker of the parliament Karu Jayasuriya has a heavy responsibility.

The Chargé d’Affiares of the United States Embassy in Colombo, Robert Hilton and Political Head of the Embassy Anthony Renzulli, met Sri Lanka’s Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on 20 October and stated as per Colombo Page, “Sri Lanka would immediately find a solution to the uncertainty through parliamentary democracy”.

Quite clearly India has also pitched for a constitutionally viable solution but is wary of the outcome of the present impasse in case it leads to pro China forces coming to power in the country thereby reducing the leverages created so far.

There is also pressure on the domestic front with parties in Tamil Nadu warning the central government not to have truck with Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa who is seen as harsh on the Tamils.

All in all New Delhi finds itself in a fix so to say and hopes that the situation resolves in due course to its advantage without having to be seen to take sides.