Narendra Modi’s trip to Sri Lanka will be the the first stand-alone prime ministerial visit in 28 years. Will Colombo’s internal politics play spoilsport in this new chapter in India-Sri Lanka ties?
In January 2015, Sri Lanka’s Presidential elections concluded with the victory of Maithripala Sirisena of the United National Party (UNP) led coalition and the ouster of President Mahinda Rajapaksa of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). These results been welcomed by political observers in India as an event that will significantly alter Indo-Sri Lankan bilateral relations.
Under Mahinda Rajapaksa, India and Sri Lanka shared a cold relationship, primarily due to Sri Lanka’s deepening economic and strategic ties with China. Chinese investments in infrastructure and defence in Sri Lanka surged, as did its physical presence in the Indian Ocean almost at the start of Rajapaksa’s Presidential tenure. The Indian establishment repeatedly raised the issue of the Chinese Navy’s presence in the region as it was a strategic concern however these more often than not, went unheeded. Political observers in India have been quick to point out Maithripala Sirisena’s seemingly pro-India stance and the prospects for warmer Indo-Sri Lankan ties. However, given the Sri Lanka’s internal political scenario and the upcoming general elections it may be prudent to strike a note of caution.
Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power in 2005 after Chandrika Kumaratunga completed her two term limit as President. Rajapaksa reshuffled the Sri Lankan Cabinet taking charge of the Defence and Finance portfolios. His focus was on eliminating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and through a sustained and often ruthless campaign by the Sri Lankan Army, he ended the 26 year civil war in the country in 2009. Bolstered by his victory, Rajapaksa called for early elections in 2009 and secured his second term as President in 2010.
Following Rajapaksa’s relection the Sri Lankan Parliament passed the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution. This amendment removed the two term limit for Presidents making way for a candidate’s re-election as many times as they wished to contest. The amendment also gave the President the power to appoint the chairpersons of independent commissions like the Election Commission, Judicial Affairs Commission and the Human Rights Commission.
The promise to remove the eighteenth amendment was one of the key promises made by Maithripala Sirisena in his bid to win the 2015 elections. His 100 day plan included the removal of the eighteenth amendment and the powers it gave the President. It is essential to note here that in 1978, the Sri Lankan Constitution moved from a Parliamentary, Westminster style political system, envisaged in the 1972 Constitution, to a Presidential style political system similar to that in France. President Sirisena has promised to revert to the pre-1978, Westminster style parliamentary constitution. Fresh parliamentary elections are expected to be held after April 23rd at the end of the 100 day period. The outcome of these elections will be a crucial factor in determining the pace at which Indo-Sri Lankan ties move forward.
According to Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council, an independent political think-tank in Colombo, the UNP led coalition under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is responsible for improving Sri Lanka’s ties with India.
In an interview to BOOM, Dr. Perera said, “Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is making a determined effort to come back into active politics. He hopes to become the Prime Ministerial candidate of the SLFP, which is President Sirisena’s party. However, President Sirisena is unlikely to accede to this demand. He claimed publicly after the election that if he had lost, he would have been eliminated by Rajapaksa.”
In such a situation, for Rajapaksa to enter active politics again he would most likely have to form his own party. An indication of his popularity can be gauged from the public rally he held on the 18th of February at Nugegoda. According to a Sri Lankan newspaper report, over 500,000 people attended it in support of Rajapaksa’s bid to re-enter politics and to contest the parliamentary elections. Newspaper reports pointed out that several MPs from the SLFP also attended the rally and were later reprimanded by Sirisena, indicative of cracks forming within the party.
According to a report in Frontline Magazine, the current coalition came together under exceptional circumstances to oust Rajapaksa. However, in the general elections, all the coalition members are expected to contest alone. This brings about the possibility of a number of new coalitions being formed, including one with Rajapaksa as the PM candidate. Under these circumstances there is still the possibility that Rajapaksa could return to power. This could undo the positive developments that have been made under President Sirisena such as Colombo denying Chinese submarines the privileges of docking in Sri Lanka.
Mr. Bhaskar Roy, a strategic analyst and former officer of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) is of the opinion that China’s engagement with Sri Lanka deserves more attention from the Indian Government. In an interview to Boom, he states that, “China has entered too deep into Sri Lanka. Colombo has joined China’s maritime Silk Road initiative. Major infrastructure projects including ports are with China. Sri Lanka receives a lot of military aid from China. It is not going to move away form China, but may not allow China to use a staging post against India.”
Mr. Roy also states that, “India’s civilian assistance to Sri Lanka is much more than that of China’s. India must take cognisance of this.”
This is a factor that will weigh heavily on PM Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka later this week. India has signed four MoUs related to civilian nuclear co-operation, cultural exchanges, co-operation in agriculture and the establishment of the Nalanda University. It is essential that India follow through on these projects so as to fill the void in relations left in the aftermath of the Rajapaksa regime and in order to avoid ceding more political good-will to the Chinese.
PM Modi’s visit will be the last leg of his three nation tour to the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka beginning on March 10th. In Sri Lanka, he is expected to address the Sri Lankan parliament and visit Jaffna, Anuradhapura and Tallaimannar. While these moves indicate a significant step forward in Indo-Sri Lankan relations, the volatility of Sri Lanka’s internal politics brings a degree of uncertainty to the current momentum in bilateral ties.
In an attempt to symbolise his government’s commitment to improve ties, Maithripala Sirisena made India the first stop after becoming President. These moves were made to assuage Indian fears of Beijing’s growing proximity to the Isalnd nation. However, Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe’s statement, that Indian fishermen entering Sri Lankan waters will be shot, certainly does little to signal warmer ties, let alone set the stage for India’s first stand-alone prime ministerial visit in 28 years. Sri Lanka’s internal politics and the recent statements made by their new Prime Minister warrant more cautious reaction from the Indian establishment. Under these circumstances, until the Sirisena government executes all the policies envisioned in its 100 day plan, it will be imperative that India closely monitors Sri Lanka’s internal political developments.