Sri Lanka crisis: A catch-22 situation for India

India’s response to the Sri Lanka crisis has been guarded. Certainly, India doesn’t want to get dragged in Sri Lanka’s domestic issues.


The turmoil in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics has had its Asian neighbours holding their breaths. The power struggle between Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa for the leadership of the country is unprecedented in the world history and the chances that one of them would budge are very bleak. Though the power struggle appears an internal political turbulence, it is also bound to reverberate on external front- especially in South East Asia. Perhaps, the crisis is serving as a warning sign of change in the geopolitical scenario in the Asian region. India, therefore, is rightfully concerned about the fast deteriorating conditions in its neighbouring country. However, India’s approach has remained somewhat cautious.

On October 26, in a shocking development, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister of the country unseating his ally in the government Ranil Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa was sworn in at about 7 p.m. in the presence of the representatives of the navy, air force and army who stood in the room and quietly watch the hasty ceremony unfold. The move widely termed as an “undemocratic coup” came after the months of strained relations between the ruling coalition.

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Sri Lankan president Sirisena swearing in Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM

While Sirisena has ceased all the privileges to Wickremesinghe as a Prime Minister, the ousted leader insists that he is still the PM of the island nation. On the other hand, newly appointed PM Rajapaksa has promised to appoint a new cabinet soon. The political shakeup sparked several protests by the supporters of both the leader in a show of power. The protest took a violent turn with the death of one person in a brawl outside Petroleum Minister Arjun Ranatunga’s office. As of now, security forces have been deployed in many parts of the country while the clouds of uncertainty hang over Colombo.

Sparks had started to fly between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from quite a sometime, souring the alliance. However, it is the Indian twist that may have ignited the full-blown political battle between the two. The first spark was set off from Wickremesinghe’s side. Two weeks ago, Wickremesinghe was on his official visit to India. He met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss bilateral ties. However, it was the statement released by the Sri Lankan counterpart that raised the eyebrows. The statement quoted Modi as “unhappy” and disappointed with the delays that various Indian projects are facing in Sri Lanka, especially the East Container Terminal in Colombo port.

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The statement read, “ Mr Narendra Modi has expressed his concern over the implementation of Indo-Sri Lanka joint development projects in accordance with the MoU signed between India and Sri Lanka in 2017…Mr. Modi said he was not satisfied with the response he had received from the Sri Lankan government to his overtures.” Incidentally, the statement released by the Indian side did mention that the talks over the subject took place between the two leaders, however, the supposed disappointment of Modi did not find any mention. Back in Sri Lanka, the statement was seen as a disguised jibe at the President who changed the terms of the deal with the bidders to keep the Indians investors away. Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, was in favour of handing over the functioning of the port to an Indian company.

Secondly, the assassination plot of Sirisena made the matter even worse. According to a report in The Hindu, Sirisena allegedly said in a cabinet meeting that Indian intelligence services (RAW) had hatched a plot to kill him, keeping Modi in the dark. The report prompted a quick rebuttal from both India and Sirisena. Later, Sri Lankan police too held a press conference to clarify that there was no evidence of such a conspiracy. However, the matter kept simmering as Sirisena felt the Wickremesinghe government is not doing enough to investigate the assassination plot against him and is not taking the threat seriously.

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This seemed to have pulled the plug on the coalition. Sirisena in his address to the nation on Saturday also cited the same to justify his acts. “[Because of] the strong plot to assassinate me, the only alternative open to me was to invite former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and appoint him as the prime minister to form a new government,” Sirisena said. As the political crisis in the country has deepened, the possibility of early solution seems bleak as Sirisena has suspended the parliament till November 16.

On the external front, the situation has evoked sharp responses. The U.S. State Department called on Sri Lanka’s president on Sunday and asked to “immediately reconvene parliament.” The statement said, “Allow the democratically elected representatives of the Sri Lankan people to fulfil their responsibility to affirm who will lead their government.”

India’s response to the crisis came three days later. In its lukewarm statement, Indian external affairs ministry said that it is watching the development “closely”. Briefing the media, external affairs ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, “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.”

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There is legitimate reluctance in India’s lukewarm and guarded response to the crisis. Certainly, India doesn’t want to get dragged in Sri Lanka’s domestic issues. However, the changes in the island nation will also reflect on India-Sri Lanka relation in the upcoming days. On the Sri Lanka crisis, India is in a diplomatic quandary and has little space for manoeuvring. There are two factors of consideration before India to frame its future response as the crisis unfolds.

First is, China factor and the second is Tamil ‘Eelam’ factor. India took a sigh of relief in 2015 when Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa to become the President of Sri Lanka. In his tenure as a president for 10 years, Rajapaksa grew very close to China. The massive Chinese investment in the country was also hailed as a textbook case of “debt trap diplomacy”. Being unable to repay the debt, the island nation had to hand over its Hambantota port and nearly 15,000 acres of land around it to China on a 99-year lease. The port is strategically located and gives China military upper hand in the region. For India, it is no less than a great cause of worry. Especially as India is grappling to counter China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. In recent times, China has spread its tentacles in the countries neighbouring India. Thus, India needs to take a careful approach to Rajapaksa’s reclaiming power. On the other hand, some also believe that it may not be a cause of worry for India as Rajapaksa seemed to have brokered peace with India. His visit to India in September this year hinted at it. He met the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi and former Prime minister Manmohan Singh as well.

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Another worry for India is the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. The country has suffered the scorching heat of the civil war between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamilians for over 25 years. Mahinda Rajapaksa who was elected in 2005 led the Lankan govt’s all-out war against the LTTE (the terrorist outfit fighting for Tamil liberation). He has been even accused of ethnic cleansing and rights violation during this period.

Thus, India’s approach to Rajapaksa is ought to affect Tamil politics back home. The developments in Sri Lanka have already created ripples in Tamil Nadu politics. E Palaniswami, the CM of the state has demanded to declare Rajapaksa as a “war criminal”. “The government, which is following in the footsteps of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, has not changed its stand on Mr Rajapaksa, who killed Sri Lankan Tamils,” he told the reporters in Chennai.

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For the Modi government, it is a catch 22 situation. It must frame its strategy to deal with Rajapaksa in future without upsetting the Tamil population back home. AIADMK has emerged as an ally for the BJP in recent times. It has 37 seats in Lok Sabha and is a strong force in Tamil Nadu. For BJP AIADMK can prove useful in 2019 amidst the faltering NDA allies.

For now, India along with other world leaders has to watch the developments from distance. However, it has to carefully draft a foreign policy towards Sri Lanka in accordance with the future developments without compromising on the interests of people back home.

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