It all started when Basil Rajapaksa (BR) decided to leave Sri Lanka in a hurry when the Aragalaya had toppled brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) and driven brother Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) to Trincomalee under the care of the Navy to hide in a secure camp to escape a lynching.
BR’s attempt to leave Katunayake via an Emirates flight to Dubai and Los Angeles was thwarted by immigration and the airline’s officials. He left a few days later after ensuring that his nominee Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) was guaranteed safe passage to the presidency with the backing of his Pohottuwa (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna – SLPP) acolytes. But he left behind a fractured SLPP and a spokesman who is continuously vilified not only by the Opposition but also by his own party members.
While BR the cat [or bird] is away, the Pohottuwa mice are at play and the political scene is once more full of uncertainty, shifting alliances, and confusion. The current standoff between the President and the BR group is about the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle.
The Pohottuwa has recommended a ‘Gang of Four’ – Johnston Fernando, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, and Namal Rajapaksa – whom the President has refused to accommodate on grounds that they have lost the confidence of the public.
They in turn have tried to force RW’s hand by organising rallies to make MR ‘stand up,’ only to expose a frail leader who can barely make it to the stage and cannot speak without a teleprompter. On one occasion, he was on autopilot and wanted the audience to support President GR till his minder Neville whispered in his ear that RW was now the incumbent President.
He then stripped RW of any claims to independence by saying that he was now “a good man who was following the proper Rajapaksa path”. The United National Party (UNP) is now subject to such cringe-making compliments every day.
Split in the Pohottuwa
The split in the Pohottuwa was clearly seen also in the election of the new president by Parliament. Though Dullas Alahapperuma lost, he was able to gather a substantial number of votes of ‘independents’ who had been elected to Parliament through the Pohottuwa. The unifying thread of all these ‘independents ’is their distrust of BR. This was clearly seen in the splendid victory of the 22nd Amendment Bill and the marginalisation of BR’s ‘hardcore’ supporters.
There were two key issues which were disputed regarding the 22nd Amendment Bill. The first was the Pohottuwa desire to shift the president’s current powers to dissolve Parliament in two-and-a-half years to four-and-a-half years, thereby ensuring that the present members will receive a pension as well as gain time to re-canvass their presently hostile electorates. RW skillfully made this concern a non-issue by promising not to dissolve Parliament even after four-and-a-half years. It was a credible promise because it is not in his interest to preside over a new Parliament with a hostile PM and Cabinet.
The only real issue remaining then was about the eligibility of a dual citizen [in this case BR] to electively seek office in Sri Lanka. In the run-up to the vote, the Pohottuwa machine threatened to vote against the 22nd Amendment Bill if this proviso was not removed at least at the committee stage.
From the US, BR sent orders to acolytes here, which were relayed by Sagara Kariyawasam. A suave lawyer and General Secretary of the Pohottuwa, he became a divisive figure in the party because of his unflinching BR line and contempt for party members who wanted to defy such orders. Thereby he became a hated figure for those dissidents who chose to attack him rather than have a direct confrontation with their US-based ‘strongman’.
Many are intrigued by Sagara’s power, which helped him to even cross swords with the party’s respected Chairman, Professor G.L. Peiris. He treated GL as a non-person. Political commentators know that ‘there is no fury like GL scorned’ and are not surprised by his attacks on the Rajapaksas whom he served so diligently.
He is the symbolic ‘good guy’ in the SLPP because even his detractors acknowledge that he is squeaky clean. He is an intellectual giant. His linguistic skills in both Sinhala and English are an asset to any government. But he has been overlooked for the big prize by all presidents. Even the Foreign Ministry was taken away from him. That the Pohottuwa, which used him as a trump card, should treat him this way was unacceptable and he has now become a trenchant critic of the Government and is a prize catch for the Dullas group.
Sagara Kariyawasam hails from Elpitiya, a part of the Bentara-Elpitiya seat, which has the largest number of voters in the Galle District and is presently represented by State Minister Geetha Kumarasinghe, who got a record number of votes for the SLPP at the last election. Sagara also contested for Bentara-Elpitiya in 2020 but was not successful.
The Kariyawasams and their close kinsmen, the Karunatillekes, have dominated Elpitiya politics from the time of the Bandaranaikes. Sagara’s father Albert Kariyawasam was a deputy minister in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s regime of 1970-’77. Albert, who was earlier a popular teacher at Elpitiya Central College, spent a year at the Peradeniya University and was a friend of many undergraduates there who later helped him in his political campaigns. Albert’s elder brother was a well-known landowner managing his own plantations and tea factories. His son – Sagara’s cousin – was a deputy minister under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
The present Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP for Bentara-Elpitiya, Gayantha Karunatilleke, is another cousin. An interesting feature of Galle politics is that the Kariyawasams, Karunatillekes, Dodangodas, Pathiranas, Kumarasinghes, and Weerakkodys are all closely interrelated and form a steel ring of UNP, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), SLPP, and SJB politics, while other specially carved-out electorates – Ambalangoda, Balapitiya, Rathgama, and Karandeniya – are reserved for candidates who do not belong to the majority caste.
Test of wills
Now, as General Secretary, Sagara has to manage a party which is badly splintered. BR’s writ does not run now as it did in the days of the GR administration. As President RW attempts to assert himself, he has to depend on a fractured SLPP, which does not sing in unison to a music sheet given to them by BR. But there are enough BR loyalists managed by Sagara to create problems if the President wants to be his own man.
The reconstitution of the Cabinet will be the next test of wills. Can RW thwart the attempt to shoehorn the ‘Gang of Four’? At the same time, other aspirants to ministerial office – like S.B. Dissanayake – are threatening to defeat the budget unless ministerial appointments are made immediately.
Political savvy determines that President RW needs to now get the support of a large section, if not all, of the SJB if he is to implement an agenda which the old undivided UNP took so much trouble and time to formulate, but did not win a mandate at an election. He also needs the help of BR, which will most likely be communicated by his proxy, the besieged Sagara Kariyawasam.