Hours after the dramatic turn of events in Colombo, that saw Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena withdraw support from the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and swear in former President Mahinda Rajapaksa instead, the Modi government appears to be weighing its options cautiously, for a number of reasons.
New Delhi and the Ministry of External Affairs chose not to jump the gun on developments in the Sri Lankan capital, allowing them to play out their hand, especially given the fact that two separate Prime Ministers now lay claim to the official residence at Temple Trees. A final result will only follow a show of strength in parliament.
The previous UPA government never lived down its decision in 2012 to call and congratulate Maldives’ Mohamed Waheed, hours after he deposed President Mohamed Nasheed in a coup. It didn’t matter that Mr. Nasheed later explained that he had personally requested Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to recognise the Waheed government, the fact that New Delhi moved so quickly on a still evolving situation was seen as a rash move that further veered the fledgling Maldivian democracy off course, and a repeat of that in Sri Lanka would have been inadvisable.
The Modi government has also been quite displeased with the way it has been dragged into the internal politics of the Sri Lankan cabinet over the past few weeks. While the first visible sign of Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe airing their differences came at the famous October 14 cabinet meeting, where Mr. Sirisena spoke of the assassination plot against him allegedly by an Indian with possible links to R&AW, and Mr. Wickremesinghe battled with him for an Indian stake in the Eastern Terminal of Colombo port, the two leaders have been jockeying to draw an Indian angle to their issues for a while now.
In April 2017, hours before Mr. Wickremesinghe headed to India to announce a number of agreements including on the Trinco oil tank farms, Mr. Sirisena held back the agreements, and only a broad “MoU on economic cooperation could be signed”. When he left Delhi after meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week, Mr. Wickremesinghe made it publicly clear that the delays on various projects India has proposed in Sri Lanka (under the MoU) were Mr. Sirisena’s responsibility. In his press release, he portrayed PM Modi as angry and “disappointed” with the delays, and that Mr. Modi didn’t hold the Sri Lankan PM responsible for them.
Days before that, Mr. Sirisena had called Mr. Modi and reportedly discussed the divisions in his cabinet coalition. MEA officials had simply shaken their head, but made no public reaction. Privately, they said it was all an internal political fight that they wanted no part of.
India’s strong-arm neighbourhood policy
The Modi government’s reticence also comes in sharp contrast to its strong-arm policy in the neighbourhood of the past few years, which is now seen as a possible mistake. In Sri Lanka itself, the government had reacted harshly to the docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo port in 2014, and its strategic leadership took some pride when Mr. Rajapaksa was voted out in January 2015.
In the Maldives, President Yameen frequently cited Indian interference after PM Modi abruptly cancelled his visit to Male in March 2015 over the Yameen government’s treatment of jailed President Nasheed, and kept up a concerted campaign to put pressure on Mr. Yameen to deliver free and fair elections. In Nepal, Prime Minister KP Oli had also blamed India for attempting to oust him twice: once with the blockade, and the second time when Prachanda’s CPN pulled support from his government in July 2016, before he was voted into power this year. And in Bangladesh, the opposition BNP says New Delhi’s open support of the Sheikh Hasina government, and deporting BNP activists, is a sign of electoral interference.
It is likely that New Delhi has found that taking credit or being blamed for every political development in the neighbourhood is, over time, detrimental to the “Neighbourhood First” policy it espouses, as a result of which Mr. Modi’s “subcontinental moment” at his swearing in has now been replaced by sharp criticism of his policy in the SAARC region. Playing a card in either direction during Sri Lanka’s current turmoil would not be seen as helpful to India’s long-term interests in the region.
In addition, there is New Delhi’s extremely problematic relationship with Mr. Rajapaksa himself. When he lost power, Mr. Rajapaksa had blamed R&AW for facilitating the opposition’s unity efforts against him, and the relationship had been fraught for a while. Although Mr. Rajapaksa has subsequently softened his stand, and said that it is time to “move on” from past differences with New Delhi during a visit in September 2018, the government is unsure of just where it may stand with him. India has been wary of the way Sri Lankan projects were handed over to Chinese companies under debilitating loans from Chinese banks, something that began during Mr. Rajapaksa’s time, but has also realised that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government have not done much to stop Chinese inroads into the country either.
Finally, unlike the previous UPA government, that had to contend with coalition pressure from parties in Tamil Nadu, which in turn had strong political preferences in Sri Lanka (and particularly strong opposition to Mr. Rajapaksa), the NDA government has no serious compulsions on that count. At a time when none of its options in Sri Lanka are remarkably better or worse than the other, New Delhi may just find that discretion is the better part of valour, and at a time of dramatic change in the world and its neighbourhood, treading with caution is the order of the day.