by Anura Gunasekera
Once again, Ranil the survivor has emerged from another political maelstrom, certainly not unbowed and unafraid, bloodied and bruised perhaps, but with the old image intact; unappetizing, unlovable and uncaring but still durable and still in the saddle.
The days of frenzied political maneuvering which preceded the debate, culminating in the Nimal Siripala – a Prime Ministerial aspirant – led request for RW to resign, suggested that instead of relying on a certain majority support for the motion in Parliament, that the anti- Ranil forces preferred to bulldoze a capitulation, rather than to test their mettle on the floor of the House.
The motion itself was based on allegations and accusations, by implied linkages to wrong-doing- specifically the CB Bond Scam – but short on specifics and lacking in concrete evidence. True, great financial loss has been caused to the country – the degree varies from financial expert to financial expert- by the nexus between Arjuna Mahendran and his son-in-law, Arjun Aloysius. Mahendran was Ranil’s creature, appointed, nurtured and protected by him. But that does not prove that Ranil was party to the fraud, unless the accusation is supported by legally admissible evidence.
Such accusations abound; Basil Rajapaksa was called the “10 percent man”. A palatial house in Malwana, supposedly built on his behalf, with his wife reportedly frequently supervising the construction work, has been rejected by him as not being his. It takes an enormously wealthy man to be able to so casually forgo a property valued in US dollars. A Mahinda Rajapaksa relative and a sibling feature prominently in the MIG aircraft deal, invoiced at USD 7.5 mn but, apparently, settled by the then government at USD 15 million. The same sibling – Gotabaya – is also associated with the Avant-Garde affair. The same man has been linked, in various ways, to the suppression of the media – when he was Secretary of Defence- through murder, verbal and physical intimidation, in addition to the execution of crime suspects and convicted prisoners in government custody.
Mahinda Rajapakse’s brother-in-law, Nishantha Wickramasinghe, was associated with the worst financial excesses ever experienced by the national airline – to the extent that a desperate RW regime is now unable even to give it away. The events leading to the murder of Wasim Thajudeen appear to have been orchestrated through phone calls originating from the President’s House, during MR’s occupation. Minister Rajitha Senaratne, in the course of his speech in the House, during the debate on the no-confidence motion, went so far as to suggest a direct link between the Thajudeen murder and the former president’s spouse.
The above is but a brief list of allegations, perceptions, suspicions, linked to prominent people; none of them have been proven. Similarly, Ranil’s link to the bond affair must, for the present, remain speculative and it was amateurish of the joint opposition to attempt to de-throne him on that basis. More than the validity of that accusation, the power of the motion would have been better grounded in exploring and exploiting the glaring fissures and the frailties of the coalition regime. Finally, RW came through the fire with a comfortable majority, suggesting that even if all those who absented themselves conveniently from the test had been present, and voted in favour, he would have still won.
The crisis of confidence orchestrated by the opposition clearly had its genesis in the politically inept, infantile behavior of the President, in the weeks leading up to the recent local government elections. Over the months since his election, President Sirisena has been steadily distancing himself from the principles on which he sought office. Instead of honouring the pledge that he made to the voters, from the reformist platform which he shared with Ranil and the other crusaders of good governance, he appears to have latched on to the clearly impractical notion of establishing a separate power base, a nationalist constituency, which never existed for him.
President Sirisena must understand that he is a political aberration, a one-term wonder, who came in to power on the wave of a wide-spread revulsion of the Rajapaksa vulgarity and abuses of power. His tilt at the big prize had the assistance of various other disparate support groups who, with similar intent, converged to provide the critical mass which conjured for him a slim majority over the then incumbent. His mandate was to provide a corrective course and the restoration of democratic principles of government. He was a choice forced upon a desperate voting public who were seeking an alternative to a man whose hold on the presidency seemed
unassailable, impregnable. That is one bit of history which is unlikely to repeat itself. Sirisena is now a politician with zero capital at national level.
For months President Sirisena has been undermining his prime minister and his own government, and both overtly and covertly, realigning himself with the Rajapaksa faction, specifically Gotabaya. He was actively involved in the promotion of the no-confidence motion against RW. The failure of the motion simply reinforced the President’s irrelevance at national level, so clearly demonstrated by the pathetic display of the SLFP at the most recent elections. Whilst the government itself contributed generously to the woeful results at the election, Sirisena’s pre-election public conduct provided the “Pohottuwa” campaign with considerable momentum.
In a manner different to Sirisena, RW continues to be the victim of his own conduct. Despite decades of political involvement, he remains totally detached from the inescapable realities linked to political success. He comes across as self-absorbed, uncaring, elitist, fatally rooted to his affluent background and either incapable of , or reluctant, to attune himself to the voices from political power bases that matter; that is, the large rural, semi-rural, low or middle income polity; the segment which does not understand, or does not care about macro-economic policies, western-oriented notions of liberalism and allied principles of governance, but are more concerned about, and are deeply affected by, the purchase prices of a coconut, parippu and kerosene, and the selling price of the paddy that they have cultivated.
For a politician seeking success at national level this is the segment that matters, not those who live within desirable addresses in greater Colombo. Advisers who have attended Royal College along with him, because their parents too lived in close proximity to that red-brick eminence, are incapable of telling RW about the truths that he needs to hear, voices which emanate from crucial power bases far removed from Reid Avenue. Those are the voices to which Mahinda Rajapaksa has so readily, and so convincingly, and with a genuine sense of empathy, responded to. Therein lies MR’s success and RW’s failure.
Yahapalanaya, momentarily lighting up hope within a segment of the population seeking genuine peace, reconciliation, ethnic and religious unity and decent governance, has, in a short while, bred disillusionment, cynicism and despair. The early promise has evaporated and in its place we see an absence of purpose, of direction, of strategy and on the part of the Prime Minister himself, a fatal inability to communicate and convince.
RW has won a sharp and decisive skirmish, but the real battle lies ahead. The first item on his agenda should be a total reorganizing of his own party and a recognition of his role within it, moving forward to the next election. Despite the defeat of the no-confidence motion he still comes through as a toxic presence. The fact that his power base within the Parliament is still, seemingly intact, should not be a cause for further complacency. There is disunity within his own party and serious doubts as to his effectiveness and suitability as a leader and that needs to be addressed, whilst he and President Sirisena pick up the scattered pieces of the coalition.
The no-confidence motion had one objective, and that was not the unseating of the sitting prime-minister, though that would have been a desirable, but tangential, outcome to the main purpose; the true and primary goal was to clear a path for a Rajapaksa resurgence, specifically, for a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, in the not too distant future. That is a project which has been on the launching pad for more than a year and an objective which will find resonance within a segment of the staunch, Sinhala-Buddhist voting bloc which has always been the Rajapaksa power base.
The Sirisena/Wickramasinghe coalition also paved the way for an atmosphere of freedom of expression, for a convergence of groups with diverse views. It paved the way for wide-ranging debate on issues and people and, also, led to its abuse, as demonstrated by the vitriolic, one-sided accusations heaped on RW by one segment of the media and specifically by one media-man. It was repulsive but it was still democracy in action, unthinkable in a Rajapaksa regime. There were racially motivated acts of violence against minorities but the ruling regime did respond, despite an initial lethargy, unlike the previous regime which speedily sanitized such events.
A resurgence of Rajapaksa governance, specifically a Gotabaya presidency – which is a strong possibility unless this regime reassembles itself – will see the eradication of all such freedoms. We will move towards a polity in which the nation itself will be divided between the majority and the minority, along ethnic and religious lines, and patriotism will be invested with a special meaning; a polity in which a call for equal treatment across all ethnicities and religious divisions will be seen as unpatriotic and anti-national, a polity in which a liberal mindset will be perceived as a threat to national sovereignty, a polity in which racist hate-mongers, such as Galaboda-atte Gnanasara and other saffron clad extremists, will have the freedom to orchestrate the national narrative.