By N Sathiya Moorthy
As a “close neighbour and true friend”, India has welcomed the “resolution of the political situation in Sri Lanka”, External Affairs Ministry (MEA) spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said in a statement in New Delhi, a day after Ranil Wickremesinghe returned as the Prime Minister in Colombo. The statement commented that the Sri Lankan developments were a “reflection of the maturity demonstrated by all political forces, and also of the resilience of Sri Lankan democracy and its institutions”.
As the MEA spokesman said, “India remains committed to taking forward its people-oriented development projects in Sri Lanka. We are confident that India-Sri Lanka relations will continue to move on an upward trajectory,” the statement added. As is self-evident, the statement kept the focus on development projects. Otherwise, it worded bilateral issues in general and generalised terms, without seeming to take sides.
For starters, the Indian statement refrains from using the term ‘constitutional crisis’, clearly indicating that it does not want to be seen as taking any position on the ‘political situation’ in Sri Lanka. This, from a long-term neighbourhood perspective, should be a welcome deviation from New Delhi’s statements on the Maldivian situation.
India, as may be recalled, took a tough position on Yameen’s Maldives, especially since the archipelago-nation’s controversial Supreme Court verdict of 1 February 2018, freeing all political prisoners. In doing so, the Supreme Court also quashed the disqualification of 12 ‘defector-MPs’, where the court order had greater justification than on other issues. The tough Indian posturing continued at least until the commencement of the presidential poll campaign, which also ended international doubts about the conduct of the elections.
It is election year, in India first, followed by twin polls in Sri Lanka, a year later. India’s all-important parliamentary polls are due in May 2019. Sri Lanka, as things stand restored, will face presidential polls by January 2020, followed by parliamentary elections in August that year. While India has returned to the settled principle of ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of another nation, more so in the immediate neighbourhood, the Sri Lankan situation seems to remain unclear and unsure even after the return of ‘near-normalcy’ in political and constitutional terms.
This was followed more importantly by a three-Judge bench, declining ‘interim’ Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s plea, against a lower court order, restraining him from discharging such functions. The Supreme Court then posted the case for further hearing to mid-January 2019, after the conclusion of the winter vacation.
This meant that Rajapaksa still could not function as Prime Minister, and President Sirisena cannot have the parliamentary polls anyway conducted on 5 January as fixed by him. This had created a constitutional vacuum at one level, and impasse at another level. Unable to muster a parliamentary majority, which Wickremesinghe had proved repeatedly, Rajapaksa wanted out, and used the SC’s refusal of stay, to present an argument to the nation. Anyway, he was all for, and always for, fresh parliamentary polls, asap, even when sworn in Prime Minister, hastily.
Dramatic, all the way
Rajapaksa’s exit was more dramatic than his shocking entry as the Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe being sworn in the Prime Minister for the fifth time in about 25 years has also been the most dramatic of all prime ministerial entries in Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history. Adding to the drama was President Sirisena holding back his consent until it became untenable, as much politically as it was constitutionally. What makes his swearing in of Wickremesinghe for a second time in about four years, is his subsequent re-assertion that he was doing his duty, and not with his heart in the task.
For friends of Sri Lanka, this could imply a continuing period of political instability in the country. It could extend up to the next parliamentary polls, which ordinarily is a full one and half years away. Alternatively, a ‘friendly’ President in the place of Sirisena, getting elected, eight months earlier in January 2020, is a possibility. The third possibility is of a new President in Sirisena’ place, or he himself getting re-elected, and choosing to change the Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe and his UNP-UNF combine cannot question it beyond a point, as they were the beneficiaries of Sirisena’s benevolence at the very moment of becoming President in 2015.
In this context, the SC case pertaining to Rajapaksa’s continuance as the Prime Minister assumes constitutional significance as much as the ‘dissolution case’ verdict. The 19th Amendment, which impacted on the ‘dissolution case’, is silent on the President’s power to appoint a new Prime Minister after assuming office. There is reference only before and after 19-A that any new Prime Minister sworn in by a new President, would and could ‘muster’ a parliamentary majority, whatever the method. In the current context, by sticking to their own parties despite possible endearments, Sri Lanka’s parliamentarians have set a new and healthy precedent, with the result.
Inching towards polls, still?
Now, after the Supreme Court verdict in the ‘dissolution case’, and the return of Wickremesinghe, President Sirisena’s unbecoming posturing can still have political consequences. For instance, the TNA’s continuing ‘outside support’ for the Wickremesinghe-led UNP-UNF Government is supposedly predicated on the latter piloting a ‘political solution’ to the ethnic issue.
Despite court verdicts, President Sirisena continues to head the Cabinet and chairs Cabinet meetings. He is the Supreme Commander, and his own Defence Minister. So, for Wickremesinghe to stand by purported commitments to the TNA, to win over the Tamils, is not likely to happen, as fast as anticipated. Major power-devolution issues are already in a Constituent Assembly, where nothing much is likely to move, as it would require a two-thirds majority. Some may even require a public referendum under the existing Constitution. Playing the reverse now, it can be said that even if Wickremesinghe may clear a referendum, he does not have a two-thirds majority in the Parliament.
Any massive defection could be repugnant to the civil society organisations, which were solidly against Rajapaksa, and thus with Wickremesinghe and the UNP, first in 2015, and more recently during the ‘constitutional crisis’. They may not have the votes, but can still make enough noise that could embarrass Wickremesinghe as much as it could harass Rajapaksa in the past.
There is also the other aspect of the possible deal within the UNP after the ‘constitutional crisis’, which alone seemed to have ensured that the party stood by Wickremesinghe as one man, as never before in these two-plus decades of stewardship. If Sirisena has an inkling and is playing on the party sentiment, then pressure may built on the UNP to act between now and the presidential elections, if it were to change the national discourse, in a positive way.
Giving up hopes
After all that has happened, Sirisena might end up giving up hopes, if any, for even contesting a second term. The Rajapaksas, after the current constitutional crisis, might find it difficult to win the presidency, which looked not impossible earlier. If nothing else, barring father Mahinda R and parliamentarian-son Namal R, other Rajapaksa clan members, especially the former’s siblings, have sunk into the background since the eruption of the constitutional crisis. The family is going to find it difficult to revive the pre-crisis spirit, and enthuse ex-defence secretary, Gota Rajapaksa, to be the presidential candidate.
Against this, UNP may have an attractive proposition in promoting Wickremesinghe as the presidential candidate, or propose someone one else to that position, and retain him as Prime Minister until parliamentary polls. Whatever, in presidential polls, which is still on the nation-wide basis, the UNP with its UNF partners has an edge though it may not be an outright advantage. The same may not be the case with parliamentary polls unless the two are held simultaneously.
If this were to happen, then the UNP would have to move a parliamentary resolution ahead of the presidential polls, to have the House dissolved. That will require a two-thirds majority. Both while in the Opposition and as the ‘short-term’ Prime Minister, Mahinda R had proposed the same, but whether he would now want to help the UNP, if it came to that, is anybody’s guess.
It is still doubtful if anyone them could find their finality before the polls, or if they would have any great political impact after five long years, is again unclear. They will have to build up a positive public image, through better performance, which they have not been giving over the past four years.
Against this, Mahinda Rajapaksa has fired his salvo while quitting as ‘Prime Minister’. As he has pointed out, the 103-member UNP-UNF was dependent on 14-member TNA for crossing the 113 cut-off mark in the 225-seat Parliament. He has consistently polled around 45 percent vote-share since losing power. Seeking to revive ‘Sinhala nationalist’ voter memory, he has implicated Wickremesinghe and the UNP-UNF in striking a deal with the TNA. This to the constituency translates as ‘sell-out to the LTTE remnants’, though the TNA is anything but an ‘LTTE remnant’ in any which way.
Alongside, Rajapaksa’s political aides and son Namal have begun talking about the nation’s ‘sovereignty’. This has two sides. One is the TNA-LTTE. The other is the UNP selling out to the West, whose envoys took strong positions, not only on the ‘constitutional crisis’, but also on the pending Supreme Court case. Some went as far as what could be construed at times as ‘seeking to influence the Sri Lankan Supreme Court’ on the ‘dissolution case’, that too from public platforms.
If nothing else, the Rajapaksa campaign is sure to exploit it as an emotional issue ahead of the polls. The UNP never ever has been comfortable defending their position on ‘sovereignty issues’ of the kind – independent of their own sense of patriotism, which is none less than that of any other Sri Lankan!