The political crisis in India’s immediate neighbourhood in Sri Lanka is widely believed to be an extra-Constitutional gamble having far reaching consequences for the Island state. It unfolded last Friday on October 26 when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe when he was away from the capital and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place.
Considering his proximity to New Delhi, Wickremesinghe is trying to fight back demanding that Parliament be summoned immediately which has been suspended by Sirisena till November 16. This was preceded by high drama amid reports that an Indian intelligence agency was plotting to assassinate the Sri Lankan president which was subsequently denied. Sirisena wasted no time in speaking to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in sorting out matters.
It is widely believed that Sirisena must accept responsibility for precipitating matters leading to chaos and disturbances in that country. He has been trying to promote his son who was part of the Sri Lankan delegation to the United Nations along with appointing his brother as the head of that country’s Telecom.
Sirisena and Rajapaksa appear to be working in tandem to keep each other in power. On his part, Rajapaksa’s keenness to grasp power as well as promoting his clan is well known. Even though he has been out of office for the last three years, he has not spent force in electoral politics reflected by his recent good showing.
In keeping with its policy, New Delhi has steered clear of interference in the internal affairs of any country. It has, nevertheless, been watching the developments keenly in Colombo. It is acutely aware it cannot act unilaterally with regard to the Island nation. It is reminiscent of the unsavoury political happenings in the Maldives recently and any intervention by this country in the archipelago would have been viewed as meddling in its internal affairs. The re-emergence of the pro-Beijing Rajapaksa is a matter for concern.
Significantly, his appointment as Prime Minister received the nod of Chinese President Xi Jinping in a jiffy. As evidenced with other weak and smaller countries, Sri Lanka fell into Beijing’s trap of incurring massive debt necessitating handing over the crucial Hambantota port to a Chinese company on a 99-year lease.
What might be worrisome for Sirisena is that he lacks a majority in Parliament. It is apparent his gambit of proroguing Parliament was intended to prevent the United National Front (UNF) of proving its majority on the floor of the House. Keen Sri Lanka watchers emphasise Sirisena has effectively destroyed the good that he did in 2015 by voluntarily reducing the powers of the Executive Presidency.
It appears certain that the legal and constitutional questions arising from the peremptory exit of Wickremasinghe is expected to be taken to that country’s Supreme Court for deciding the matter. At the same time, it is argued by supporters of Rajapaksa that withdrawal of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) from the United Government has resulted in the Cabinet ceasing to exist and in turn leading to the prime minister also ceasing to exist.
Opinion is divided on this matter as other legal experts maintain that this argument turns the 19th Amendment on its head. The important question is whether the ingenious interpretation of Article 46 is limited in its scope of restricting the number of Cabinet ministers as opposed to Cabinets formed by a National Government.
The question is what possible rationale can be put forward for invoking that Article to justify cessation of a Cabinet of Ministers upon one constituent of the National Government leaving it. In the present instance, the issue pertains to paths taken disregarding the pledges made three years back. The parallel in the present instance pertains to the prime minister being summarily dismissed by the president through a letter once again.
Article 48 states that a Cabinet of Ministers may be dissolved only in three instances: If the prime minister ceases to hold office by death, resignation or otherwise; and if Parliament rejects the Statement of Government Policy or the Budget; or if Parliament passes a vote of no confidence in the Government.
Irrespective of which ever side the coin drops, the constitutional crisis is expected to spill on to the streets of Colombo as evidenced earlier this week on Monday. Last Friday, those owing allegiance to Rajapaksa forced their way into state media stations and took over their functioning.
The continuing uncertainty and chaos can have a deleterious impact on the already highly unstable economy of Sri Lanka. This has been a huge dampener to the expected democratic change raised in 2015. However, over the last three years, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe appear to have drifted apart. From all accounts, the present turmoil appears to be a long drawn battle even though the arithmetic appears to favour Wickremesinghe in Parliament. That option is not available to him for now.
What cannot be lost sight of is that the Presidency remains the most powerful office in the neighbouring country. It is apparent after Sirisena assumed the office of President, his equation with India appears to have soured. Amid all this, Sri Lanka is faced with the comical situation of having two prime ministers as the next Presidential election is due in January 2020.
T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.