The reported outburst by Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena last week alleging an R&AW plot to kill him was denied several times over in a matter of hours — including in a phone call that Sirisena made to Prime Minister Narendra Modi — before it could cause any lasting damage to bilateral relations.
What the episode has underlined though, is the instability of Sri Lanka’s National Unity Government (NUG), which comprises Sirisena, his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its coalition partners in the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his United National Party (UNP).
With presidential elections due in a little over a year, the churn in the country’s politics has left Sirisena, the unassuming central Sri Lanka politician who rose from within the SLFP to defeat party leader Mahinda Rajapakse in 2014, feeling isolated and insecure.
Sirisena is locked in a simultaneous confrontation with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on the one hand, and his old enemy Rajapakse on the other; the former President is now the de facto head of the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP), which is basically a faction of SLFPers loyal to him, including some who are part of the NUG.
Confident after SLPP’s spectacular showing at the local body elections earlier this year, Rajapakse cannot wait to make a comeback to power. He wants Sirisena to break away from Wickremesinghe, reunite with him, and appoint him Prime Minister of a “caretaker government”. Alternatively, Rajapakse would like to force an early parliamentary election, before the presidential election scheduled for December 2019.
In 2015, the NUG brought in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, restoring the two-term limit for the President, which Rajapakse had removed when he held that office. Rajapakse has already had two terms, and cannot contest in 2019.
But if he is in power and holding high office, Rajapakse may be better placed to swing the required simple majority for his candidate in the presidential election. Also not ruled out is a bid by Rajapakse for the presidency himself, if he can get the numbers to persuade Parliament to reopen the office to him.
Those who know Sirisena say the only reason he is not pulling out of his coalition with Wickremesinghe is that he fears Rajapakse’s return more than anything else. He is also not sanguine that the Prime Minister will not join hands with Rajapakse against him.
Sirisena wants to run again — and sees his staying on as President as his only insurance. He believes he has a good chance of winning if he can (i) distance himself from Wickremesinghe and the anti-incumbency that the government faces for not delivering on job creation and other promises, and the taint of corruption from a bonds scam early on its term; and (ii) get the courts to go after the Rajapakse family for a host of alleged misdeeds committed by them while in power.
The Prime Minister appears to be waiting and watching to see which faction of the SLFP gains the upper hand in the coming days before making his next move. The obvious rift with the President, which first came out in the open during the campaign for the local bodies elections, peaked after the results — with Sirisena asking Wickremesinghe to take responsibility for the rout and step down.
Their tussle has now all but paralysed the functioning of the government. Earlier this year, Wickremesinghe survived a no-confidence motion, but a second test is coming up when the vote takes place on the annual Budget, being presented on November 5.
Delhi, Colombo, Beijing
Rajapakse squarely blamed his defeat in the 2014 election on India, particularly on R&AW. It was an open secret that New Delhi’s relations with Rajapakse had altogether collapsed by then. He had played fast and loose on promises of post-war devolution to the Tamil North, but what angered India more than anything else was his open embrace of China.
Since then, however, the Indian establishment has made efforts to keep in touch with him, which has added to Sirisena’s insecurity. Modi met Rajapakse on a visit to Colombo last year; the Sri Lankan leader was in New Delhi two months ago, and met the Prime Minister.
While India is the first foreign port of call for every newly elected Sri Lankan Prime Minister or President, when the chips are down, Sinhalese politicians are quick to recall India’s “parippu drop” or Operation Poomalai — the 1987 Indian Air Force mission to airdrop supplies to civilians trapped in Jaffna when Sri Lankan forces had laid siege to the peninsula.
Just as Wickremesinghe landed in New Delhi last week, Sirisena loyalist and Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe was emphasising at a press conference in Colombo that Sri Lanka would not hand over development of the Eastern Terminal at Colombo port to India. The project is included in the MoU on Economic Co-operation that India and Sri Lanka signed in March 2017. India has roped in Japan for the project, which is expected to cost upward of $500 million. Discussions among the three sides, spearheaded by Wickremesinghe for his country, are said to be at an advanced stage.
Other projects that India is interested in hastening in order to balance the Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka too, are hanging fire: among them, an LNG terminal in Kerawalapitiya outside Colombo, Mattale airport close to the Chinese owned Hambantota port, Palaly airport in Jaffna, and the Trincomalee oil tank farms. There have been conflicting signals on each from Colombo.
The Sri Lankan weekly Sunday Times reported that when the ECT project came up for discussion at a meeting of the Cabinet on October 16 — the same one from which reports of the assassination plot emerged — Sirisena intervened to say “I am not going to give it to any outside party”, and “we cannot give our domestic assets to outsiders”. He said he had already told Modi this during their meeting at the BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu in August. The alleged assassination plot is said to be an offshoot of this discussion, and reportedly brought up several other grievances that Sirisena has against Wickremesinghe — including the purported role played by police officers close to the Prime Minister, apart from an Indian national.
In Sri Lanka, Sirisena’s allegations have evoked derision if not outright dismissal. But as the elections draw closer, the President’s isolation grows, and he and the other protagonists grapple with their demons, India should expect rough seas.
Tomorrow | Churn in the Neighbourhood Part 2: Bhutan