By Rasika Jayakody –
JR Jayewardene — the shrewdest politician in post-independent Sri Lanka — made three deadliest blunders that made a far-reaching impact on his party as well as on his administration.
They were the infamous referendum on extending the term of Parliament in 1982, the prohibition of the JVP and several other parties in the aftermath of the Black July in 1983 and stripping Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civic rights in 1980.
All these decisions, needless to day, were made seeking short-term gains in consolidating his grip on power. But, in the long run, both Jayewardene and his administration found themselves in an inescapable mire due to the consequences of these decisions.
Jayewardene, when he made these political miscalculations, was emboldened by the fact that he had an overwhelming majority in Parliament. He knew he could steamroll any obstacle standing in his way with this unassailable parliamentary majority.
Even in this context, Jayawardene faced some resistance from his ministers when the issue of Bandaranaike’s civic rights was discussed at the Cabinet meeting in September 1980.
Gamini Dissanayake, Ananada Tissa De Alwis, Shelton Ranaraja and S. Thondaman clearly expressed their disappointment with the move when the matter was taken up for discussion at the meeting.
Perturbed by this alarming move, Dissanayake rushed to the house of SLFP stalwart Hector Kobbekaduwa after this controversial cabinet meeting and tipped him off on the decision. Dissanayake’s intention was not to sabotage the decision made by the party, but to follow his conscience when it came to a highly contentious matter.
Although Jayewardene contemplated stern action against Dissanayake — a dynamic minister in the Jayewardene administration who was groomed for national leadership — the matter was finally settled following interventions by several persons including the then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Despite these acts of resistance by some of his Cabinet members, Jayewardene managed to execute his decision aiming to throw his archrival — the leader of the SLFP — into the political wilderness for seven years.
It is important to remember that Jayewardene, known among his peers as the wily old fox, made this shortsighted move having climbed the greasy pole of politics for nearly five decades.
After Jayawardene, no other leader used this double-edged sword to consolidate grip on power and dislodge political opponents. Despite some short-term gains it might yield, they knew that the costs associated with such actions would be grave and far-reaching.
However, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a relative newcomer to partisan politics, is now dabbling with this dangerous double-edged sword, without realizing its impact on the government in the long run.
The Presidential Commission which he appointed to probe the alleged acts of political victimization during the Yahapalanaya government, has recommended to strip a number of opposition figures of their civic rights.
This includes MPs who served as members of the Anti-corruption Committee such as former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, MPs Sarath Fonseka, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Rajitha Senaratne, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and M.A. Sumanthiran.
It is true that Gotabaya Rajapaksa also enjoys an overwhelming majority in Parliament, as Jayewardene did in 1980. But, it does not take a lot of wisdom to understand that the position of the incumbent President is far more vulnerable and fragile in comparison to Jayewardene.
A political storm is brewing over the government due to the cold war between the SLPP and the SLFP — the two main stakeholders of the current administration. The SLFP openly claims that they are being treated as second-class citizens within the government and do not even get a chance to meet the President on a regular basis.
If the frustrated SLFP pulls out of the ruling camp, the government will lose its two-thirds majority in Parliament.
The internal power struggle between the Basil Rajapksa and Wimal Weerawansa factions within the ruling camp has reached a new height with Weerawansa requesting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to become the leader of the SLPP.
SLPP General Secretary, flanked by party backbenchers, launched a scathing attack on Weerawansa forcing the latter to mobilise other party leaders of the ruling alliance and form a pressure group of sorts.
While a string of fresh challenges emanating from the UNHRC sessions is haunting the government, its leaders are also confronted by the growing disappointment of the 6.9 million people who voted for the current government anticipating a “system change”.
It is abundantly clear during parliamentary sessions that only a handful of political figures such as Nimal Lanza, Rohitha Abeygunawardhana, Johnston Fernando and Mahindananda Aluthgamage have become the key spokespersons of the government while senior members of the ruling party — namely Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premjayanth, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Dullas Alahapperuma — continue to adopt a silent approach.
In fact, even Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken a ‘passive role’ without proactively involving himself with the day-to-day running of the government. It is apparent that the Prime Minister does not intend to contest an election again and is gradually phasing out of active politics.
The President is seeking to use this deadly double-edged at a time when he is becoming politically isolated within his own government.
Stripping opposition politicians of their civic rights, therefore, will be a major political gamble for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It will plunge his government into an unprecedented controversy and even worsen the rifts within the ruling camps. Moreover, it will mobilize deeply divided groups in the opposition around a common cause whilst giving a strong reason for the public to show a red light to the government at the nearest election.