The dramatic return as prime minister by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, seen as leaning towards India’s strategic rival China, complicates the geopolitical environment around the periphery of India into which Beijing has been making inexorable inroads over the past few years with investments in large infrastructure projects, analysts say. While smaller countries in the region playing off India against China was not new, “what has aggravated the diplomatic challenge for India is the fact that China now has deep pockets that it could use to ensure the smaller countries pay less attention to India’s concerns", said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.
The Sri Lankan political crisis saw President Maithripala Sirisena suddenly appoint Rajapaksa as the prime minister on Friday after he pulled his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) out from the government, leaving a coalition with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) formed ahead of the 2015 national polls. The UNP is headed by ousted prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who visited India last week.
On Sunday, an AFP report said the Sri Lankan parliament speaker recognized Wickremesinghe as prime minister, adding another twist to the political saga.
The developments come as India was looking to open a new chapter in ties with the Maldives. New Delhi is said to be considering an invitation from the Maldives requesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the oath-taking ceremony of president-elect Ibrahim Mohammed Solih expected on 11 November.
Incumbent president Abdullah Yameen was seen as pro-China, signing up for Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is something India has been opposed to, citing lack of transparency in China giving loans to smaller countries, as well as due to sovereignty issues, given that a strand of the BRI runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
New Delhi, which did not comment on the development on Friday, issued a carefully worded statement on the Sri Lankan situation on Sunday.
“India is 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," said the Indian statement.
With Sri Lanka in turmoil, analysts such as Sibal described the developments as “a further complication of the situation around India’s neighbourhood".
“We can do with less distractions," Sibal said, adding that the return of Rajapaksa will revive our concerns once again about his pro-China leanings.
Tackling Pakistan was a perennial challenge for India, he noted, given the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy to hurt India, as well as Islamabad’s close ties with China.
In Nepal elections last year, a new government headed by Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli took office. Oli seems to be keen on lessening Kathmandu’s dependence on New Delhi and considering diversification of economic and commercial links with China.
In Bhutan, the new Prime Minister Lotay Tshering is seen as a newcomer in politics, taking over from Tshering Tobgay, who had his leaning towards India.