Sri Lanka: It Is Neo-Cold War, And At India’s Gates – Analysis


By N Sathiya Moorthy

Independent of the domestic outcomes of the current constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka, it may have already opened up the floodgates for a neo-Cold War centred on South Asia, and knocking at India’s multiple gates already. For a ‘thinking’ Sri Lankan politician, ‘sacked’ UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, may have done the unthinkable by inviting select western diplomats, and also the Indian envoy, to explain his case, keeping out countries like China and Russia, among others. This may have medium and long-term consequences, not only for Sri Lanka but also for the region as a whole, whether or not it spreads out to other regions and continents, as with the forgotten ‘Cold War.’

According to media reports, the deputy high commissioner at Colombo represented India at Wickremesinghe’s briefing. Unlike American and European friends/allies, India also maintained cautious silence on the first day. By the time India’s official statement appeared on Sunday, the ground situation had become clearer with some indication that the Wickremesinghe ‘government’ could well clear a floor-test, whenever held. This does not necessarily mean that the ‘whenever’ part cannot remain eternal, or there cannot be many a slip between the cup and the lip.

This reality may have also prompted Chinese Ambassador Cheng Xueyuan to call on Wickremesinghe a day after he had met with ‘rival prime minister’ Mahinda Rajapaksa, sworn in by controversial President Maithripala Sirisena, after office and court hours on 26 October 2018. As official statements said, Amb. Xueyuan conveyed to Rajapaksa Chinese President Xi Jinping’s congratulatory message on his assuming the ‘prime ministership.’

Nothing much has been said about Amb. Xueyuan’s meeting with Wickremesinghe. It is also unclear if China, after waking up to an unanticipated situation, began running with the hare after hunting with the hound. However, the uninformed observer cannot be blamed, if he likened the situation, thus.

Surprise element

The only thing that has remained ‘non-controversial’ about Sirisena thus far is that of his constitutional position as President. It used to be so in the case of Wickremesinghe, too, until Friday evening — not any more, at least until he is able to prove his parliamentary majority for real, and/or seeks and obtains a favourable verdict from the nation’s Supreme Court.

Before this real show-down, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had indulged in many, many rounds of shadow-boxing and dog-fights, so much so the Sri Lankan nation had stopped taking them seriously. What mattered to the people was the effect of the same, as it involved governmental policy (as with Hambantota debt-equity swap-deal involving China) and massive financial losses (Central Bank bonds scam). The more recent ones involved India, taking them from a breakdown to a showdown.

In the past, on most such issues, Wickremesinghe and his UNP ministerial colleagues got caught on the wrong foot. Sirisena played ‘catcher’, who would then give the impression that but for him at the helm, worse would have happened to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. It is this ‘watch-dog’ personality that Sirisena sought to convey in his national address on Sunday, the first one after what Team Ranil dubs a ‘constitutional coup.’

If Sirisena’s SLFP-UPFA ministers did not get similarly caught like their UNP alliance partners, one reason was that the latter would never allow them to dip their hands in the till. It was also the personal grouse of most of them, leading to and ‘justifying’ the UPFA withdrawal of support to the Ranil leadership.

Otherwise, Sirisena also retained the ‘surprise element’ this time as he had done while quitting the Rajapaksa Government and challenging him in the presidential polls of 2015. Sirisena won the election, but Wickremesinghe and his (international) backers did not seem to have learnt enough about the man by then, or even later.

Neighbourhood concerns

For India, as with common neighbour Maldives, democracy and constitutional propriety seems to have become an overnight concern in Sri Lanka, too. As Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), said on Sunday, India was closely following the political developments in Sri Lanka and expressed the “hope that democratic values and constitutional process will be respected.”

This could well imply that India may wait for any direction/verdict from the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, if and when moved. Though Wickremesinghe’s UNP Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has contested President Sirisena ‘unilaterally’ proroguing Parliament when the Budget was to be presented on 5 November, the interregnum may have unwittingly given the Supreme Court to give its firm views in the matter.

If team Ranil were to move the Supreme Court, very many questions could be agitated. The first and foremost concerns the legitimacy and constitutionality of Sirisena’s decision to ‘sack’ Wickremesinghe, which according to the latter, was ‘invalid’ under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that they had got passed. On the question of proving a majority, who between Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa, should be allowed to face a floor-test?

While Sri Lankan legal experts may count on British author May’s Parliamentary Practice, from among the South Asian nations, India has vast and varied constitutional literature and court verdicts in the matter. This includes the Supreme Court’s landmark verdict in the S.R. Bommai case (1994) and various off-shoots, and also such compendiums as the one by Kaul & Shakder and going by the same title.

Multi-faceted, but…

The fallout of the Sri Lankan problem now on India is multi-faceted and none of them is going to be easy to address and/or decide upon. They are not stand-alone, either. The MEA statement on Sunday, specifically, referred to continued development assistance to Sri Lanka, implying a tentative tilt towards Wickremesinghe, if at all. Given that India development projects were at the centre of the most recent tiff between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, New Delhi can forget its offer, at least for a while, whichever Sri Lankan stake-holder wins (for) now.

Despite the tall-talk after his recent discussions with Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi, Wickremesinghe was taking a pot-shot at Sirisena more than anything else. In a near-similar context, as Prime Minister under President Chandrika Bandaranaike in 2004, Wickremesinghe had said that the “US is not going to like it,” when the latter had sacked some of his ministers unilaterally when he was still in an Oval Office meeting with President George Bush.

Wickremesinghe’s comments did not go down well with some of his intellectual supporters and some members of the strategic community back home, though they were even more vehement in their opposition to Bandaranaike’s decision as also her timing of the ministerial sackings. In particular, they did not approve of Wickremesinghe saying such things from the White House lawns, as if the US would back him if there was a show down, and thus threatening the Sri Lankan President of the day.

In taking India projects forward, Wickremesinghe may also be stymied by apprehensions of stirring up the majority ‘Sinhala nationalist constituency’, especially when India was purportedly at the centre of the current controversy — including the avoidable and unsubstantiated name-drawing of R&AW, India’s external intelligence agency, in a perceived plot to assassinate Sirisena. If the Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo won the gamble now, again India can forget the ‘development’ offer for some more time, but exactly for opposing reasons.

Ethnic issue and solution

In the immediate context, India may also get bogged down in the Sri Lankan ethnic issue, for which again, New Delhi’s then favourite, namely, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo did precious little in the past nearly four years. Not that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has done better on this score, other than playing hide-and-seek with the duo leadership, depending on the politico-electoral pressures that they faced from within the community than from friends like India.

The Sirisena-Rajapksa coup, if it could be called so, may have well tilted the limelight away from Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, who has since floated a breakaway Tamil People’s Alliance (TPA), a day after remitting office at the end of the five-year term. In a way, Rajapaksa’s ‘post-Inauguration’ call for early polls refers only to Provincial Council polls of the kind (equal to Indian States but with powers akin to those of the Union Territories) — and not for the presidency or Parliament.

For now, the TNA too seems to be sending out confusing signals to the Sinhala stake-holders, though it may still be ‘Advantage Wickremesinghe’, if it came to a parliamentary show-down. But the TNA’s problem, as also of the Sinhala and international stake-holders, may occur, if the newly-formed TPA (and its prospective allies) decide(s) to field Wigneswaran as a ‘Tamil candidate’ in the presidential polls of 2019-20, the first one after the late Kumar Ponnambalam, as far back as 1977.

Democracy discourse

These are some of the short and medium-term pin-pricks for India, as much as it may end up being so for Sri Lanka, too, if only over the longer term. But over the long term, the Sri Lankan crisis may have drawn and drawn out the context and contents of a neo-Cold War in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood, after whatever has happened and continues to happen in Maldives. For India, overnight, ‘democracy discourse’ has become the watch-word, not only in the domestic context, but also in terms of ’Neighbourhood Policy.’

At one-level, it is akin to the post-9/11 American and European concerns for democracy in such nations as other Asian Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, which Washington branded as an ‘Axis of Evil.’ Unlike in the case of the US and the EU, for India, such democracy concerns are in the immediate neighbourhood, not in distant lands.

Barring Pakistan, India’s real politico-diplomatic and geo-strategic concerns do not pertain to the other neighbourhood nations. Instead, it is now centred more on China than possibly Pakistan. India shares a 4000 km land border, up north and away from the seas in the south, where alone the current pro-democracy actions are situated.

As coincide would have it, increasing Chinese presence in individual countries in the immediate Indian neighbourhood have coincided with more and more democracy issues. There is nothing to suggest that China was/is the architect of any of these, but then, at least in the interim, and maybe over the longer period, China may become the geo-strategic beneficiary.

Apart from Sri Lanka and Maldives, which are only the two of the latest in the list, India already has democracy problems, among others, in Afghanistan, Nepal, and also Bangladesh. That is, leaving out Pakistan, but not excluding Bhutan, where yet another successful democratic transition has occurred for a third time in a row, after voluntary democratisation just a decade ago.

The new Bhutanese government, for instance, is pronouncedly centre-left, though not necessarily pro-China, by extension. Post-Doklam and before it, too, Bhutan had commenced border talks with China, and may continue it under the new government. The question thus before India is this: Should New Delhi see ‘democracy’ and ‘China factor’ as two sides of the same coin, or draw a line and look at their independent presence/absence in individual nations, on their own and on merit?

India can now take pride in former Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom thanking New Delhi for the ‘restoration of democracy’ in his country. Until outgoing Maldivian President and his half-brother Abdulla Yameen came to be dubbed ‘anti-democratic’, domestic and western critics used to call Maumoon Gayoom, ‘autocratic’ for 30 long years. India then had no problem in doing business with him, given New Delhi’s ‘geo-strategic priorities’ of the time, and since.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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