With Sri Lanka in crisis, India must be cautious
With the President and PM on their way out, the political situation is fluid. While continuing its humanitarian efforts in Lanka, Delhi must also engage with the political class for a smooth transition of power
Sri Lanka is passing through an unprecedented political and economic crisis. The prospects of resolving this turmoil and bringing the country back on the rails of stability and growth look uncertain. A peaceful popular uprising has pushed president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to quit and Prime Minister (PM) Ranil Wickremasinghe’s private residence has been set on fire. Both have agreed to resign conditionally – the president on Wednesday and the PM on “the formation of an alternative interim government.”
These conditionalities are intriguing under the prevailing circumstances of strong protests against the Rajapaksa regime. They are being justified in the name of providing constitutional legitimacy to the interim succession arrangements, but these conditions could as well be meant to politically manipulate such arrangements. While abandoning his office, Gotabaya agreed to abide by the decisions of his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The party decided that both the president and the PM must resign. There has been some popular displeasure with Wickremasinghe for becoming PM in May on Gotabaya’s call, but no strong demand for his resignation. The SLPP’s decision to ask the PM to resign, therefore, was also aimed at elbowing him out of the presidential race. This has bolstered the prospects of the speaker of parliament, Yapa Abeywardena, who is an SLPP member and considered loyal to the Rajapaksa family, in becoming the interim president. He may then also be elected as president by parliament on July 20 for Gotabaya’s remaining term, to possibly protect and cover the misdeeds of the Rajapaksa regime. Wickremasinghe would not have done this.
It is assumed that the interim arrangements, which include an all-party government appointed by the interim or succeeding President, will bring back political stability and facilitate economic relief and recovery. We all hope that it will be so, but there are serious questions about this assumption. Parliament is fragmented and the formation of an all-party government that is acceptable to the people may not be easy. The ruling SLPP, essentially a group of former Rajapaksa loyalists, has 100 seats. The combined Opposition, including the Samagi Jana Balwegaya (SJB), Tamil parties and independents, claim a majority of 123 seats in a 225-member House. The Opposition leader, Sujith Premadasa, has staked claims to lead both the race for interim presidency and the all-party government against the SLPP. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna i.e. the radical National Peoples’ Power with only three seats in parliament, has refused to join the all-party government, but is playing the most active role in dethroning the present regime and creating a new polity.
There are sharp differences among the parties on issues of power sharing among various institutions and groups, the nature of the post-Rajapaksa polity, ethnic harmony, governance and economic revival. The new leadership will have to display remarkable resilience and political sagacity to carry diverse political groups along and win the confidence of the people. It may be kept in mind that the protesting Sri Lankan people have repeatedly expressed their lack of faith, not only in the Rajapaksa regime but also in the present political class. Winning the people’s confidence and support for governance and economic revival will be easier said than done as the road to economic recovery will be slow and difficult. The delay in creating a stable interim arrangement will adversely affect the attitudes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other donors whose economic support is critical. The failure of the political class in the coming days and month may also encourage the otherwise most unlikely possibility of the Sri Lankan army stepping into a political role.
With this spectrum of complex political dynamics and uncertainties, India needs to move cautiously in Sri Lanka. India has huge stakes in Lanka’s political stability and economic growth as it is geostrategically and civilisationally closer to the island than any other major Asian power. The creeping expansion of Chinese strategic and economic presence in Sri Lanka has been a matter of concern for India in recent years. India has focused its policies so far on providing relief to the people for fuel, food and medicines, while distancing itself from the corrupt regime. It has invested $3.8billion to that end. It has also pleaded with the IMF and other international agencies to help Sri Lanka withstand its economic difficulties.
There is considerable goodwill in the island nation for what India has done. And yet, there are powerful constituencies within Sri Lanka that are not comfortable with India’s role and presence. They periodically try to gain traction on issues such as PM Narendra Modi’s alleged lobbying for the Adanis, securing projects in Sri Lanka, fake news about Indian troops being sent to rescue the Rajapaksa regime and allegations of undue interference in internal politics. The possibility of India baiters being linked to disapproval of Wickremasinghe as PM and now, the burning of his private residence, cannot be ruled out.
Foreign minister S Jaishankar described the Sri Lankan situation as “very serious” and admitted that India has been working with other partner countries to help. The Indian official statement also made it clear that it did not stand with the Rajapaksa regime but with the people of Sri Lanka “as they seek to realise their aspirations… through democratic means and values, established institutions and constitutional framework”. Within this framework, India must continue to work with other partner countries to help the Sri Lankan people. India must also keep engaging with various political factions to ensure a smooth transition to a stable post-Rajapaksa regime and polity.
SD Muni is professor emeritus at JNU, a Sri Lanka Rathna laureate, and a former ambassador and special envoy of the Government of India
The views expressed are personal
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