India and Sri Lanka power struggle

Author: 
Barun Das Gupta

The political storm that was brewing in Sri Lanka for quite some months under an apparently tranquil surface has now broken out in full force. In a quick succession of events, President Maithripala Sirisena has dismissed his prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place and “prorogued” parliament till November 16.
On his part, Wickremesinghe claims he has the majority in parliament, his dismissal is illegal and unconstitutional, he is still the prime minister and will not vacate Temple Trees – the official residence of the PM. The suspension of parliament, however, effectively prevents Wickremesinghe to prove his majority on the floor of the House till it reconvenes on November 18.
One man who is not amused by the turn of events and the antics of president Sirisena is the eaker of Sri Lankan parliament, Karu Jayasuriya. He has warned Sirisena of the “serious and undesirable consequences” of the step he has taken and asked him to “protect the rights and privileges” of prime minister Wickremesinghe, implying that the Speaker still considers Wickremesinghe to be the PM.
Though the rumour was forthwith scotched officially by Colombo and Sirisena put through a personal call to Prime Minister Modi denying it and attributing it to forces that wanted to sour India-Sri Lanka relationship, the matter did not end there. An opposition MP, Namal Rajapaksa, demanded that Sirisena reveal the names of the two cabinet ministers who were allegedly on the payroll of the RAW. To make matters worse, Mahinda Amaraweerea, a minister in Sirisena’s cabinet, also said that there were two RAW agents in the cabinet.
In the midst of all this rumour-mongering and making insinuations against India, nobody in Colombo cared to explain two things. First, why should India, which considered Sirisena a dependable friend, should seek to harm him? Secondly, what was the source which originally floated and circulated the rumour about an Indian plot against Sirisena?
It was Sirisena, who had defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential poll in January, 2015. Sirisena was health Minister in the Rajapaksa cabinet. Just before the poll, he parted company with Rajapaksa and challenged him in the poll. As far as India was concerned, it was a welcome development as Rajapaksa was pursuing a pronouncedly pro-China policy, to the extent of allowing Chinese submarines to be docked in Sri Lanka ports.
By a strange turn of events, Sirisena has now appointed as prime minister the man he ousted three years ago – Mahinda Rajapaksa – who ruled the island nation for nine long years. That Rajapaksa was regaining lost ground became evident during the local body elections held in February this year. His new party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna polled 40.47 per cent of the votes and won 3,436 seats against Ranil Wickremesisnghe’s United National Front polling 29.42 per cent votes and bagging 2,433 seats. President Sirisena’s party, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, came a poor third, polling just 12.1 per cent votes and winning 1,048 seats.
The first signs of a rift between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe became visible early in March this year when Sirisena divested him of the responsibilities of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and the policy-making National Operations Room, which is responsible for economic policy-making. What surprised many at that time was Sirisena calling his own government more corrupt than the previous one, which he and Wickremesinghe had ousted together. Sirisena was reportedly having serious differences with Wickremesinghe on the free market economy the latter was encouraging. Sirisena openly criticized Wickremesinghe for bungling the management of national economy.
Though Sirisena wanted to pursue a foreign policy of not antagonising either India or China, he found that China’s grip over Sri Lanka’s economy was too strong to be shaken off. Sri Lanka’s total debt to China has now touched the $13 billion mark. It is in no way possible for the tiny island country to pay back this debt of gargantuan proportion. The Sirisena government had to sell 80 per cent equity of the Hambantota port to the Chinese company that built it along with 15,000 acres of land around the port.
Then there is the Port City Colombo Project, which is being built by a Chinese company at a cost of $15 billion. It covers an area of some 270 hectares of land reclaimed from the sea and is scheduled to be completed by 2041. It is a big question how Sri Lanka is going to repay this debt.
In contrast, there is much soft-pedaling of projects being built by India, like the East Container Terminal at the Colombo port. Initially it was decided that India will build the terminal but later the Sri Lanka government developed cold feet and Sirisena said that the project would be developed by Sri Lanka itself.
The current political turmoil has made the fate of the coalition government in Sri Lanka uncertain. Still more uncertain is whether Sirisena will be able to come back to power after the next parliamentary elections to be held in 2020. Sirisena tried unsuccessfully to extend the term of the present parliament by one more year.
New Delhi has prudently refrained from commenting on the current developments in Sri Lanka because the denouement of the power struggle is still uncertain. New Delhi is watching the still fluid situation closely. It is anybody’s guess who will emerge triumphant out of this battle and whether the new Sirisena-Rajapaksa camaraderie will prove durable enough to give Sri Lanka a stable government. (IPA)

Wednesday, 14 November, 2018