In what can charitably be called a quirk of democracy, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as prime minister of Sri Lanka last Thursday. The vacancy arose as his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to step down and flee following widespread riots after his henchmen attacked peaceful protesters. That Ranil has loads of administrative experience is indisputable since this is his sixth term as PM. But the fact that he never finished any term in office doesn’t inspire confidence in the opposition at a time when Lanka is staring at a humongous financial crisis.
Ranil is at his weakest this time around because he is the lone representative of his party in a 225-member Parliament. By installing Ranil, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is apparently seeking to use him as his human shield against the tsunami of discontent on the streets that the ruling clan is facing. A no-trust vote may no longer worry Gotabaya in Parliament, as Ranil has let himself become the President’s proxy. It goes without saying that the PM will have no control over a Cabinet loaded with Gotabaya’s loyalists. How international lending organisations would trust his government to usher in reforms and clean up Mahinda’s mess is anybody’s guess. As it is, almost the entire opposition and the protesters say the new government has failed the smell test.
For an interim national government to have any credibility, the ideal candidate as PM would have been the powerful leader of the opposition Sajith Premadasa. But Sajith made his acceptance conditional on Gotabaya’s resignation, so the Machiavellian President checked the Ranil box. But since Sajith had engineered a vertical split in Ranil’s party and formed his own outfit, there is mutual animus, which Gotabaya exploited to install a figurehead PM.
As for India, recent murmurs of the LTTE’s revival can only be disconcerting, as economic distress is a breeding ground for such elements. Also, not letting China fish in troubled waters would be the strategic priority. Ranil may be India’s friend but his ability to deliver is suspect. India is going by its moral compass to build on goodwill by continuing humanitarian assistance. It ought to tread wearily by not leaning on any side till there is clarity and stability while keeping its geostrategic interests in mind.