The Rajapaksas' return

In a sudden turn of events in Sri Lanka last week, the country’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, said he had dismissed the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and replaced him with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Mr Sirisena had won a presidential election in 2015 and ousted Mr Rajapaksa, whom he had then accused of trying to kill him. Now, it seems, the two are willing to work together. Meanwhile, the increasingly unsteady coalition between Mr Sirisena’s and Mr Wickremesinghe’s parties has dissolved — although it remains open to question whether Mr Rajapaksa has the numbers in Sri Lanka’s parliament, which would be needed for them to stay in power, even with the support of parliamentarians loyal to Mr Sirisena. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Mr Sirisena has said the country's parliament will not meet for several weeks, allowing time for realignments of one sort or another to take place — a familiar notion to Indian eyes, which are accustomed to seeing these delays as a method of ensuring that horse-trading takes place to the benefit of whoever happens to be ensconced in power. 

Mr Sirisena and Mr Rajapaksa are as unlikely to prove to have a stable working relationship as did Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe. The latter were thrown together by opposition to Mr Rajapaksa, who had been re-elected in 2010 and appeared to be riding high with major popular support. It was a last-ditch attempt to prevent a slide into autocracy in Sri Lanka, and Mr Rajapaksa’s apparent closeness to Beijing provided a useful glue for the Opposition. Perhaps Mr Sirisena, doubtful of his ability to win the next presidential election, thought that it would be useful to get Mr Rajapaksa on his side well in advance. But Mr Rajapaksa is not likely to be content playing second fiddle. There is also Mr Rajapaksa’s ambitious brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence minister, to be taken into account. However, it is clear from recent events that in terms of populist appeal and the ability to summon mobs, Mr Rajapaksa continues to have few rivals in Sri Lanka. Within a short time of the president’s coup, right-wing foot-soldiers had taken over the state-controlled television and newspaper offices. A crowd also gathered on Sunday to try and prevent former Sri Lanka cricket captain and current minister Arjuna Ranatunga from entering his official premises; in the confrontation that followed, one protester was killed by Mr Ranatunga’s security.

Of course, from New Delhi’s perspective, this is not good news. After all, Mr Rajapaksa had caused a flutter in New Delhi by tying Colombo ever closer to Beijing. Yet two members of the Rajapaksa family visited New Delhi recently, and it is possible that relations between the Indian establishment and Mr Rajapaksa might be more stable than earlier. Either way, it would be disastrous for India to be seen to be involved in the current constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka. It must watch and wait, while engaging all sides. What is important is for the Sri Lankan parliament to meet as soon as possible to see what the numbers on the floor actually say. If a new election is to be held, it also should be sooner rather than later. 

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