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Turbulence in Sri Lanka: Are leaders playing the proxy India-China game?

Sri Lankan politics has been polarized by one faction led by Rajapaksa seeking China’s support and another now perceived to be represented by the Wickremesinghe cluster, wanting to maintain traditional relations with India, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor.

C Uday Bhaskar Oct 29, 2018
 
Sri Lankan politics witnessed unexpected turbulence when President Maithripala Sirisena decided to sack his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and, in a surprising move, appointed his arch-rival and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new PM. 
 
Even as Colombo was taking stock of this political re-wiring, the next day (October 27) saw the 225 member Sri Lankan parliament being prorogued till November 16 through an extraordinary gazette notification. The suspension of parliament appeared to be a delaying tactic, so that the ousted PM Wickremesinghe would not be able to prove his majority on the floor of the house till mid November – by which time it is expected that the freshly minted Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance will cross the 113 member mark in the legislature.
 
Various reasons are being advanced for this rapid-fire political development; the latent India-China rivalry has been mooted. Even by the inherent fluidity in Sri Lankan politics the current scenario is distinctive and one that is setting new precedents apropos the ‘sacking’ of a Prime Minister – decisions which could pose complex constitutional problems for the island nation.
 
For a start, this is the first time that a former president of Sri Lanka has been sworn in as PM; this distinction goes to Rajapaksa, who was President from November 2005 to January 2015 when he was defeated by current President Sirisena and thereby denied an unprecedented third term.
 
The political actors in Sri Lanka are familiar faces that have moved from one office to another. Since the office of the President was instituted in May 1972, Sri Lanka has had seven incumbents including the current one – Sirisena. 
 
In the same period there have been 14 prime ministers among whom the ousted PM Wickremesinghe was sworn in on four separate occasions. If he manages to return on November 16, which appears unlikely, it would be a record fifth swearing in.
 
Interestingly, Rajapaksa held this office from April 2004 to November 2005 as PM to then President Chandrika Kumaratunga (whose parents SWRD Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike were Prime Minister at different points in time)  before he won the Presidential election in November 2005.
 
Sri Lankan politics have been deeply influenced by a certain virulent nationalism that sought to stoke Sinhala majoritarian sentiment in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual nation which is very proximate to the tip of the Indian peninsula. The major parties, the UNP (United National Party) and the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), deemed to be right and left of centre in terms of their political ideology, have formed uneasy coalitions in the 225-member house. The island was racked by Tamil separatism and a terror war unleashed by the LTTE (in which India made some costly mistakes by way of peace-keeping). It was a ruthless policy of extermination led by Rajapaksa that ended the Tamil Tiger terror threat.
 
But opposition from within his support-base led to Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2014 when he sought a third term. A new entity – the NDF (New Democratic Front) chose Sirisena as president. He, in turn, appointed Wickremesinghe (UNP) as prime minister.
 
Sri Lankan politics have been polarized by one faction led by Rajapaksa seeking China’s support and another now perceived to be represented by the Wickremesinghe cluster, wanting to maintain traditional relations with India. The division is not binary, but as Rajapaksa ran up huge loans from China, which Colombo was unable to repay – a debt-for-equity swap has seen Hambantota port being leased to a Chinese entity for 99 years.
 
India is in the equivalent of a Maldives-like situation of domestic political complexity, where rival leaders are playing the China or India card for short-term electoral advantage. The Chinese envoy in Colombo has already reached out to the new prime minister, while Delhi is waiting for the tea leaves to settle. Local observers expect the Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine to win the numbers game easily on November 16 – but constitutional propriety could pose unexpected challenges.
 
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)

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