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‘Soft coup’ leaves India with hard choices

In the short term, New Delhi is tempted to close its eyes to the extra-constitutional moves that allowed President Sirisena to appoint Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.

world Updated: Oct 29, 2018 19:22 IST
Sri Lanka,Mahinda Rajapaksa,Sirisena
Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa handing over documents to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (R) as Rajapaksa is sworn in as new Prime Minister, in Colombo. (AFP Photo)

The crisis in Sri Lanka has, once again, brought India’s neighbourhood policy under political scrutiny. Those in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi say that India is in control and welcomes this weekend’s developments on the island, and that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to Delhi last month reflected strategic foresight. The Union government’s detractors suggest that the Colombo ‘coup’ caught New Delhi by surprise and marks a geostrategic defeat for India, as the renewed Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance is expected to pursue a pro-China orientation.

As always in India’s complex neighbourhood, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sri Lanka’s political crisis is a classic example of India’s regional involvement dilemma: damned you if you do, damned you if you don’t. China’s strategic expansionism in South Asia has encouraged New Delhi to pragmatically pursue engagement towards every government in the region, whether more or less democratic. On the other hand, New Delhi also realises that its regional strategy for security and connectivity hinges on stronger democratic institutions and the rule of law in neighbouring countries to minimise China’s political influence.

After the Maldives, this dilemma is now playing out, once again, in Sri Lanka. In the short term, New Delhi is tempted to close its eyes to the extra-constitutional moves that allowed President Sirisena to appoint Rajapaksa as prime minister. In the long run, however, New Delhi also realises that such blind engagement will legitimise this weekend’s ‘soft coup’, weaken Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions, and bolster China’s divide and rule tactics to convert its economic leverage into political and security influence across the Indian Ocean region.

New Delhi has been well aware of Sri Lanka’s shifting balance of power and the ruling coalition’s inability to discharge key governance duties. The dysfunctional relationship between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe escalated into full hostility over the last weeks and even risked turning into a liability for India. New Delhi could not afford a political feud to derail its Sri Lanka policy, which forms the cornerstone of its regional connectivity strategy to contain China. When Sirisena and Wickremesinghe began to play the India card to undermine each other, including allegations about assassination plots and contrarian views on whether to involve India in key infrastructure projects, the heat must have turned unbearable for New Delhi.

Having exhausted its patience in attempts to mitigate the political rift, India is obviously inclined to be practical and engage the new regime. Constitutional legality aside, the real benefits from working with Sirisena and Rajapaksa are far greater than the costs of sticking to an increasingly isolated Wickremesinghe and the consequent risk of being cut out from the island.

But the Union foreign ministry’s statement also reflects that, beyond immediate imperatives to engage, New Delhi is also concerned about the long-term health of the island’s political system. By calling on Sri Lanka to respect “democratic values and the constitutional process”, it is making clear that due process should be followed, and not only for a question of principle.

Ideally, this would mean an electoral transition of power, in 2019-2020, with Sirisena dissolving parliament and a reunited Sri Lanka Freedom Party forming a majority government. Properly elected as prime minister, Rajapaksa would then replicate his successful ‘India first’ policy of 2006-2009 to earn New Delhi’s goodwill. In practice, however, this weekend’s developments show that Sirisena and Rajapaksa are unwilling to wait and now bent on consolidating power by any means.

Driven by geostrategic imperatives, New Delhi seems to be willing to recognise and pragmatically engage Colombo’s new centre of power. At the same time, its first formal response also indicates that Sri Lanka must respect the democratic rule of law and due process. But it won’t be easy for New Delhi to have its geostrategic cake and eat it, too. India’s appetite to activate diplomatic and other levers to enforce its red lines will depend on the extent to which Sirisena and Rajapaksa will heed Indian advice and reach out to reassure Prime Minister Modi of their long-term game.

(The writer is a Fellow in Foreign Policy studies, Brookings India)

First Published: Oct 29, 2018 18:58 IST