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Sri Lanka crisis: More than India or China, the island’s leaders are eyeing the next polls

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New Delhi, Oct 27: Just when India started to feel assured over the ouster of Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives as the former president was showing serious tendencies to hurt New Delhi's interests in the Indian Ocean Region, the political development that unfolded in another maritime neighbour in the region, Sri Lanka, will give birth to fresh concerns for South Block. In a sudden turn of events, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena sacked the prime minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, and appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new premier. Though the development gave rise to questions that could see the island nation take plunge into constitutional crisis, India will be keeping its nervous eyes open on how things shape up in its southern neighbour.

Sri Lanka crisis: More than India or China, the island’s leaders are eyeing the next polls

Rajapaksa was known to have a pro-China tilt and his return to prominence would keep New Delhi on its toes, especially given the fact that the latter had brokered a peace between Sirisena, a former cabinet colleague of Rajapaksa, and Wickremasinghe, to see the back of Rajapaksa. The plan had delivered in January 2015 when the strongman lost power. But as the island-nation inches towards its next presidential election (a snap presidential election could take place after January 9, 2019), power equations in the state starts seeing changes and that could put India's interests in jeopardy in the region again.

Sri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena suspends parliamentSri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena suspends parliament

It is well-known that after meeting their primary objective of defeating Rajapaksa, the two leaders of the unity government of Sri Lanka - President Sirisena and former prime minister Wickremasinghe - failed to get along and the internal feuds came out often, giving an indication that the government was lacking solidarity. For Sirisena, ending a troubled alliance with Wickremasinghe seemed logical for it might give him a chance to regain the electorate's confidence.

But did that create an opening for Rajapaksa to make a comeback?

'Didn't expect to happen it so soon'

According to military intelligence specialist Col R Hariharan, speculation was on that Rajapaksa would become the PM but it materialised far too soon. "Last week Sirisena had met Rajapaksa and discussed the proposal to make Mahinda PM after removing Ranil after Sirisena started losing control of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. It was speculated Rajapaksa could become PM. But none expected it to happen so soon," Hariharan told Oneindia.

Also Read | Ranil Wickremasinghe refuses to step down, says Rajapaksa appointment 'unconstitutional'

Electorally, the new combine between Sirisena and Rajapaksa could still be short of a simple majority in the parliament while Wickremasinghe's United National Party also doesn't have numbers on its own. But more than to do with the current numbers, one suspects the leaders are now thinking about the next elections and are trying to show to the electorate that they are not prisoners of wither a pro-India or pro-China image. This realpolitik is something we have seen in the case of Nepal recently and now, Sri Lanka is doing something similar.

Sirisena did not abandon the Chinese as many in India would have thought and according to experts, has even taken the initiative to have Chinese help to a new level altogether. At the moment, Sri Lanka's competing leaders are not aspiring to be dubbed either anti-India or anti-China but rather leaders on whom the island's nationalist aspirations can bank on.

Ousted Lanka PM Wickremesinghe seeks emergency parliament sessionOusted Lanka PM Wickremesinghe seeks emergency parliament session

When asked whether the latest crisis would be seen as a pro-India or pro-China, Hariharan said:"It's not a black and white situation. Both Rajapaksa and Sirisena are seasoned politicians. There are elections around the corner and would not want to provide an opportunity to appear biased in favour of China or India."

Well, this is yet another tendency which is unfolding in South Asia's regional politics. While the traditional stance is to see the small nations in the region to be aspiring for either India or China's blessings, there is a growing assertion among them to serve their own interests first and the politicians are catering to that aspiration. For there are already rising concerns that Sri Lanka is surrendering to China's 'debt trap', which is not a welcome idea for those who were looking for an alternative to remaining as an 'India-influenced' state. The best route for the leaders now is to a nationalistic one and the latest drama could flag off a journey on that.

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