New Delhi: If you should undertake an external audit of the political mess in Sri Lanka, you would apportion at least sixty per cent of the blame on the Indian government led by Narendra Modi. Having ruined the economy (the attack on Reserve Bank autonomy is the latest), compromised the independence of the Central Bureau of Investigation, and having attempted to undermine the judiciary, the Modi regime has now left the country haplessly adrift in geopolitics. After Nepal and Maldives, it is Sri Lanka’s turn to switch sides and return to the embrace of China. The Chinese economic stranglehold on the tiny Indian Ocean island nation could be irreversible and the consequent strategic loss to India enduring and unquantifiable.

Of the three principal players in the Sri Lanka drama, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the deposed prime minister who still enjoys a slim parliamentary majority over his rival and successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a thoroughly decent man. He is pro-India but that is incidental. He is also pro-West and sees Sri Lanka’s future tied to a so-called social market economy. A liberal democrat who angered Sinhala ultranationalists by persisting with peace negotiations with the Tamil Tigers, the Tamil Tigers blew his presidential chances (and signed their own collective death warrants) by enforcing an election boycott in which Wickremesinghe expected votes of oppressed Tamil and Muslim minorities. Rajapaksa won the election, cleverly pitted India against China to gain material and international support for a “final solution” of the Tamil problem, and then turned his back on India and sided with China which poured strategic investments into the island nation. Sri Lanka’s key strategic infrastructures are directly or indirectly controlled by China to which the island is heavily indebted. As president, Rajapaksa led Sri Lanka into the Chinese debt trap in return for kickbacks flowing to his large political dynasty and himself. It is almost certain that China has lavished millions of dollars in the latest coup that has incredibly brought Mahinda Rajapaksa to power again actively promoted by his once-bitter rival, the incumbent president, Maithripala Sirisena.

Sirisena and Rajapaksa once belonged to the same political party and Sirisena was indeed a minister under Rajapaksa when he decided to fight his boss in the last presidential election. As a common candidate of the opposition, Sirisena agreed to Wickremesinghe as future prime minister. Unexpectedly losing the election, Rajapaksa blamed RAW for his defeat and failed in a coup attempt when the army and police refused to cooperate. RAW may or not have been involved but rumours refused to die in covert circles in Lutyens’ Delhi. While strategic projects in Chinese hands could not be retrieved, India did gain management of an airport and pinned hopes on controlling Colombo harbour. The airport was loss-making and Indian signals to Sri Lanka expressed discontent at the leftovers coming its way. Pressure was mounted for the Colombo port and someone or something set president Sirisena on edge. At a cabinet meeting, he went on a rant about a RAW plot to kill him. Once the news leak set alarm bells ringing in Delhi, his office cleverly put out a denial. As far as Ranil Wickremesinghe and India were concerned, the die was cast. Sirisena, who owes his rise at least partly to India, turned bitterly against New Delhi and brought back to power his own rival and a known India-baiter, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

If Sirisena had removed Wickremesinghe in the normal course, India could not have been blamed. However, there was no normal cause for the president to sack an old ally. The provocation had to be extreme for Sirisena to take the extreme step and an objective audit points the needle of suspicion at India. In the very nature of covert operations, a RAW plot cannot be confirmed or denied. But New Delhi appears to have acted in other respects to push Sirisena into the Chinese camp. When foreign interests are involved, infrastructure projects cannot always be implemented and managed on strict commercial terms. Commitments made must be kept. Certain losses have to be accepted in the interest of geopolitical gains. This elementary principle of foreign policy has escaped the Modi regime. Besides, there are limits to geostrategic thumbscrews and racks when China is prowling the Indian Ocean like a shark for prey.

The only silver lining is that Ranil Wickremesinghe is genuinely popular in Sri Lanka and has the support of India and the Western powers. The usurper is a thug who should have been tried long ago for war crimes against Tamils.