New Delhi: India is maintaining a seemingly hands off approach vis a vis the deepening political crisis in Sri Lanka with New Delhi staying quiet over the Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena’s latest decision to dissolve parliament and call for snap polls in January, weeks after appointing a new prime minister.
Analysts agree that New Delhi’s wait and watch mode seems a sensible one though they differ on why it is prudent for India to be circumspect in the face of strong reactions from the US and the European Union. These include the increase in influence that China has come to wield in India’s neighbourhood and a decline in India’s ability to influence decision making processes in countries along its periphery.
So far New Delhi has issued only one statement on Sri Lanka crisis that began with Sirisena appointing former president and China leaning Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister on 26 October despite Ranil Wicremesinghe being the elected prime minister. Sirisena also suspended parliament – in a move seen to allow Rajapaksa the time to cobble up support to prove a majority. Then on Friday, Sirisena dissolved the parliament and called for snap polls in January. It is being speculated that this move was necessary since Rajapakse could not muster the numbers he would need to prove a majority in parliament.
India’s statement on 28 October in the aftermath of Rajapakse’s appointment merely said that India was “closely following the recent political developments in Sri Lanka."
“As a democracy and a close friendly neighbour, we hope that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected. We will continue to extend our developmental assistance to the friendly people of Sri Lanka," the statement added. Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar reiterated this at a briefing in the ministry on Friday.
According to C.U. Bhaskar, director of the New Delhi based Society for Policy Studies think tank, “India would be doubly cautious" in dealing with any political situation in Sri Lanka given its own history of military intervention in Sri Lanka – i.e. sending Indian peace keeping troops to its southern neighbour in the late 1980s under the terms of an India-Sri Lanka accord. Far from a peacekeeping role, New Delhi soon found itself sucked into the civil war, with its soldiers getting killed.
Also, “India’s ability to influence internal developments in neighbouring countries in a significant manner has declined in recent years," said Bhaskar. This was seen as largely due to China’s increasing profile in the region with countries in India’s periphery leaning towards Beijing in case of problems with India.
Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal seemed to agree with that point stating that “India neither has the capacity nor should it want to intervene in the domestic political struggle in Sri Lanka" that forces New Delhi to take sides, Sibal said. India should be engaged with all political parties in the country not just one, he said.
Given that India welcomed Sirisena’s election in 2015 and has a good working relationship with him, India has adopted a wise course of action in not taking sides with him or Wickremesinghe, Sibal said. The Sri Lankan president has not really antagonised India by any statements or actions with the current political standoff mainly due to differences between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, Sibal said. Morever, in the present crisis, there was no question of Sri Lankan Tamils getting affected so India’s resorting to a hands off approach would be the most prudent, Sibal said.
Should India be seen making comments favourable to Wickremesinghe or Sirisena, there was the possibility of political groups accusing India of meddling in the crisis which would give rise to ant-India sentiments, Sibal pointed out. This would in turn give China – which has been increasing its footprint in and around India’s periphery in a big way with loans and infrastructure projects — an advantage, he said.
As it stands, India’s Tamil parties based in Tamil Nadu state had already slammed the political changes that has brought Rajapakse to office which reflects the Indian sentiment, Sibal said. “In this case, I think the decision by the central government to maintain silence is a wise one," he added.