Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
A crude bid to capture national political power by the so-called Joint Opposition, disgracefully aided and abetted by a section of President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) failed this week. Given the political configurations on the floor of the House, perhaps this failure was inevitable but nothing is certain after all, in this dirty, rotten game of scoundrels beating their chests like patriots, as they say.
If this plot had succeeded, the consequences for national stability are too catastrophic to contemplate. In the wake of the defeat, the United National Party (UNP) has promised wide ranging reforms, internally as well as in respect of its chaotic governance processes. There is, of course, huge skepticism in the public preception of these promises which the UNP must recognise as natural, given the umpteen times that such attempts have failed.
Cocky boasts of the Joint Opposition
But for the moment, despite very justifiable misgivings that one may have regarding the Government’s ruinous perpetuation of the treasury bond fiasco at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) and justifying it thereafter, relief is warranted following Wednesday’s vote. The numerical count has neatly fallen into line on either side of the House, belying cocky boasts of Joint Opposition frontliners whose obnoxiously Cheshire-cat grins cover a multitude of sins, communal as well as in regard to outright thievery of public funds.
Manifestly there is a point at which absurdity crosses the line and falls into the lap of insanity. The no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Government focused not only on the alleged responsibility of the Prime Minister in regard to the CBSL treasury bond controversy but also in respect of an alleged failure to act promptly in respect of recent communal attacks on Muslim residents by political mobs in Ampara and Kandy.
As it has now transpired, several provincial politicians of the JO’s ‘Pohottuwa’ (a misnomer for that political party if there ever was one given that the innocence of the lotus flower bud is a far cry from the knaves who make up most of the JO) had been directly implicated in the Kandy violence at least. The JO’s allegations in respect of the Kandy violence are exceedingly rich in irony in any event. So the Rajapaksa lobby which actively fomented the Aluthgama violence as a warning to Muslim communities and reduced Tamil citizens to fear, terror and brutal subordination in the post-war years, had the brazen gall (let us not mince words) to accuse this Government of ‘failing to act’ promptly to prevent communal violence.
Shameful manipulation of communalism
If this was the logic, then how many no-confidence motions should have been brought against the former President and his family cronies during their time in power? Of course, that would have been a near impossibility at the time given the death fears that predominated among any and all who disagreed with the Rajapaksa way of thinking.
This columnist has been a forthright critic of the Government for the very reasons that ultimately resulted in the February 2018 electoral reprimand to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance, signs of which were visible from 2015 itself. Recognising this, critical positions should have been taken at the outset without civil society partners rushing headlong into compromising alliances with the Government, effectively becoming spokespersons for its unhappy prevarications from spluttering anti-corruption efforts to transitional justice reforms and constitutional reforms.
Most damagingly, official stonewalling on outstanding corruption cases against the Rajapaksas and their cronies was justified on the basis that Sri Lanka’s legal systems make it impossible for positive outcomes to be reached. These airy explanations ignored pointers that blocks lay elsewhere as seen by the fact that the Inspector General of Police got himself televised in news media (in a masterpiece of stupidity, one may well add) assuring the UNP’s Law and Order Minister that the police will not proceed against a certain ‘nilame’, a Rajapaksa favourite implicated in gross corruption. What more proof was required? In how many more cases was this same stonewalling evidenced by both factions of this alliance?
The infamies are not certainly comparable
In other respects as well, ‘yahapalanaya’ failures deserve to be critiqued without exception. The unity alliance’s ill-favored actions early on include dismissing a sitting Chief Justice through a letter written by the President and appointing a Prime Minister when an incumbent Prime Minister had not yet resigned. Recent press interviews given by the Rajapaksas point ominously to the fact that these ‘precedents’ will be remembered if power returns to their hands.
But even so, these failures are not comparable with the manifold infamies of the Joint Opposition. The Kandy violence is a frightening foretaste of what this country will be subjected to if the Rajapaksa brand (in whatever individual or collective avatar) return. And it is demonstrably hard to assess as to which character in that crowd is more lacking in conscience in respect of the use of communal politics to achieve petty political ends.
Its apologists are now unashamedly employing a racist rationale to explain the failure of the no-confidence motion in Parliament. It was said in 2015, as it is being said now, that it is the minority vote which safeguards the Government and that ‘deals’ are being reached on that basis. The pitting of the majority against the minorities is the most despicable game that politicians might play. To have people who profess to be ‘educated’ also joining these baying communalists is appalling.
Heeding the cries of UNP backbenchers
Where the way forward is concerned, the UNP hierarchy must acknowledge that this chance to reform, snatched out of thunderous skies as it were, must not be allowed to slip casually by with superficial shifting of leadership positions while the real power centre remains captured in an arrogant and imperviously elitist ‘bubble.’
It would do well to abide by ‘mea culpa’ cries of backbenchers during Wednesday’s vote when they pointed to the Joint Opposition benches and loudly lamented as to what a fate it was for the party of which they were members, to be accused of roguery by such palpable rogues as the Rajapaksa lobby. Meanwhile SLFP Ministers who voted for the no-confidence motion and insist on staying in their ministerial positions must be treated with the public contempt that they deserve. Their explanation that the motion was only against the Prime Minister is farcical.
Despite racist rhetoric then and now, the fact remains that huge swathes of the Sinhala vote swung against the Rajapaksas in 2015. That happened for reasons that still remain valid. That momentum was lost due to a toxic mixture of petty party squabbling, sheer incompetence and stupidity. From this point onwards, it should be this Government’s singular effort to court that jaundiced constituency afresh and demonstrate concrete gains on the reforms agenda by direct engagement with its voter base, not merely Colombo’s ‘chattering classes.’
Essentially, it should start governing, at least now.