The return of Mahinda Rajapaksa to power in Sri Lanka amid political turmoil has triggered concern in India, with analysts warning it could lead to a deterioration of ties with the island nation to its south-east and increase the influence of China, already making serious inroads into South Asia.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Oct 26 and named his one-time rival as his replacement.
The move plunged the country into political turmoil and a constitutional crisis as Wickremesinghe refused to give up his post even as Rajapaksa was sworn in as Prime Minister.
Sri Lankan Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya said last Friday that the House would reconvene on Wednesday. It is uncertain when a vote of confidence would take place. Rajapaksa needs 113 votes in the 225-seat Parliament.
Indian analysts said his return could see Sri Lanka’s renewed cooperation with China, which he drew his country closer to during his 10-year tenure as president, awarding massive infrastructure projects such as the Hambantota Port to Chinese companies and taking major loans from Beijing to fund these projects.
Ties with India, in contrast, fell to a low point, with Rajapaksa failing to follow up on a promise of devolving power to the country’s Tamil population.
“India is certainly not happy with Rajapaksa’s return, though they are not openly saying it,” said Professor S. D. Muni, a South Asia expert and former envoy to the Indian government.
“There is quiet support for Ranil. The past experience has not been good, not just with China. He didn’t deliver on anything India expected, like the Tamil issue.”
He said there was no trust or understanding between New Delhi and Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena (left) has sacked his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Oct 26, 2018.
Over the past few years, China has slowly ramped up its presence in India’s neighbourhood, cultivating ties with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in what Indian strategists term a “string of pearls” of encirclement.
Through the Belt and Road initiative, China is involved in major infrastructure projects in the region, building ports and railway lines in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, for instance.
Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli is seen to be working on reducing India’s influence on his country while pushing economic and trade links with China at the same time.
Analysts say China’s growing influence in the region would continue to worry India.
“What they have been able to do is rupture the power structure in South Asia,” said Professor Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It used to be Indian domination. Now China is at an advantage. They are pumping in money, financing projects which many of these countries need.”
Sri Lanka has sought to dispel speculation that the return of Rajapaksa would mean closer ties with China.
Newly-appointed Foreign Minister Sarath Amunugama said Sri Lanka would not pursue closer ties with China at the expense of its neighbour, India.
“For Sri Lanka, we look on this as a great asset, to have two giant friends,” Amunugama told Bloomberg. “There’s no benefit to Sri Lanka to be tilting to one side or the other. By being friendly with India, we are not being unfriendly with China.”
Nonetheless, while the Chinese authorities have congratulated Rajapaksa, India has not.
Rajapaksa has tweeted that the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, Cheng Xueyuan, met him and presented a congratulatory message from Prime Minister Li Keqiang.
But New Delhi has not endorsed his return to power.
“We are following the developments very closely. We do hope democratic values and the constitutional process in Sri Lanka will be respected,” said Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Ravish Kumar at a press briefing last Thursday.