The Lankan Transition Resets Indian Ocean Politics (II)

The Lankan Transition Resets Indian Ocean Politics (II)

Part I

One chessboard and many players

The first priority for Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena will be to create a political base for himself within the ruling coalition. The directions of his government’s policies will depend on Sirisena’s political consolidation. 

Sirisena has been a committed member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party [SLFP] for several decades and his best hope lies in snatching the party from the control of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. His power base is not very different from Rajapaksa’s. 

However, given the deep-rooted antipathies between the SLFP and the United National Party led by Ranil Wickremesinghe (whom Sirisena has appointed as the prime minister according to the deal worked out in the run-up to the recent election), tensions are bound to arise in the working of the new government. 

How long can the inchoate coalition carry on is anybody’s guess, as the countdown begins for the next parliamentary election (due next year). Once he consolidates, why should Sirisena ‘abdicate’ power in favor of Wckremesinghe? This is the second issue. Party politics in Sri Lanka is very competitive.

Therefore, Sirisena’s immediate objective will be to navigate his passage through a fluid situation. Unsurprisingly, he would choose India for his visit foreign visit. No Sri Lankan leader can afford to ignore or bypass India. 

Moreover, Sirisena is well aware that Rajapaksa had tenaciously cultivated the leadership of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] and its mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS]. Rajapaksa lavishly hosted senior leaders of the BJP and the RSS and built an understanding with them based on ideological affinities – robust nationalism riveted on cultural identity. 

However, the three-way Beijing-Colombo-Delhi diplomatic pirouette during the Rajapaksa era would make a charming case study. China, for sure, expanded its economic and political presence in Sri Lanka during the Rajapaksa years but China’s projects in Sri Lanka were financed with commercial loans. 

When the West tried to pressure Rajapaksa by demanding investigation into alleged war crimes by his government (after having helped Sri Lanka militarily to win the war against the LTTE), China supported him unequivocally in the UN forums. In turn, China’s support enabled Rajapaksa to bargain with Delhi. 

From the Indian viewpoint, Rajapaksa was another past master in the politics of attrition, as almost all his predecessors have been, relentlessly probing the limits to Indian tolerance (and goodwill.) Thus, Rajapaksa would permit Chinese submarines to visit Sri Lankan ports for refueling, etc. on commercial terms but reassured Delhi that this didn’t meant giving a ‘base’ to the Chinese navy. 

He made sure Delhi knew he was no pushover, but also could be a pragmatic interlocutor to do business with. Sirisena can be expected to follow this tradition. 

Towards the end of Rajapaksa’s rule, some sort of a modus vivendi began appearing in Delhi’s equations with Colombo. All in all, Delhi faces yet another transition in Colombo that requires starting all over again. 

But Sirisena enjoys more elbowroom than Rajapaksa. The Anglo-American sponsorship of the ‘regime change’ in Sri Lanka means that the West is no longer a discontented party looking in but has become an active player. 

Sirisena would have one more ball to juggle in the air, but then, it also opens up for him more negotiating space vis-à-vis the foreign powers. 

For the West, the best thing would be if Wickremesinghe won the next general election and headed the government in a revamped parliamentary system under a presidency that voluntarily cut back its constitutional powers. But that is too much to expect. 

Indeed, Washington already senses the need to deal with Sirisena. The secretary of state John Kerry made the first direct contact with Sirisena on Monday. 

But the key question in regional politics will be: How far do the Anglo-American interests and Indian interests converge over Sri Lankan developments? 

India will be quietly pleased if the pro-western leadership of Wickremesinghe begins cutting back on Sri Lanka’s ties with China. However, beyond that comes the issue of the Western presence in Sri Lanka as such, a country that India has regarded as falling within its ‘sphere of influence’. 

No doubt, Britain’s recent return to the ‘east of Suez’ (following the establishment of a military base in Bahrain) prompts London to regain its traditional influence over the political elites in Colombo. Sri Lanka’s pivotal role in the World War II is embedded deep in Britain’s historical consciousness and London would accord great importance to the island’s role in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. 

For the US, of course, Sri Lanka is situated between Diego Garcia and the Malacca Straits; it straddles the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean through which China conducts the bulk of its foreign trade (including imports of oil); and, its potential value to the US’ ‘pivot to Asia’ is self-evident. 

India keeps a safe distance from the US’ containment strategy towards China, but it would have three main considerations in a scenario where the Western strategic presence in Sri Lanka surged. 

One, India would disfavor any Western military presence as such in Sri Lanka. Two, India would be the net loser, being the pre-eminent regional power today, if the big-power rivalries begin to get played out in its backyard (over which it would have no control.) Three, there is the looming Tamil problem. This needs some explanation. 

The Sri Lankan Tamil problem impacts the politics in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu where the BJP is working hard to establish a presence. This is one thing. 

Secondly, any Western mediation in the Sri Lankan Tamil problem would mean a loss of influence for Delhi in the island’s politics. Significantly, the Tamil National Alliance announced its support December 30 for Sirisena’s candidacy in the presidential election only after the return of party leader T. Sampanthan to Colombo from Delhi after holding unpublicized consultations with the Indian establishment. 

Clearly, despite its ‘pro-Western’ outlook, the Sri Lankan Tamil elites simply cannot do without the goodwill of the Indian establishment. And on its part, India will be extremely loathe to see the Western powers poaching into its exclusive preserve in Sri Lankan politics. 

The point is, given the fragmentation of the Sinhala constituency, the Tamil party’s role in Sri Lankan politics remains decisive, as the recent presidential election showed.

The western and Indian media reports have been celebrating that China’s influence in Sri Lanka is all set to peter out. But this zero sum assessment is far too simplistic. 

For one thing, would cash-strapped Britain or the US be willing to replace China’s role as an economic benefactor? China won the projects, after all, through open tenders. 

China’s influence in Sri Lanka is traditional. (Colombo offered to mediate in the 1962 China-India war.) Over and above, the resilience of the Sri Lankan elites as the region’s outstanding practitioners of international diplomacy should not be overlooked. 

Sirisena must be conscious that such an extraordinary level of Western interference in his country’s domestic politics is only due to its potential to be a ‘lynchpin’ in the US-British strategies against China. 

However, being a staunch nationalist with no trace of ‘westernism’ in his DNA, Sirisena would also know that non-alignment is a valuable trump card in the contemporary world situation. Trust him to play the trump card if his game plan comes under threat from the West. 

Tags: India  Sri Lanka