The fresh political crisis in Sri Lanka should have New Delhi concerned. The strong showing by the opposition Sri Lanka People’s Front, led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has widened fissures in the ruling coalition between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, and the United National Party, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa, who is now demanding snap general elections, is perceived as being close to Beijing.
It was during his terms that Sri Lanka took huge loans from China to build a massive port and airport complex in Hambantota. In November 2014, despite India’s concerns, he allowed a Chinese warship and a submarine to dock in Colombo. This came barely weeks after another Chinese submarine had called at the same port days before a visit to the region by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Rajapaksa lost in the January 2015 snap polls, amidst rumours that New Delhi had covertly aided and funded the opposition. But the coalition that was sworn in had cracks right from the start, with President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe often disagreeing publicly on various issues.
Part of the reason for Rajapaksa’s landslide win in the local polls was that the two parties in the ruling coalition contested separately. Anger over rising unemployment and corruption, and rural distress caused by drought added to the problem. Instead of uniting the rattled coalition, Rajapaksa’s win has led to fierce infighting with Sirisena insisting that the PM should resign, and Wickremesinghe refusing to do so.
The Cabinet met on Tuesday to work things out; there might be a Cabinet reshuffle to soothe ruffled feathers. But the coalition’s staying power is in doubt. India should quietly impress upon the two leaders that they have to resolve their differences privately, and then work together. But given the deep resentment between the two, that can only be a short-term solution. And that should have the mandarins in New Delhi worried. Very worried.