A hint of stability: On Sri Lanka’s new dispensation

As a leader who was the lone member of his party in Parliament, Ranil Wickremesinghe can only see his victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections on Wednesday as a political windfall. However, the position comes with a crown of thorns. His first challenge will be to reach out to the people, including the protesters in Colombo demanding his resignation, which is something politicians usually do before they win an election, not after. Building credibility with them will require distancing himself from the very faction of the ruling SLPP backed by Mahinda Rajapaksa that won him the elections. If he fails to satisfy the “street”, then general elections, which Sri Lanka can barely afford at this point, will be the only remaining course. Elections would only further delay the task of economic rebuilding, particularly the much-needed negotiations with the IMF for a bailout. In normal course, the six-time Prime Minister will be equal to the challenge. However, his performance over the past few months as PM has not seen him emerge with any big ideas to control the crisis. A combination of the fall in domestic production, tax revenues, remittances, and currency reserves signals that the road out of this economic trough will be arduous. In addition, President Wickremesinghe, and whoever fills his position as Prime Minister, will have to make many more unpopular decisions once the IMF negotiations are concluded, and the bailout stipulations and conditions spelt out.

New Delhi will also have to review its options, given the proximity, and as External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar told an all-party meeting on Tuesday, the Government will naturally worry about the “spill over” from the Sri Lankan situation. The Modi government has adopted a three-pronged strategy — expressing sympathy with the people of Sri Lanka and their “quest for stability and economic recovery through democratic means”; extending “unprecedented” financial assistance, credit lines and essential food, fuel and medicines worth U.S.$3.8 billion since January 2022; and distancing itself from the Rajapaksas. The policy has reaped dividends in public goodwill in Sri Lanka for India, particularly in comparison to other partners such as China that have only provided humanitarian aid worth approximately $74 million, and not much else by way of credit lines and debt restructuring and deferrals of repayment this year. It is significant that India’s first reaction to Mr. Wickremesinghe’s election was understated, given the uncertainties still surrounding the government. However, if the new government is to have a chance at overcoming the odds, New Delhi’s support, bilaterally and internationally, will be essential, and the Modi government must decide if continuing its policy of distance from the leadership will achieve its objectives with its close neighbour in the months ahead.

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Printable version | Sep 6, 2022 2:39:32 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/a-hint-of-stability-the-hindu-editorial-on-sri-lankas-new-dispensation/article65663116.ece