India has a lot to worry about in its strategic backyard with Mahinda Rajapaksa making a comeback as Lankan PM
The political twist in Sri Lanka may seem like a sudden overnighter but the signs have taken some time coming. The growing strongman clout of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has surged ahead in relevance as his new outfit crested the popular verdict of the local elections, almost left no option for his one-time protégé, current President Maithripala Sirisena, but to pull out of the coalition Unity government, coopt his party and name him Prime Minister. With Sirisena joining hands once again with the leader he ousted in 2015, it shows that allegations of autocracy, corruption, nepotism, China tilts and, of course, war crimes while eliminating the Tamil movement from the face of the island, have slid of Rajapaksa’s back as easily as a duck’s and for the larger Sinhalese identity, he has emerged as a saviour and a doer. So though Sirisena’s UPFA is in minority in the ruling coalition (even with Rajapaksa’s faction) and, therefore, his sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose UNP has the bigger mandate, may seem unconstitutional, the pictures of Rajapaksa addressing crowds have wrested the popular narrative. Besides, there is already talk that though constitutionally he cannot become the President, having served two terms, as Prime Minister and then betting on a comeback giving him a two-thirds majority, he could well attempt amendments to arrogate more powers to himself. At least, he has won the war of perception with his command of the situation.
Rajapaksa’s return is a big blow for India although he has been engaging with the Modi government. As President, he had veered away from India and bent towards the Chinese, giving them infrastructural access to strategic ports, allowing them to dock submarines and adding another pearl to China’s string of debt-trap colonies around the Indian Ocean. Wickremesinghe has been the most favourable for us and India engineered a profitable coalition with Sirisena in 2015, weaning him away as a moderate opposed to the absolutist Rajapaksa. But he too drifted towards the Chinese axis quite a bit, guaranteeing a 99-year lease on Hambantota port as India has a tough time negotiating contracts. Not as magnetic as Rajapaksa, he was, in a short time, coopted by his one-time mentor. Meanwhile, anti-India sentiment has returned to Lanka’s mainstream discourse. In fact, Wickremesinghe’s ouster is largely being seen as a result of Sirisena’s disagreement with him over the development of a container terminal in Colombo. He also alleged assassination attempts given Wickremesinghe’s pro-India tilt and claims that India was disappointed with the pace of its projects in the island. Even Rajapaksa had in 2015 claimed assassination attempts by RAW. So the bitter narrative is somewhat similar. Clearly stitching up rainbow coalitions with Wikremesinghe as the pivot hasn’t worked successively now. So India must engage itself with Lanka very delicately, considering the Chinese inroads into neighbouring Maldives. Though the Modi Government has met all three parties diplomatically and Rajapaksa himself has made some discernible attempts to alter his rules of engagement, there has to be a studied strategic response. And with China’s Belt and Road Initiative hitting roadblocks in its own backyard states, it might seek greater manoeuverability in the island states of Lanka and Maldives, something that India must be up for. Then there’s the larger question of the assault on democratic systems and practices but then that has long been a casualty of totalitarian regimes assuming charge across the world.
Writer & Editor: The Pioneer