Sri Lanka currently has two Prime Ministers-Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse- one recognized by the speaker of the Sri Lankan parliament and the other newly appointed by the President Maithripala Sirisena. But as the world continues to play the wait-and-watch game, hoping that the political crisis does not escalate into a civil war, Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbour India, will face undesired repercussions too.
BJP MP Subramanian Swamy has been the most vocal about the change of guard in Sri Lanka, welcoming his ‘friend’ Rajapakse being made the PM. He insists that the new regime will be better for India. But not too many might share his enthusiasm or optimism even as the Government of India, so far, has chosen to be silent.
The limited and cautious reaction of India came on Sunday, via a statement from MEA which said ‘As a democracy and a close friendly neighbour, we hope that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected".
The Sri Lankan crisis is a culmination of their domestic political tensions but the visit of Wickremesinghe to New Delhi and his statement after, expressing that GoI was unhappy with the pace of projects in the Island country, further bittered relations with the Lankan President.
Leading to this confrontation was another report which suggested that President Sirisena believed that the Research and Analysis Wing(RAW) was behind an assassination attempt against him. Although he spoke to Prime Minister Modi to clear the air between them, the allegation and its implications linger on.
India’s relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa:
India has had a chequered past with the newly appointed PM Mahinda Rajapaksa. During his earlier tenure as Sri Lankan president, he is blamed to have overseen the large-scale massacre of Lankan Tamils, making him persona non grata in Tamil Nadu. Perhaps to counter this, he grew closer to the Chinese, allowing Sri Lanka to become yet another virtual battleground for the two South Asian giants-China and India.
China’s relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa:
Rajapakse allowed a number of Chinese strategic assets in Sri Lanka, giving them the much-needed foothold in the Indian Ocean. From making available Sri Lanka’s main port to Chinese naval submarines to an over a billion-dollar worth deepwater port in Hambantota, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese have made several big-ticket investments under Rajapakse and now with him back at the realm, they will look to only strengthen their hold in the country and then the Indian ocean, slowly nudging India’s influence out.
Politics in India affecting relations with Sri Lanka:
Domestic politics in India has had a far-reaching impact on its bilateral ties with Sri Lanka and the pressure from people and politicians from Tamil Nadu has been the most dominant factor. For long, most in Tamil Nadu in particular, have maintained that India needs to exert pressure on Sri Lanka to bring to book those responsible for the war atrocities, especially against the Tamil civilians.
A coalition with regional parties in Tamil Nadu with players like the DMK and AIADMK have determined, largely what stand the GoI takes, even in the UN against Sri Lanka. In 2013, the DMK pulled out of the UPA government at centre for refusing to make an amendment to a US-sponsored UN Human Rights Council resolution.
Consecutive Indian governments have had to strike a fine balance between sentiments in favour of Tamils and against the Sinhalese-dominated-Sri Lankan government and angst that exerting pressure on a reluctant Sri Lankan government will drive them closer to the Chinese, causing an imbalance in a tug-of-war for supremacy in the Indian Ocean.
Currently, at the centre, no party from Tamil Nadu is in the alliance, perhaps swaying the centre’s take on foreign policy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka.
Rajapakse reappointment could affect cases of human rights violation and corruption?
Under Mahinda Rajapaksa, over 40,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed in just the last few weeks of the war between Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE, according to the United Nations. More alarmingly, towards the fag end of the two-and-a-half-decade bloody war, far too many violations. In 2015, the UN high commissioner for human rights had stated that Mahinda Rajapaksa, had actively obstructed, tampered and even threatened witnesses in the investigation into Lankan civil war crimes.
Despite global pressure, consecutive governments in Sri Lanka have refused to allow UN investigators into their country for scrutiny. A documentary by UK's Channel 4 "No Fire Zone", had detailed visuals and testimonies of human rights violations against prisoners of war even including minors. But despite an election defeating Rajapakse and propping Maithripala Sirisena’s like the president, little progress has been made into bringing the then government to answer for the war crimes and fix accountability.
Moreover, the Rajapaksa brothers, both Mahinda and Gotabaya, have been accused of rampant corruption and nepotism.
Mahinda currently has an ongoing inquiry for allegedly bribing a member of Wickremesinghe's United National Party and has been accused of stashing over $2 billion US Dollars in Dubai. Gotabhaya, the younger Rajapakse, has been accused in an armoury scam having reportedly deprived the Sri Lankan exchequer of over $75 million US Dollars by handing over a contract for floating armoury to a private firm. Many in Sri Lanka fear that with the reinstatement of Mahinda Rajapaksa, all these cases will be influenced or worse, closed.
Constitutional experts call for a test of strength in the parliament to determine who has the majority and thus the Prime Minister but perhaps fearing a loss, President Sirisena has suspended parliament till November 16th, giving Rajapaksa breathing space to consolidate support. But how long will his defiance stand in view of increasing pressure? And for how long can India maintain its stoic silence, trying to determine whom to do business with?