By Colonel R Hariharan
After Mahinda Rajapaksa’s fledgling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) handed out a shocking defeat to both the UNP and the SLFP in the Local Government (LG) elections, the three-way political power game has become more complex than before. A gloating Rajapaksa, past master in political manoeuvring, is demanding fresh elections after dissolving the Parliament, though he knows it would not happen as both the SLFP and UNP would never oblige him.
For President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, more than power, credibility has become the main issue. They are trying to retain their credibility on multiple fronts – as leaders of the unity coalition that set out to provide an alternative to Rajapaksa’s autocratic rule, to survive as leaders of the party in the face of challengers making deals to dethrone them and to show the people that they can still deliver on what they promised before the end of this term.
The current situation faced by the three leaders – Rajapaksa, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe – may be aptly described as ‘wheels in wheels’ – a number of different influences, reasons and actions which together make a situation complicated and difficult to understand, as Collins dictionary says. But, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo has a bigger burden than Rajapaksa, who is at the barricades, heckling them from the periphery.
Notwithstanding their internal party leadership compulsions, the skills of both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe will be tested on many aspects in the coming months as political uncertainty looms large in the horizon. LG election results show, their rule has raised a whole lot of questions in the minds of people of all hues – Sinhalas, Muslims, Tamils and others who believed them and voted them to power. Both of them need to answer these questions.
Perhaps, both the leaders need the multi-tasking ability of Avadhānam practitioners of ancient India. Avadhānaṃ used to be a popular literary entertainment performed in ancient days in India. It is still performed in isolated pockets of Andhra and Tamil Nadu. It involves the partial improvisation of poetry using specific themes, metres, forms, or words.
The two performances of Avadhānam I had seen in Tamil Nadu were performed in Tamil, though originally it was the preserve of Sanskrit scholars in ancient India. In Andhra Pradesh it is still in vogue. In both the performances I saw, the scholars showcased their mastery of cognitive skills in observation, memory, multitasking, recapitulation and logical reasoning in literature, poetry, music, mathematical skills and solving conundrums – all at the same time! Typically, the second line of a verse from a Tamil classic like Tirukkuralor Kamba Ramayanam was quoted by the questioner (Prcchaka) and the Avadhani countered it with the first line of the verse. At the same time the Avadhani had to keep count of cowrie shells, continuously thrown on his back, while another questioner posed a mathematical problem on the black board. Surprisingly, the Avadhanis came out with very impressive performance.
After the LG election, the first priority for both the leaders is to consciously reassure, not only their followers, but also people who brought them to power and that their alliance was not one of convenience, but to deliver value.
The second, but perhaps the most difficult priority is walking the talk. Most of the initiatives they had taken are held up due to pulls and pressures or tangled in bureaucratic maze. Nearly forty cases of corruption, misuse of power, human rights violations, economic crimes, cronyism and even murders, are stagnating in various stages of investigation or prosecution.
They need to be taken to their logical conclusion. People have been waiting for answers to serious allegations made by responsible ministers that Rajapaksa family members and others had indulged in many of these crimes. And three years is a long time. As we say in Hindi, time has come for Doodh ka doodh aur pani ka pani (making things crystal clear). Otherwise, when Sirisena and Wickremesinghe go to the hustings again, people would not believe them. In this context, the duo has to speed up the prosecutions of the accused in Bonds scam; then only the Unity Government can refurbish its tarnished image.
The third and equally difficult priority is to draft the new Constitution now before time runs out. There is need for some honest soul searching on this issue among the leaders of political, civil society and media. They should help speed up the process for an equitable constitution. Otherwise, the lessons of the civil war in which over 100, 000 Sri Lankan shed their blood would be wasted. A business process approach of transparency in interactions among the stakeholders including the people and encouraging periodic interaction to take the public into confidence will create a less politicized environment for evolving a new Constitution.
In the early days leading to World War II, when Russia’s attitude to the brewing conflict was not known, Sir Winston Churchill speaking on the radio in October 1938 said, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. The key is Russian national interests.” The Sri Lankan situation may be compared to Churchill’s Russian conundrum. Sri Lankan politicians would do well to remember that whatever they decide has to be in national interest; all other considerations are peripheral to this fundamental responsibility.