By Kumar David –
Everybody has an opinion about which way the ship is listing, and I have mine, but the answer to the question in my caption is important; it will set the national course for the coming months. Let me add that I take no side in this purported sibling row as I am implacably opposed to both. Rather, my effort is to read the signs, summarise arguments of pundits and punters, and to think through what either the great-deception, or a parting of ways will mean in the medium term – say next 12 months.
If Lanka was a normal political dispensation, where what leaders say could be taken as frank, and not as deception and sham calculated to deceive, then there is a searing deadlock in government. No government can survive with such an intractable conflict on the major policy issue of the day. Symbols of the opposed positions are the President (presumably supported by majorities in Cabinet and parliamentary group) on one side, and on the other his brother, the Defence Secretary with the shrill and strident backing of a cacophony of monks, extremists and the military(?) Imagine if this was Obama and Secretary Kerry on Middle East policy, or Singh and Minister Anthony on India’s military stance to Pakistan; the survival of such governments would be untenable. (Don’t be misled that Gotabaya is not a minister, he is more powerful than any Cabinet Minister; who else in the SLFP could challenge government policy so plainly, and even to key visiting dignitaries – Menon for example – and still retain control of the armed forces and the police?)
The core of the conflict is all too well known. The President has, or has been compelled, to proclaim the formation of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) and instruct that elections be held in September. In the interim no changes will be made to 13A. That is now settled policy and can be reversed only conspiratorially – say by inciting an agent to pray court that NPC elections be postponed and quietly making the regime’s wishes known to the ever obliging courts. Short of conspiracy, or rigged elections, come late September we will have a TNA led NPC Administration in place.
The Defence Secretary (DS) on the other hand has said emphatically in interviews and public statements that this outcome would pave the way for the division of the country. In his view it would be a disaster of unimaginable proportions and a betrayal of the great price paid for war victory. He is loudly hailed by a noisy menagerie of political extremists and monks (JHU, MEP, loony Wimal, BSS, the Ravana thugs and other fanatics). The unrelenting stand of this muster, DS included, is that 13A is a wicked imposition that must be repealed, and that Lanka must not allow India to sway its rejection of devolution. Tell India to go to hell is the gist.
The conflict between these two views could not be starker, nor could there be an issue of greater import to Lanka at this moment. How then does the government survive and function; why does it not fall flat on its face as it should if both sides are deadly serious? Pundits have two answers to the puzzle – and variations thereof that I cannot pursue. The alternatives are: An ‘It’s all blithering eyewash’ school, and a ‘Mahinda is heading for shipwreck’ school.
The Janus faced deception ploy
The brothers are working on a mutually agreed and coordinated game plan; there is no rift or conflict, their strategies are well choreographed, says the first school. The President keeps Delhi,Washington, the human rights lobby and Geneva pacified, he dances to their tune and does an encore when needed; the regime, by agreement of all three siblings, does not want any slips before CHOGM; that’s a long time more, and after that it will play things by ear. The scene will be different then, the NP-PC will be in office,Delhi will be nearer its electoral day of reckoning, and how potent the deployment of thugs and monks has to be judged then. What to do about 13A will be decided in relation to factors on the ground at the time. Cross your bridges when you reach them.
The game plan assigned to DS, according to these pundits, is more complex. It begins with recognition that the platform on which the Rajapakse regime stands is the Sinhala-Buddhist vote bank with an emotionally charged current at its core. The Rajapakses dare not lose this footing on pain of political extinction. So while aiya will tango for the international community, malli does a kaavadi dance to stimulate Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. It is manifest that Gotabaya and not Minda is the cynosure of Sinhala-Buddhist eyes now. I see this in responses to this column when I suggest that Gota is out of line as a public servant and should be removed. The response from chauvinists is unabashed and hard hitting: “Just let Mahinda try! He is the one who will end up in the trashcan. Gota is our hero”. The intense reaction is because racists love Gota; they see him as more fiercely anti-Tamil than other senior government figures.
The gist of the deception thesis is that this is all a put on show to deceive the international community on one side and beat a drum on the other side to incite fanatics to howl on the streets. The siblings are close to each other, they work as a team, and I grant that this could well be a choreographed charade typical of Rajapakse trickery. However, this pretence has reached its limits. I will return to this after exploring the second option that there is a real rift between the siblings.
The Mahinda is scared of Gota thesis
The bizarre element in this thesis is not that there is a rift between the brothers (I am aware that important SLFP Ministers are of that view), but the corollary that Mahinda is afraid of Gota. The base on which the regime stands is the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate and its extremist core; if there is a rift, then the hardcore, and not so hardcore, will emote with Gota, these theorists plausibly claim. What is there in Mahinda, as opposed to Gota, for Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism to hang on to?
The country has been sold the fable that: (i) 13A is an evil Indian imposition, (ii) India and the TNA are dead set to divide the country via the NPC polls, (iii) the government is kowtowing to Delhi, instead Colombo should be strong and assert ‘Sri Lankan self-respect and sovereignty’, and (iv) the rotten imperialists are promoting division. This is being force-fed by Sinhala print and electronic media; the English language press also publishes some similar sonorous commentaries by public and diplomatic service retirees, lawyers and hela-jathika types. If Mahinda’s and Gota’s espoused positions drift apart, which side do you expect Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism to drift to?
A second argument of the there-is-a-rift school is that it is not possible to carry deception and dissimulation to such limits. When Indian Security supremo SS Menon met Gota, the later, newspapers say, plainly told him that 13A must go,Sri Lanka does not want it; it will be repealed. That a Defence Secretary must not contradict government policy in not the point; the point is will a DS explicitly oppose government policy merely as a ruse to deceive ultra-nationalists and keep them in a state of tumescence? There is a limit to which you can force-feed fanatics political Viagra; Gota’s position is for real, and not a put on show, these commentators argue.
Things are coming to a boil and events will soon answer these questions, whichever thesis is correct. The monks’ and chauvinists’ rally at Maharagama two weeks ago was, by all accounts, very large; it attracted a ranting crowd of tens of thousands. The message was clear and aimed at Mahinda. Stop trying to cheat us they warned him; they were vociferous in denouncing those who “betray the country and the heroic armed forces”. The point of no return is approaching; we are nearing another 1957-59 watershed. What is Mahinda going to do; dare he panic and pull back; what will then become of his international and CHOGM game plan? On the other hand, what will be left of him and his regime if the extremists goad him on, and he defies them? Dare he take them on; does he have the backing and the guts to use tear gas and bayonets? The answers are blowing in the wind.
And what is Gota’s role if the extremists pose a deadly challenge? Proponents of the deception thesis argue that the point was to use him to first whip up the extremists, and then at the second stage, which is fast dawning, to use him to control them. That’s a neat thesis, but what if the fanatics cannot be controlled as the closing down of the Grandpass Mosque suggests? I am assured by deception theorists that BSS and the Ravana’s are cowardly rabble and a whiff of grape-shot will disperse them. Maybe, but I don’t know. Proponents of the second thesis however see a different unfolding; the rift will come to a boil and the watershed will be reached.
The material I have relied on is out there in the public domain and newspapers. The analytical options spelled out are frankly talked about in society, though most people lack the intellectual strength to think ideas through to their logical conclusion. Therefore, I ask readers to accept this piece not as speculation but as sober assessment.