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Above: Maithripala Sirisena (right) appoints Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister at a function in Colombo/Picture: Twitter

In a major jolt, the president, Maithripala Sirisena, has sworn in pro-China strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM after sacking Ranil Wickremasinghe, leading to worries in India

By Seema Guha

The dramatic swearing-in of former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister of Sri Lanka by President Maithripala Sirisena recently has plunged Sri Lanka into an unprecedented constitutional crisis. Ranil Wickremasinghe was sacked by the president, but continues to claim he is the prime minister and wants a vote in parliament to settle the matter. But the wily Sirisena has asked parliament to convene in mid-November, giving enough time to Rajapaksa for getting the necessary numbers. But it may be no cakewalk for Sirisena, as there is a pushback from Wickremasinghe supporters, who also have the numbers on their side. The president may be forced to call Parliament earlier than November 16 given the pressure on him from the opposition.

The return of Rajapaksa is raising concerns not just among the Tamil minorities in the country, but across the world.

Ever since Rajapaksa swept the local body polls in February, speculations about his comeback were rife. Observers felt it was only a matter of time before this former president made his move. But few expected that Sirisena, once a minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet and who had back-stabbed him to join hands with the traditional rival, the United National Party (UNP) of Wickremasinghe, would be the catalyst.

The coalition hurriedly patched together ahead of the 2015 national elections to keep Rajapaksa out of office was never a meeting of minds.  Sirisena brought with him a number of Sri Lanka Freedom Party leaders to join him in the coalition of national unity with the UNP. Both these parties were the two most popular ones in Sri Lanka. And this led to Sirisena becoming president and Wickremasinghe prime minister. But this arrangement did not work out well. Both fell out and had not been on talking terms for months. Ahead of Wickremasinghe’s recent visit to India, the situation had already reached a breaking point.

Sirisena is alleged to have spoken to his cabinet colleagues of a RAW plot to assassinate him. An Indian living in the island was arrested. His brother in Mumbai claimed he had a mental problem. Soon after the news of the RAW plot, Sirisena called Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deny any accusation by him of an Indian bid to kill him and a former defence secretary of Sri Lanka. The local press in Colombo was blamed for misquoting him.

Though the matter was glossed over, the fact that the former defence secretary was Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of Mahinda, could in hindsight give an inkling of what was to follow. Sirisena’s denial must now be taken with a pinch of salt.

Wickremasinghe has always been regarded as a friend of India even at the time of the unpopular Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1997. So the move to get India against Sirisena and Gotabaya signalled to the domestic audience that Delhi was against the president and backing Wickremasinghe. It is well-known that India, the US and most western nations rejoiced after the 2015 election results. The massive pressure put on Colombo to clean up its human rights record eased as Rajapaksa was thrown out by the electorate.

To the Tamil minorities of this island nation, as well as the powerful Tamil diaspora, Rajapaksa is a hate figure known for widespread human rights abuses. The diaspora want him to be tried as a war criminal for the atrocities committed during the last days of the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In fact, the young son of late LTTE leader V Prabhakaran was shot in cold blood by the Sinhala army.

The mess in Sri Lanka, triggered by the constitutional coup by Sirisena, will take time to resolve as it prepares for a period of instability. Rajapaksa, though disliked by the rest of the world, remains popular among the Sinhala Buddhist majority of the country. Like many in India, people admire a strong leader.

It was, after all, President Rajapaksa who gave a crushing blow to the LTTE and rid the country of terror. The fact that there were widespread human rights abuses is not important to those who admire him. These people point to the number of Sinhala leaders such as former Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, Foreign Ministers Lalith Athalatmudali and Ranjan Wijeratne and Development Minister Gamini Dissanayake who were killed by the LTTE. Many Tamil leaders, including the genial Neelan Tiruchelvam and the elderly leader of a former Tamil party Amrithalingam, were also killed by the LTTE.

Rajapaksa has always been a favourite of the Buddhist clergy who are known for their hyper nationalist stand. Though Rajapaksa was out of power, his popular base remained intact. Now that he is back with a bang, he will occupy centrestage in Sri Lankan politics.

That would be of concern to India, which regards Rajapaksa as pro-China. But that was not always so. During Sri Lanka’s last military operation against the LTTE, India helped Colombo, though it refused to give lethal weapons. It not only feared a backlash in Tamil Nadu, but remembered the goodwill it enjoyed among Sri Lankan Tamils. China stepped in with arms during the war. It was only after Prabhakaran and the entire LTTE leadership were killed and stories of the horrors of the last days of the military campaign became public that New Delhi changed its stand. It joined hands with the US and other western powers to chastise Rajapaksa and the Lankan military excesses.

A friendless Rajapaksa then turned more and more to China. Matters came to a head when he allowed a Chinese submarine and a warship to dock in Colombo port in 2014. Not once, but twice. That spooked India. The Chinese navy has been steadily increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean and making forays into countries that Delhi once believed was within its sphere of influence. China is now a player in both the Maldives and Sri Lanka. When Sirisena and Wickremasinghe won the 2015 elections, Delhi heaved a sigh of relief to see the back of a pro-China president. It was indeed a premature reaction.

“With Rajapaksa back in the driver’s seat, it is advantage China for now. According to reports, the Chinese ambassador was the first to call on Rajapaksa after he was sworn in,’’ said China expert Srikanth Kondapalli. “But the Chinese may have miscalculated as Wickremasinghe has more lawmakers on his side. A no-holds-barred effort to buy MPs will be on.”

Kondapalli believes China which had earlier kept aloof from domestic politics of other countries is fast learning how democracy works.

So should India be worried about the return of Rajapaksa? Not really. The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe duo had allowed China to go ahead with the Colombo Port City Project. This is despite the protests that erupted when it was launched in September 2014 by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Rajapaksa. The latter was much criticised and protests over environmental concerns were raised by the then opposition. However, once the new government came to power, the project was revived and in fact, expanded.

So whether a government is pro-China or not, Chinese funding is difficult to resist for most developing countries. India has to live with this fact instead of fretting. Also, New Delhi realises that it needs to meet the deadline for all ongoing  projects. When Wickremasinghe was in Delhi in October, the conversation between him and Modi was also about sticking to schedules.

That said, it is also a fact that Rajapaksa has been making overtures and has visited India several times when he was out of power. It is unlikely that he will tilt completely towards China as he once did. He would want to repair ties with India.

New Delhi cannot interfere in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics. It will have to deal with whoever is in power there. “As a democracy and a close friendly neighbour, we hope that the democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected. We will continue to extend our developmental assistance to the friendly people of Sri Lanka,” the ministry of external affairs said in a statement after the sacking of Wickremasinghe.

It will be a wait and watch policy till the fog in the island nation clears.

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