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New Delhi can’t hope to do a Male in Colombo

Unlike in the Maldives, there seems to be no real alternative for India than to work with the new Sirisena-Rajapksa coalition

analysis Updated: Nov 14, 2018 17:36 IST
Constantino Xavier
Constantino Xavier
Sri Lanka'Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo, October 31, 2018. (REUTERS)

As Sri Lanka’s political crisis deepens, the world’s eyes are not only on Colombo, but also on New Delhi. Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis on the neighbourhood, expectations are high for India to repeat its successful involvement to stall authoritarianism in the Maldives. Last week, former Maldivian President, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, did, indeed, recognise that India was able to “exert pressure towards restoration of democracy”.

However, Sri Lanka is not the Maldives and New Delhi’s posture over the last two weeks has been marked by a wait and watch policy with a principled preference for democratic continuity. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court’s ruling and consequent reconvening of parliament this week mark a setback for President Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempts to grab power through extra constitutional means.

While this is a tactical victory for the rule of law in one of Asia’s oldest democracies, it will not resolve the root cause of the current political crisis. Instability will continue until elections are held. Ousted Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, may win the legal and parliamentary battle, the sentiment on the streets of Sri Lanka still favours the return of a grand alliance of Sinhala populism. While India will keep a restrained posture, two assessments dictate that Delhi must also prepare for Rajapaksa’s eventual return, in one way or the other.

First, the artificial Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance of 2015 has found a natural death well before Sirisena’s loyalists defected two weeks ago. The president and prime minister’s increasingly hostile attempts to undermine each other have paralysed government and also affected bilateral relations with India. Going by Rajapaksa’s sweeping victory in the local elections, earlier this year, and his new coalition with Sirisena, their joint consolidation of power is expected to take place sooner or later, and one way or the other.

On paper, India has so far followed a principled position, appealing to all parties to respect “democratic values and constitutional process”. But while it may silently seek to broker an immediate crisis resolution in the background, it does not have a magic wand to freely determine outcomes in Sri Lanka. And it certainly does not have the same leverage it had in the Maldives, where the balance of power on the streets clearly favoured the opposition. This explains Delhi’s restrained posture over the last weeks. But if the crisis escalates over the next few weeks, it will likely favour holding fresh elections to settle the balance of power most likely favouring Sirisena and Rajapaksa.

Second, for all the simplistic labelling of Mahinda Rajapaksa as “pro-China,” the former Sri Lankan president has a proven track record of pursuing an “India first” policy in word and deed. Nowhere was his strategic acumen more apparent than during the final phase of the civil war (2006-2009), when he was able to earn India’s trust despite many challenges, including the Tamil Nadu factor and Chinese military assistance.

And while it was Rajapaksa who sanctioned several of the massive infrastructure deals that knocked Sri Lanka into the Chinese debt trap, he only approached Beijing after New Delhi rejected his offers, including the infamous Hambantota port now leased out to China for 99 years. This is precisely why he succeeded in meeting Prime Minister Modi, last September, and thus rebuild the same bridge to India he had burned in 2014.

This does not mean that Rajapaksa is “pro-India” either. With China increasingly involved in Sri Lanka, if and when he returns, he will seek to balance India and China to maximise the island’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean. But this time it will be significantly tougher for him to play off the two Asian giants. After the Wuhan summit, China is now adopting a more restrained posture in India’s traditional sphere of influence and more open to defer to Delhi in times of crisis. For New Delhi, this emphasises the importance of a deeper dialogue with China about South Asia’s third countries.

At the same time, it makes little sense to tag Rajapaksa or any other Sri Lankan leader as either pro- or anti-India. Whatever the political dispensation in Colombo, it will always pursue a Sri Lanka first policy. In the long term, India’s ability to counter China’s rising influence on the island will therefore depend increasingly less on who exactly holds the reigns on the island. Beyond politics and security, India’s regional predominance in Sri Lanka and the region will instead hinge on its capacity to deliver more, better and faster on key connectivity projects and economic interdependence.

Constantino Xavier is a fellow in foreign policy studies, Brookings India

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 14, 2018 17:35 IST