Crackdown in Sri Lanka on protestors against Ranil Wickremesinghe

Even as Indian High Commission in Colombo issued yet another denial of India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s politics, the island nation continues to be in turmoil as resentment builds up against Ranil

Crackdown in Sri Lanka on protestors against Ranil Wickremesinghe

AJ Prabal

Even as Ranil Wickremesinghe took over as the 8th President of Sri Lanka, securing 134 votes of MPs against the 113 required for election by Parliament with 225 members, protests are continuing in the island despite a crackdown. It is a fraught situation as a large section of Sri Lankans believe election of Wickremesinghe to be illegitimate and would like him to step down. He however appears to have the support of the military, the political establishment and the business class and is unlikely to oblige.

Wickremesinghe’s party had failed to win even a single seat in Parliament in the election in 2019. He himself owed his seat to a nomination. His appointment, therefore, first as Prime Minister and thereafter as Acting President by the beleaguered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not go down too well with the people. Identified with the Rajapaksas, Wickremesinghe is seen as too much of an establishment man with close links with the discredited Rajapaksas.

One of the first things he did after securing the necessary votes in Parliament on Wednesday was to thank the army and the police for protecting the Parliament building. He has also made it clear that he would not allow protests on the street to get out of hand.

The process of his election has also been questioned. The then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it is argued, had fled his official residence and office on July 9 and the country on July 13. It was only on July 14 that the Speaker is said to have received his ‘resignation’. Having fled from his office, he should have been deemed to have vacated his position, say legal experts. He therefore had no authority to appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as Acting President, argue critics.

A quintessential establishment man, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s father Esmond Wickremesinghe was an Advisor to the third Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Sir Lionel Kotelawala. But while he has abundant administrative experience, having been PM as many as six times, and is believed by many to be the best bet to steer the island through the present crisis, his primary challenge is to dispel the belief that he is not a legitimate President and has no mandate from the people.

“He was not elected to Parliament at the last election. The party he led, the UNP was wiped out at the ballot box. He is in Parliament as the sole MP of his party on the national list for professionals, though he lost his home district and city by a huge margin,” points out a commentator.

Dayan Jayatilleka writing in a newspaper column cast doubts about the new President’s approach. “Ranil’s track record, his recent rhetoric about “fascists” and his setting up of a committee of Armed Forces chiefs and the IGP to take “independent” decisions and measures, already signal the emergence of what is termed in Latin America, a ‘civilian-military junta’ or a ‘State of National Security’,” he wrote. He was referring to a recent speech in which Wickremesinghe drew a distinction between “Aragalakaruwo” (‘strugglers’, those in the Struggle) and “Karalikaruwo” (rebels). Wickremesinghe, he suggests, missed the historical association of the word ‘Karali’ with venerated people’s rebellions.

Even as Wickremesinghe struggles to settle down and negotiate with the International Monetary Fund a financial deal to bail out the island, Indian diplomats are struggling to distance New Delhi from the ruling clique in Colombo. For the third time in as many weeks, the Indian High Commission had to issue a denial this week that India had played no role in the election of Wickremesinghe, perceived to be friendly to India.

Earlier also the High Commission had to issue denials to refute reports that India was sending troops to Sri Lanka. The denial on July 10 followed BJP leader Subramanian Swamy tweeting that India should send troops to rescue the ‘legitimately elected government’. It upset many Sri Lankans and the Government of India had to step in to calm sentiments running high in the island.

Barely three days later, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka in a military aircraft and landed in Maldives, the Sri Lankans once again suspected the Indian hand, forcing the High Commission to come out with another denial. There was no basis to the rumours that India had facilitated the flight of the President, the statement from the High Commission claimed.

Not all Sri Lankans were convinced though. Many of them pointed fingers at the close relations between the Rajapakse family and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Photographs of the Rajapaksa family members with BJP leaders were shared and it was claimed that in the 2015 election, which the Rajapakse brothers lost before roaring back in 2019, BJP’s then IT strategist Arvind Gupta was closely linked with the campaign. One of the Rajapakse aides Charitha Herath was quoted as admitting as much.

When reports surfaced that the Rajapakse had been arm-twisted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hand over a power project to the Adani group, perceived to be close to Modi, it became a public scandal. While the official who levelled the allegation was made to recant and resign, the allegation stuck. In the mind of Sri Lankans the Government of India came to be seen as nursing a cosy relationship with the Rajapaksa brothers.

India’s official position couched in diplomatic language is that it stands with the people of Sri Lanka. An official statement had said, “India will continue to support the people of Sri Lanka as they seek to realise their aspirations for prosperity and progress through democratic means and values, through established democratic institutions and the Constitutional framework”.

The turmoil in Sri Lanka couldn’t have come at a worse time for India. With its own economy slowing down and the country grappling with high inflation and foodgrain shortages, its ability to help is limited though the temptation to extend the helping hand from ‘big brother’ is high enough.

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