By Rajiva Wijesinha –
A Presidency Under Threat – Facing Realities
Though I do not in any way regret our decision not to support Mahinda Rajapaksa at the forthcoming Presidential election, I do feel immensely sorry for him. He is neither a fool, nor a villain, so he knows well the mess into which he has got himself. Though he and his advisers will use every trick in the book now to win re-election, and he might even succeed, he knows that the methods he is now using serve only to make crystal clear how very unpopular he has become.
This was not something the Mahinda Rajapaksa who led us to victory over the Tigers deserves. It is quite preposterous that a man who took bold decisions to save the country from terrorism has been incapable of taking any decisions at all in recent months to remove the various blights that have hit us.
Lalith Weeratunge made the excuse for him that the truth was being kept from him. Last March, after I had drawn his attention yet again to the problems that were mounting, he wrote to me that ‘Once I return end of next week, i.e., about March 30, I must meet you to have a frank chat. Little I can do, I will. Not many speak the truth today and all I hear are blatant lies. However, not many know that I have my ears to the ground; in every district, little groups have been talking to me. I am sure both of us could bring out the reality.’
But we never did get to meet, and time and again he cancelled meetings because he had suddenly to go abroad. In time I stopped regretting this, because it seemed to me that there was little we could do together that Lalith could not do himself, given that he still I think commanded the President’s confidence. But I suppose we have to sympathize with his lack of confidence in his ability to correct things himself, given the much stronger motivations of those who had hijacked both the President and the Presidency. After all he had failed to get the President to correct course when his wife first drew attention to aberrations at the Securities Commission.
Underlying the diffidence however was the belief that the President was not really in danger. I suspect those around him never thought that Ranil Wickremesinghe would not be the main candidate against them, and understandably they thought that Mahinda Rajapaksa would then be a shoo-in for the Presidency. After the Uva election they might have thought twice, but they doubtless assumed they would not find it difficult to construct a pitch, as it were, of their choosing. This would be the past, and the Tigers, and on such a pitch Ranil would flounder – though, to make sure of this, they have got ready vast amounts of propaganda to remind the people of Ranil’s past. The posters I have seen recently with Richard de Zoysa’s picture indicate how far back they were determined to go, but with control of so much of the media, they must have thought they could keep attention during the campaign on Ranil’s weaknesses, rather than the recent failures of governance.
That complacence explains the fact that they were quite prepared to not just forget but even to actively alienate Muslim voters. It seems to have come as a shock to government that even Rishard Bathiudeen was preparing to cross over to the common opposition. But had they bothered to listen to what he has been saying in Parliament recently they would have realized how deeply upset he was. The desperate measures they have had to engage in to keep him and his party, carrots and sticks extending even to getting rid of faithful old Mr Azwer from Parliament, indicate they understand how important such voters are. But though they might paper over the façade, a moment’s thought should make them realize that, given the manner in which the Muslims have been treated, there is no way anyone in the community can support the President and succeed in any future election. Indeed I suspect that even Faizer Mustapha will have to move, given that his efforts to control the BBS rally in Aluthgama were treated with contempt, a fact known to the entire Muslim community, even if the President were deceived about it.
But it is not just the minorities who are deeply upset. I have been touched, in the last couple of weeks, by the fervent good wishes of so many I know from different areas and walks of life. I did not doubt that my Colombo acquaintance would be pleased by the decision of the Liberal Party, but I have found students from many different periods of my teaching career very positive, and teachers and journalists and public servants. Even the security forces, it seems, are more keen for a change than otherwise, and not all the motor-bikes in the world are going to give the government the sweeping victory in that sphere that they had hoped for.
What is astonishing is that someone as politically experienced as Mahinda Rajapaksa did not understand what was going on. When I used to urge him to institute reforms, he would cast doubt on whether he would have support for these, and my assertion that the vast majority of the SLFP was moderate and would stand with him led to the inevitable rejoinder that it was he who understood about elections. That underlay his dismissive rebuke when, back in 2009, I had urged him not to have an early Presidential election – he said dismissively that only Gota and I had been of that view, as though to suggest that we were outsiders as compared with those who were active in electoral politics.
It seems then to be Basil who calls the shots in this regard, and his increasing reliance on him for elections may explain why he cannot change course now. Although he seems to have understood that Basil is at the root of a lot of his unpopularity now with Members of Parliament, for his advisers who had tried to persuade Maithripala Sirisena to stick with him had apparently talked of clipping Basil’s wings, the impression was that this would only be possible after the election. But apart from the fact that the history of broken promises has made such assurances unconvincing, it is sad that he has not realized that the techniques Basil employs no longer work at elections. The Northern Province Election election showed that Basil’s concept of development did not win hearts and minds. When that was followed by the Uva result, despite the heaps of goodies that were distributed, the President should have registered that times had changed, and the people needed more sustainable measures.
What should have happened then was rapid rethinking, and the establishment of a policy and planning unit that was not self-regarding. Unfortunately the paper sent early in 2010 to Lalith about strengthening the role of the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation was ignored, perhaps in line with the President’s diagnosis that those around him wanted to hold all the reins in their own hands. Having understood this however, he did nothing about it, so programmes are devised and implemented and monitored by the same people.
It is no wonder then that the President has had no idea for some time now about what is going on in the world outside the palace, and about the anger that has built up in his own party, to say nothing of the coalition partners. Many years ago Wittgenstein wrote of the man who bought a second copy of the morning paper to check that what he had read in it was true. The image is even more striking when the paper the man buys is owned by him, and dedicates itself to enunciating his view of the world.