Rajya Sabha TV programs like ‘The Big Picture’, ‘In Depth’ and ‘India’s World’ are informative programs that are important for UPSC preparation. In this article, you can read about the ‘The Big Picture’ episode on Political Crisis In Sri Lanka for the IAS exam.
In the last week of October, Sri Lanka has witnessed major political developments where President Maithripala Sirisena has suspended the country’s Parliament and sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister and named Mahinda Rajapaksa as the next Prime Minister. However, the speaker of Sri Lankan Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya has called the President’s decision as unconstitutional and has insisted on conducting a floor test to prove majority on the floor of the house. The political turmoil is the result of a fallout between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe over crucial policy matters pertaining to running the unity government which was formed in 2015.
India has been watching the developments closely and has called for democratic and constitutional norms to be upheld. In this context, the discussion is focused on the impact of the ongoing political crisis on Sri Lanka and as well as on India’s interests in the region as Sri Lanka is located strategically in the Indian Ocean and both India and China vie for influence in the island nation.
Talking about the fluid situation in Sri Lanka, former Indian Ambassador Suresh Goyal remarked that unless the Parliament is convened, Wickremesinghe has no way of proving his majority and Rajapaksa will have a clear field to remain as the Prime Minister. Considering this possibility India has to be very cautious and watch the developments closely given the fact that previously under Rajapaksa Sri Lanka had clearly tilted towards China and was posing a direct threat to India’s strategic interests in the region.
Alok Bansal, Director of India Foundation opined that the crisis is an outcome of the uneasy coalition between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe which was formed with the main objective of defeating Rajapaksa in the previous elections. Differences have arisen between the leaders of the coalition and at the same time Rajapaksa has managed to regain popularity especially amongst the majority Sinhalese. While the coalition government has failed on many of its promises and has taken a strong stand on ensuring justice to war affected Tamil minorities, Rajapaksa has managed to whip up Sinhala Nationalism to fuel his return to power.
A provision in the 1978 Sri Lankan Constitution provided for the dismissal of the Prime Minister by the President after one year of Parliamentary elections but this was removed through a constitutional amendment in 2015. So this has created a constitutional logjam with both sides claiming the validity of one over the other and it is likely to be hammered out through unconstitutional means which would be a big blow to democratic norms.
The Constitutional Question:
Dr. Sreeram Chaulia of the Jindal School of International Affairs feels that the constitutional validity of the Prime Ministers dismissal by the President is open for a polarised debate. But he expressed concern over the manner in which Rajapaksa was appointed as the Prime Minister without giving a chance to Wickremesinghe to prove his majority on the floor.
There is a much bigger structural problem that underlies the ongoing crisis. Sri Lanka has had four different constitutions since Independence and Ranil Wickremesinghe was pushing for a fifth constitution. This multiplicity of constitutions and the long ethnic war has not allowed Sri Lanka to settle basic constitutional questions such as – Executive Presidency vs Westminster Model, Division of powers between the President and the Prime Minister, Unitary vs Federal System etc. The constitution of 1978 gave Sri Lanka a powerful President who shared powers with the Prime Minister and this was largely modelled on the French constitution. This arrangement continued until the end of Rajapaksa’s regime in 2015, so much so that Rajapaksa’s government was accused of being an authoritarian government with complete disregard to human rights of Tamil minorities and fundamental rights of its citizens. This was partially corrected by the coalition government of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe which was elected in 2015. But the structural problems continue to persist and can be rectified either by a court of law or through popular struggle. Added to this is the India vs China faceoff, where in both powers are eager to establish their strategic supremacy.
India is very mindful of the response of various countries on the unfolding drama in Sri Lanka. China being a major investor with strategic stakes in the country has heartily welcomed the return of Rajapaksa as it considers him as a close ally who can resist India’s overtures and help China instead to entrench itself in India’s strategic backyard. This open embrace of Rajapaksa’s return by China is viewed with suspicion by India which sees an external angle to the ongoing political crisis.
Western countries on the other hand have kept a close watch on Sri Lanka since the days of the civil war and have expressed deep concern during the last phase of the civil war where the Sri Lankan armed forces were accused of committing gross human right violations, an accusation that Sri Lanka has failed to address effectively largely due to botched investigations, denials and cover ups of any war crimes. European powers and US would side with India and would push Sri Lanka to restore normalcy and uphold democratic principles. The Commonwealth and the United Nations would also expect the same and would be critical of any further attempts to erode democracy in Sri Lanka.
So India’s response should factor all these considerations and ensure that it is non-intrusive in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and at the same time should push Sri Lanka to protect democratic norms and ensure stability as this would also secure Indian interests in the region. China would rally behind Rajapaksa or any other leader to protect its core investments in Hambantota and Colombo and similarly India should cultivate diverse assets irrespective of internal political considerations in order to protect its core interests such as – the wellbeing of Tamil minorities, strategic infrastructure projects in Trincomalee, Mattala etc., countering adverse Chinese influence in the IOR and as well as the implementation of the 13th Amendment which would devolve political rights and powers too minority ethnic Tamils.
Irrespective of China’s massive investments in Sri Lanka, India will continue to remain very relevant as it is still the largest trading partner for Sri Lanka and they depend heavily on Indian tourists and investments. Sri Lanka also needs India as it provides vital services in the areas of education, healthcare and even pilgrimage. So India needs to leverage this unique advantage to help advance the cause of democracy in Sri Lanka without affecting its sovereignty.
For India, the return of Rajapaksa may not be entirely bad and there may be a silver lining as Rajapaksa has moderated his stand towards India in the last couple of years. Rajapaksa understands that he cannot ruffle India beyond a certain point and for that matter any Sri Lankan leader will be aware of the significance of maintaining good relations with India. This is where India should tread a fine line and exert a positive influence to shape the political dynamics of Sri Lanka without interfering in its internal affairs and at the same time strive towards protecting and promoting India’s national interests in the region.
India should continue with the wait and watch policy and be willing to engage with any leader who will emerge to hold power. India’s actions in the Sri Lankan turmoil will be closely watched by other neighbouring countries in South Asia and India can use this opportunity to send out the right signals to Nepal and Maldives which hold suspicions against Indian interests in their respective internal political and constitutional turmoil.