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Between crisis and rivalry

As democratic turmoil prevails in Sri Lanka, New Delhi stays wary of a creeping Beijing arm-twisting a severely indebted Colombo

Between crisis and rivalry

The Constitutional coup – his critics say highly unconstitutional – that Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena sought to carry out by sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place has landed him in the soup. Wickremesinghe challenged the President by telling him that as per the Constitution, he was still the Prime Minister and would not vacate his official residence Temple Tree. Sirisena found to his dismay that his action had invited criticism of the U.S. and other Western countries.

Sirisena not only dismissed Wickremesinghe but 'prorogued' Parliament till November 16, hoping that by then he would be able to organise enough defections from Wickremesinghe's United National Party to cobble up a parliamentary majority for Rajapaksa when it came to a floor test. To be sure, attempts were made at poaching. Allegations of huge amounts of money changing hands were made. Some of the smaller parties hastily dispatched their MPs abroad to keep their flock intact. Rajapaksa has since split his benefactor Sirisena's own party, the SLFP and joined the rival SLPP. Rumours of an imminent and massive defection in Sirisena's party are in the air. No doubt, Rajapaksa is trying to wrest power that he had lost three years ago.

But soon enough Sirisena found that his efforts had failed to knock together a majority for Rajapaksa and that a floor test would go against his protégé. He then took the next desperate step. He dissolved parliament and announced a snap poll for January 5 next year. Now, not only Wickremesinghe's UNP but the entire opposition is up in arms against Sirisena.

They have decided to move to the Supreme Court challenging Sirisena's dismissal of the Prime Minister and the dissolution of parliament. Both, they maintain, are unconstitutional. The Prime Minister, they maintain, cannot be dismissed by the President under the constitution. If the Supreme Court strikes down the two impugned orders, Sirisena will lose legitimacy of his government. Sri Lanka will be plunged into a deeper crisis if the dissolution of parliament is held invalid and the old House is revived.

But the moot question to which there is no answer yet is what led to the estrangement between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, so much so that while throwing out Wickremesinghe, Sirisena reached out to Rajapaksa whom he had himself defeated in the presidential election in 2015 by a narrow margin. Rajapaksa's pro-China stand was public knowledge. It was known for some time that an intense power struggle was going on between the President and the Prime Minister. But many wondered whether the recent developments have followed from that power struggle or other external factors were also involved.

There was a rumour that at a Cabinet meeting in mid-October, Sirisena accused one of Wickremesinghe's ministers of plotting to assassinate him. Not only that, the President allegedly blamed the Indian external intelligence agency RAW as being involved in the assassination plot. As the controversy entered the public domain, Sirisena hastily denied having named RAW and put through a call to Prime Minister Modi to assure him that all was well in India-Sri Lanka relations.

There was considerable speculation as to who floated the rumour about the alleged RAW plot against Sirisena. Who told the President that India was trying to eliminate him? What was the motive, if not to sour India-Sri Lanka relations and sow mistrust? Who benefited from it?

The undeniable fact is that of late, Sirisena had taken a strong stand against Indian's participation in some of the ongoing projects in Sri Lanka. Chief among them is the Colombo Port project, which was a joint Indo-Japan venture. Sirisena was opposed to Indian participation in the project and wanted it to be executed solely by Sri Lanka.

Then there is the $1 billion project for building a second container terminal in Colombo port. India was to have undertaken the project and a MoU was also signed. But now Colombo is trying to backtrack on it.

The question is: Why has Sirisena, considered a reliable friend by New Delhi, suddenly turned against India. Many wondered whether this had something to do with the Sino-Indian rivalry in Sri Lanka. The question cannot be shrugged off.

Sri Lanka is highly indebted to China. Its total debt to China is now about $15 billion, which is almost equal to the island nation's annual revenue. Colombo just cannot repay its loans to China. Beijing knows it well and is arm-twisting Sri Lanka. The cold feet that Sirisena suddenly developed against India is to be seen in this context.

New Delhi's worry is that if Beijing ultimately forces Colombo in granting it permission to build a naval base at Hambantota port on the southernmost tip of the island, it will pose a threat to India. Unable to repay its debt, Colombo has already sold off 80 per cent of its equity in the Hambantota port to China. If China now demands to open a naval base there, Colombo will find it difficult to say no.

China has recently suffered a setback in the Maldives. The government of Abdulla Yameen, which enjoyed the full support of Beijing, economic as well as diplomatic, was defeated comprehensively in the recent elections. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party has been elected as the president.

Yameen was running the country with an iron hand. He had thrown all opposition leaders behind bars. Even some supreme court judges had the same fate. Mohamed Nasheed, the former President who was ousted by Yameen with the help of the army and who had been living in exile, returned to Male on the first of this month following the withdrawal of his arrest warrant by the Supreme Court. Solih is to take oath as President on November 16.

President Sirisena's decision to install Rajapaksa as Prime Minister at this juncture is highly significant and, from New Delhi's point of view, it is hardly anything to be happy about. Doubts do arise whether the coming midterm poll will be free and fair – free from external influence and fair to all the stakeholders.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Barun Das Gupta

Barun Das Gupta

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