Churn in Sri Lanka

Mahinda Rajapaksa: Once Sri Lankan President, Now Prime Minister

Nitin A. Gokhale New Delhi, India 26 October 2018

Mahinda Rajapaksa has made a stunning comeback at the top of the political heap in Sri Lanka. On a day of dramatic developments, President Maithripala Sirisena appointed MR–as the elder Rajapaksa is known throughout the island nation—as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka late on Friday night, taking almost everyone by surprise.

Mahinda was President of Sri Lanka till January 2015 before he was ousted in a surprising result by Sirisena, who was propped up by a combined opposition led by Ranil Wickramasinghe of the United National Party (UNP), who became Prime Minister that year. Sirisena was earlier a minister in the Rajapaksa government.

On Friday, Sirisena and Rajapaksa—friends-turned-foes-turned-friends again—joined hands to sideline Wickramasinghe. The UNP and Wickramasinghe both have however refused to accept the decision. Wickramasinghe told a local news channel in Sri Lanka that Rajapaksa’s swearing-in was unconstitutional and that he was still Prime Minister. It is not clear if he has any legal options to challenge Sirisena’s decision.

The rupture between Sirisena and Wickramasinghe was apparent for some months but no one expected the break to come so abruptly. Wickramasinghe had told SNI in an interview less than two months ago that despite ideological differences he and Sirisena had an excellent relationship. The end however came on Friday evening when the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), a coalition led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)—headed by Sirisena–decided to withdraw from the unity government it had formed with the UNP in 2015 and swear in Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa are members of SLFP.

Rajapaksa, credited with defeating the Tamil Tigers in a brutal war in 2009 and ending 27 years of civil war in the country, had ruled Sri Lanka for a decade before his surprise defeat in January 2015 for which he blamed India’s external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RA&W). Last month however Rajapaksa made a highly publicised three-day visit to Delhi in an apparent bid to mend fences with the Narendra Modi government. He met Prime Minister Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval during his trip and it was clear that Rajapaksa had decided to turn a new leaf in his relationship with India, leaving the bitterness of 2015 behind. During his meetings in Delhi he had admitted to ‘misunderstanding’ with India over his close proximity to China. What assurances Rajapaksa received and what promises he made to India is however not known although it is clear that New Delhi has also decided to move on.

In 2014, New Delhi had conveyed in no uncertain terms to then Rajapaksa government that a red line had been crossed when a Chinese submarine was allowed to dock at Colombo port. Immediately following the submarine episode, New Delhi encouraged the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe combine to fight election together against Rajapaksa. In January 2015, the combined opposition to Rajapaksa was successful in ousting him. A new political renaissance was supposed to have dawned over Sri Lanka.

In the intervening three-and-a-half years however, the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe combine could not meet any of the expectations paving the way for Rajapaksa, who retains substantial popular support among the majority Sinhalese, to make a political comeback. Earlier this year, when a newly floated political outfit patronised by Rajapaksa won a huge majority in local elections, the countdown for the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government had well and truly begun.

But the last scene in the political drama was written last week when Ranil Wickramasinghe also travelled to New Delhi. Twenty-four hours before Wickramasinghe came to India, Sirisena made a sensational claim in a cabinet meeting that a plot to assassinate him had been uncovered, creating a flutter both in India and Sri Lanka. A newspaper had claimed that Sirisena had pointed fingers at the R&AW for hatching the so-called plot. Sirisena however spoke to Prime Minister Modi and clarified that he had not held R&AW responsible for the conspiracy.

As Ranil Wickramsinghe returned home after a low-profile visit to Delhi, it was clear that differences between him and Sirisena were now irreconcilable. Friday’s fast moving developments have brought to an end a political chapter in Sri Lanka that promised much but delivered little. Now it’s over to Rajapaksa again.

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  • This is international politics and shows India’s position in the World Order. We are doing well. Both Sri Lanka and Maldives throw up international surprises in our favour.