Maithripala Sirisena’s spectacular triumph in the recent Sri Lankan presidential elections over former incumbent and colleague Mahinda Rajapaksa had caught the wider international diplomatic community flatfooted, except New Delhi. At least, this is what some in the Sri Lankan and international media have insinuated. In a report by reputed news agency Reuters, sources in the political and intelligence community, have claimed that Sri Lanka had expelled the Colombo station chief of India’s premier spy agency RAW in the run up to this month’s presidential elections for allegedly helping gather support for joint opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena.
Reports have also alleged that the Colombo station chief had persuaded Sirisena to ditch Rajapaksa’s cabinet, two months before the scheduled elections. New Delhi, however, categorically denied any such rationale behind the transfer of the RAW Colombo station chief. Spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs Syed Akbaruddin had said that it was a routine transfer, since the official completed his normal tenure of three years and asked the Indian media not to read anything into the above reports.
Rajapaksa declined to confirm India’s involvement in the campaign against him. However, Rajapaksa’s unexpected defeat after two terms in office, allied with New Delhi’s growing concern about India losing its influence in Sri Lanka because of the former president’s tilt toward regional neighbours China, cannot be mere coincidence.
New Delhi’s official reaction to these stories does point to a growing concern about rumours that India played a significant role in ensuring Sirisena’s stunning victory. The narrative, until recently, was one where Sirisena was projected as a conscientious defector, who took on his former boss and colleague, after the latter grew increasingly authoritarian. In certain pockets of the Sri Lankan media, however, the narrative has now taken a more cynical turn with many suggesting that New Delhi handpicked its winner.
It is no secret that New Delhi had grown extremely wary of Rajapaksa’s closeness to Beijing. India’s suspicions had reached fever pitch when Rajapaksa allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Sri Lanka without informing New Delhi. The move, reportedly, was not in accordance to a maritime security pact between both the countries. Another jigsaw in the nebulous puzzle is Sirisena’s greater affinity to New Delhi, ever since he said India is the “first, main concern” of his foreign policy.
Considering disastrous attempts in the past by India to intervene in Sri Lanka’s civil war in the 1980s, New Delhi must be careful to make sure that the popular mandate gathered by Sirisena is not robbed of its sheen amid rumours of India’s ‘big brotherly’ attitude.