If India wants political stability in Colombo, it must act in the interests of the Sri Lankan people

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On May 9, largely peaceful anti-Rajapaksa protests in Sri Lanka turned violent. In the resulting violence, nine people died, including two police officers, as the agitated mob set fire to the house of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Thereafter, while the prime minister resigned, his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa remained as president. In the face of civil unrest across the country, the government imposed a curfew on May 9 and issued shoot-on-sight orders on those who engage in violence. Although the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister has brought some semblance of political stability to the country, protesters have refused to give in to their demand for President Gotabaya to step down.

Continuing political and economic instability in Sri Lanka has given Indians a voice on social media, supporting military intervention in the country. On May 10, former Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy tweeted that “India must send the Indian army to restore constitutional reason. At present, foreign anti-Indian forces are taking advantage of people’s anger. This affects India’s national security”. Then, on May 11, in response to a tweet, he argued that “the protection of Rajapaksas is in the national interest of India”. He pleaded for Indian intervention in indicating that “Burning down the very residences of the Prime Minister, gunning down MPs killed by mobs means the rioters deserve no mercy. We cannot allow another Libya in our neighborhood.

Undoubtedly, the continuing instability in India’s immediate south has significant implications for the country’s strategic interests. First of all, if the economic situation does not stabilize quickly, a massive influx of refugees into Tamil Nadu would be likely. Already, India is hosting more than 100,000 refugees from Sri Lanka. Another wave of migration would create a humanitarian situation in the state. With increasing reports of Sri Lankan Tamils ​​reaching the coast of Tamil Nadu, the dangers of a humanitarian crisis are increasing day by day.

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Secondly, continued instability in Sri Lanka could also create a security concern for India due to long-standing links between the island’s Islamist groups like the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) with Pakistan-based jihadist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The NTJ had carried out the Easter attacks in April 2019, leading to a subsequent ban on the organization in Sri Lanka. Political instability in Sri Lanka coupled with the migration of the island’s Tamil population to India is said to create conditions conducive to terrorist attacks in the country. Recent reports of possible LTTE activities point in this direction.

However, India’s military intervention or support of the Rajapaksa family would be detrimental to their long-term interests in Sri Lanka. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka had forced China’s main customers in the country – the Rajapaksa family – to seek help from India. The continued rise of anti-Chinese sentiments and suspicions of debt-trap diplomacy among Sinhalese nationalists ushered in this turning point in Rajapaksa family politics. So, as India started providing concessional loans and lines of credit worth $3.5 billion to Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa government cleared several Indian projects that were stuck in limbo. It recently signed two maritime security pacts with New Delhi to install coastal radar systems and operate a floating dock and Dornier maritime reconnaissance aircraft supplied by India.

The growing trend of strong bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka is expected to continue with the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the country’s Prime Minister. This means that China’s influence to halt the progress of India’s economic projects in Sri Lanka would remain limited. During his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe had attempted economic restructuring with the help of the IMF, leading to a primary account surplus for the first time since 1954. However, his action in India and the United States was met with opposition from President Sirisena, which led to his unconstitutional removal. in 2018, Mahinda Rajapaksa becoming Prime Minister for 51 days. While a subsequent Supreme Court ruling restored him to office, the United National Party (UNP) weakened under his leadership and suffered massive defeats in subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections.

Therefore, Wickremesinghe’s return as Prime Minister has limited chances of restoring stability to the country. Having lost his seat in the 2020 legislative elections and following the creation of the dissident Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) of the UNP under his leadership, Wickremesinghe must govern without any political force of his own. While the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Maithripala Sirisena announced its support for Wickremesinghe, the SJB led by Sajith Premadasa refused to accept portfolios in Wickremesinghe’s government. Moreover, the main religious leaders of the country opposed his appointment as Prime Minister. Therefore, Wickremesinghe’s ability to bring political stability to Sri Lanka remains uncertain.

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis prompted a reset of the island’s relationship with India while ultimately limiting China’s influence in the country. However, if the Wickremesinghe government fails to achieve political stability, the economic situation in Sri Lanka is likely to deteriorate. In addition, continued instability would reinforce the military’s role in civilian affairs, thus harming the country’s democratic prospects. In this regard, ousting the Rajapaksa family from Sri Lankan politics would present both opportunities and challenges for India. Nevertheless, rather than a military intervention, New Delhi should use its influence on Gotabaya Rajapaksa to make him abolish the executive presidency and form a multiparty government. Nothing less than the withdrawal from Gotabaya would be enough for the Sri Lankan masses. Therefore, for political stability in Sri Lanka, India should act in the interests of the Sri Lankan public rather than supporting the country’s corrupt politicians.

Shrey Khanna is Staff Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Studies Program, Takshashila Institution. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.

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