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Political crisis in Sri Lanka

Published: 28th Dec, 2018

  • India has welcomed resolution of the political crisis in Sri Lanka.
  • United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the prime minister of Sri Lanka, ending a 51-day power tussle in the island nation that had crippled the government.



  • India has welcomed resolution of the political crisis in Sri Lanka.
  • United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the prime minister of Sri Lanka, ending a 51-day power tussle in the island nation that had crippled the government.
  • The UNP leader had refused to step down asserting that his sacking was illegal. His re-appointment comes a day after former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was installed as Prime Minister by President Sirisena, after two crucial Supreme Court decisions made his efforts to cling to premiership unacceptable.


  • The presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, from 2005 to 2015 was an increasingly authoritarian regime characterised by the diminishing human rights, nepotism, weakening of government institutions, slow progress of national reconciliation in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War, and close ties to China.
  • In response to the degrading democracy in the country, the United National Party (UNP), along with several other parties and civil organisations, signed a Memorandum of Understanding and decided to field Maithripala Sirisena, as the Common Candidate for the 2015 Presidential Election. Sirisena, a former health minister under Rajapaksa, pledged to appoint UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister if he were to win the election.
  • A national unity government was formed, which passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka on 28 April 2015, stipulating that the prime minister should remain in office for as long as his cabinet functions, unless he resigns or ceases to be a member of parliament.

India’s stand:

  • India remains committed to taking forward its people-oriented development projects in Sri Lanka.
  • The Indian statement refrains from using the term ‘constitutional crisis’, clearly indicating that it does not want to be seen as taking any position on the ‘political situation’ in Sri Lanka.
  • This is a deviation from New Delhi’s tough statements on the Maldivian situation.

Outcomes of Political Crisis:


  • The turmoil angered many Sri Lankans and weakened both the President and Rajapaksa ahead of the polls.
  • The crisis saw a central role for the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. Its significance was huge in restoring constitutional governance for democracy in the country.


  • The fragile Sri Lankan economy was badly hurt during the political upheaval with the steep loss in value in its currency, downgrading of its economy and loss in tourist revenue.
  • In the wake of the political crisis and doubts about the future of democracy, the United States and Japanese governments froze more than a billion US dollars’ worth of development aid.
  • The European Union also warned that if it did not stick to commitments on national reconciliation, it could withdraw duty-free concessions for Sri Lankan exports.
  • Credit rating agency Moody's released a statement downgrading the Sri Lankan Government's foreign currency issuer and senior unsecured ratings to B2 from B1 and changed the outlook to stable from negative.


  • President Sirisena's betrayal of the 2015 mandate, which opened a democratic space for Sri Lankans, shook and angered many citizens who spontaneously mobilised to defend constitutional governance, democracy, and freedom.
  • The crisis saw the resilience of Sri Lanka’s democracy among its citizens amid multiple setbacks.
  • Activism, participation and resistance was particularly large among young voters, whose political weapons were the use of political humour shared through social media.


  • Sri Lanka is located strategically in the Indian Ocean and both India and China vie for influence in the island nation.
  • The fluid situation exists in Sri Lanka as former Indian Ambassador Suresh Goyal remarked that unless the Parliament is convened, Wickremesinghe has no way of proving his majority and Rajapaksa will have a clear field to remain as the Prime Minister.
  • Considering this possibility India has to be very cautious and watch the developments closely given the fact that previously under Rajapaksa Sri Lanka had clearly tilted towards China and was posing a direct threat to India’s strategic interests in the region.
  • As is evident, the crisis is an outcome of the uneasy coalition between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe which was formed with the main objective of defeating Rajapaksa in the previous elections.
  • While the coalition government has failed on many of its promises and has taken a strong stand on ensuring justice to war affected Tamil minorities, Rajapaksa has managed to whip up Sinhala Nationalism to fuel his return to power.
  • A provision in the 1978 Sri Lankan Constitution provided for the dismissal of the Prime Minister by the President after one year of Parliamentary elections but this was removed through a constitutional amendment in 2015.
  • This has created a constitutional logjam with both sides claiming the validity of one over the other and it is likely to be hammered out through unconstitutional means which would be a big blow to democratic norms

International Response:

  • China being a major investor with strategic stakes in the country has heartily welcomed the return of Rajapaksa as it considers him as a close ally who can resist India’s overtures and help China instead to entrench itself in India’s strategic backyard. This open embrace of Rajapaksa’s return by China is viewed with suspicion by India which sees an external angle to the ongoing political crisis.
  • Western countries have kept a close watch on Sri Lanka since the days of the civil war and have expressed deep concern during the last phase of the civil war where the Sri Lankan armed forces were accused of committing gross human right violations.
  • Sri Lanka has failed to address this accusation effectively largely due to botched investigations, denials and cover ups of any war crimes.
  • European powers and US would side with India and would push Sri Lanka to restore normalcy and uphold democratic principles. The Commonwealth and the United Nations would also expect the same and would be critical of any further attempts to erode democracy in Sri Lanka.

Way Forward:

  • India’s response should be non-intrusive in the internal affairs and at the same time should push Sri Lanka to protect democratic norms and ensure stability as this would also secure Indian interests in the region.
  • China would rally behind Rajapaksa or any other leader to protect its core investments in Hambantota and Colombo and similarly India should cultivate diverse assets irrespective of internal political considerations in order to protect its core interests such as – the wellbeing of Tamil minorities, strategic infrastructure projects in Trincomalee, Mattala etc.
  • It should counter adverse Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean Region and ensure implementation of the 13th Amendment which would devolve political rights and powers too minority ethnic Tamils.
  • Sri Lanka also needs India as it provides vital services in the areas of education, healthcare and even pilgrimage. So, India needs to leverage this unique advantage to help advance the cause of democracy in Sri Lanka without affecting its sovereignty.


While India has returned to the settled principle of ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of another nation, more so in the immediate neighbourhood, the Sri Lankan situation seems to remain unclear and unsure even after the return of ‘near-normalcy’ in political and constitutional terms.

India should continue with the wait and watch policy and be willing to engage with any leader who will emerge to hold power. India’s actions in the Sri Lankan turmoil will be closely watched by other neighbouring countries in South Asia and India can use this opportunity to send out the right signals to Nepal and Maldives which hold suspicions against Indian interests in their respective internal political and constitutional turmoil.

Learning Aid

Practice Question:
Sri Lanka is going through political turmoil after democratic elections took place in 2015. Based on the strategic importance of Sri Lanka in Indian Ocean and for Asia, analyse the situation bringing out response of India and world towards the situation.

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