Crisis in Sri Lanka — ‘Wait, see and engage’ is must for India

(Damith Wickramasinghe (CC))
(Damith Wickramasinghe (CC))

In a dramatic turn of events in Sri Lankan polity, President Maithripala Sirisena prorogued Sri Lankan Parliament on Saturday after terminating Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from the office to anoint Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. President Sirisena prorogued the Sri Lankan Parliament to November 16th after the incumbent PM Ranil Wickremesinghe sought emergency Parliamentary session to prove his legislative majority. Speaker of the Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya refused to accept the decision of President Sirisena and endorsed Wickremesinghe as the legitimate Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

The Unity Government comprising of UNPF (Sirisena’s political party) and UNP (Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political party) got into a marriage of convenience to oust the autocratic President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 Presidential elections. Maithripala Sirisena was a close-aide of Rajapaksa who backstabbed him before the elections to form an alliance with Wickremesinghe against President Rajapaksa. Sri Lankan Freedom Party (Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political party) is ideologically conservative and right-wing majority (Sinhalese) supported political outfit that opposes any reconciliation with Tamils (minority) in the country. They oppose any devolution of powers to the provinces and favour unitary form of government. The current President Sirisena is an offshoot of the same political outfit who only entered the Unity Government (UNPF+UNP alliance) for political opportunism. Ranil Wickremesinghe belongs to a more liberal and democratic character that seeks to ensure an accommodative and inclusive Sri Lankan polity with due respect to minority community (Tamilian) interests. As the marriage of convenience between Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe was bound to collapse due to non-adhesive nature of political opportunism of ousting Rajapaksa, the fallout of last week was imminent.

Among other factors for the break-up of Unity Alliance, the immediate trigger came up in the form of resurgence in the popularity of Mahinda Rajapaksa who capitalised the Sinhalese (majority) support against the Unity Government of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe (UNPF-UNP). President Sirisena had promised parliamentary form of democracy and adequate devolution of powers (via 13th Amendment) to provincial councils before accession to power but he failed to live up to his promises, which came up as a stumbling block in the continuity of alliance between the two partners. PM Wickremsinghe was advocating the adoption of a 5th constitution to address two of the most contentious issues – ‘form of government’ (concerned with 17th Amendment) and ‘model of Sri Lankan polity (unitary/federal)’ (13th Amendment) which remain unaddressed till today. President Sirisena was allegedly not in favour of any more revisions to the existing constitution.

Sri Lanka has had four constitutions since independence (in 1948). The current constitution was adopted in 1978 by J R Jayewardene which switched the parliamentary form of government to a hybridisation of presidential form of government with parliamentary features. It narrowly resembles French model of government. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has weakened several constitutional provisions during his autocratic tenure from 2005-2015 by removing term limits on the President and removing all the checks and balances on the powers of President. He trampled with the 17th Amendment that seeks to embolden the Westminster model of government by empowering the council of ministers led by the Prime Minister.

According to the Sri Lankan Constitution of 1978, the President could remove the Prime Minister after the first year of Parliamentary polls. In the past also, Ranil Wickremesinghe was dismissed by Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2003. But in 2015, this provision was amended to divest this arbitrary power of the President. Therefore, PM Ranil Wickremesinghe is alleging that President Sirisena has acted against the letter and spirit of constitution. However, President Sirisena’s side alleges that before the removal of PM Wickremesinghe, the UPFA withdrew political support from UNP which meant that Wickremesinghe was running a minority government without adequate parliamentary support. Therefore, the ouster of PM Wickremesinghe stands constitutionally right.

Amidst all this political hullabaloo and bickering in Unity government’s collapse and subsequent accession of Mahinda Rajapaksa, India has responded maturely by seeking to ensure that democratic values and constitutional process will be scrupulously followed by Sri Lanka. As soon as the tilt of power went in favour of Rajapaksa, China endorsed the new government of Sri Lanka without any loss of time. This confirms an external dimension to internal political upheaval of Sri Lankan politics. Anyhow, for India, a ‘wait, see and engage’ approach (not necessarily in that order) is the most pragmatic approach at this juncture. India cannot afford to indulge in partisanship because the Sri Lankan politics and its political leaders are at an evolutionary stage since the 2015 elections. Many analysts suggest that India should offer support to PM Ranil Wickremesinghe but we should not forget the fact that he was actually responsible for leasing out Hambantota Port to the Chinese for 99 years. He also offered a $300 million housing project in Jaffna (Phase 1 already completed by India) to the Chinese in early 2018 which was scrapped only in October 2018 when he was bound to pay an official visit to India. Therefore, his departure must not come across as a setback for India. Mahinda Rajapaksa visited India in September 2018 to reiterate his vision of an inclusive Sri Lanka, as against his earlier hardline pro-Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism. He also confirmed to keep the special concerns of India in mind if he comes to power again. Therefore, this evolution of political leaders in Sri Lanka suggests that Rajapaksa’s arrival into mainstream power may not be a bad idea for India. We should remember that Rajapaksa of yesterday is not the Rajapaksa of today. Similarly, Wickremesinghe of yesterday is also not the Wickremesinghe of today.

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