By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“The correctness or incorrectness of the ideological and political line decides everything.” (Mao)
UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is mightily helped by the confusion in the ranks of the SLFP and Oppositional forces in general. The SLFP voters and the broader constituency of non-UNP (or non-hardcore UNP) voters are being sent three messages, all of which are wrong. The three messages come, NOT from Mahinda Rajapaksa but from President Sirisena, ex-president Kumaratunga and architect-strategist of the breakaway Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Sri Lanka People’s Front SLPF), Basil Rajapaksa.
Chandrika Kumaratunga wants a strategic alliance of the SLFP and the UNP, even under the UNP’s leadership. She seems willing to go as far as fusion, which means turning the clock back to pre-1951 and her father’s rupture with the UNP. The alliance she advocates is with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the neoliberal globalism he represents, rather than with a populist-patriotic (‘neo-Premadasaist’) tendency of the UNP. Chandrika sees the UNP-TNA-SLFP-civil society liberals-West as a durable and desirable bloc.
President Sirisena sees the UNP-SLFP alliance not as strategic, and certainly not as a potential fusion, unless the UNP is led by an ideological co-thinker who is a centrist-populist. He is striving to cultivate such a constituency within the UNP. If not, or until that fructifies, the alliance with the UNP is tactical, not strategic. He is keeping open the January 2015 alignment and its possible recycling but that is not his Plan A, not least because he sees its exponentially growing unpopularity. He has his eye on the exits that are coming up but he hasn’t made up his mind. His main aim is to nurture a moderate, more youthful and modern, non-Rajapaksa/post-Rajapaksa SLFP which is ideologically progressive or even mildly social democrat. He hopes to use it to seize the hegemony within the existing Yahapalana coalition or lead it to victory as part of a new centrist alliance with compatible elements of the JO and the UNP.
Basil Rajapaksa’s perspective is clear. He is seeing it through the eyes of his father DA Rajapaksa and uncle, DM Rajapaksa. He sees the SLFP vacating its historic role as a moderate nationalist alternative to the UNP, while the UNP is playing the role that made SWRD and DA Rajapaksa rupture with it and found the SLFP. Basil sees a historic opportunity. He hopes to build an alternative to the UNP which in this first stage has to be an alternative to the official SLFP. He hopes to kill two birds with one stone, and strengthen himself through this project, vis-a-vis a sibling perceived as a potential rival and successor to the iconic elder brother Mahinda.
CBK’s vision of the merger or long-term strategic alliance of the UNP and SLFP which forms a single center-right, pro-West liberal formation is doomed to be a mirage or at best, have a short shelf-life. Once Ranil’s polarizing policies sink the UNP in a reprise of 1956/1970, both the UNP and the official SLFP will dump the line that got them into the hole and swing decisively to populist-nationalist personalities.
This leaves standing two perspectives of the three: President Sirisena’s and Basil Rajapaksa’s. They are both intelligent, politically knowledgeable individuals, who dislike each other and have a “history”. President Sirisena’s problem with Mahinda Rajapaksa was a derivative of his problem with Basil. President Sirisena and Gotabhaya never had a problem with one another, and the latter actually canvassed unsuccessfully for Mr. Sirisena to be made PM. President Rajapaksa was unable to accommodate Minister Maithripala Sirisena fairly because he was reluctant to antagonize two people—Nimal Siripala de Silva and much more importantly, Basil Rajapaksa. Maithripala Sirisena’s defection and candidacy owed much more to bitterness generated by Basil Rajapaksa’s political behavior than to moves by India, the US and CBK!
Ironically, President Sirisena and Mr. Basil Rajapaksa share the same crippling flaw. The Sirisena line expects us to agree that Ranil and Chandrika are better, or better political company, for the country and the SLFP, than Mahinda Rajapaksa. Hardly any SLFP voter will agree with that proposition. Not many Sri Lankan Sinhalese will, by the next election. Mr. Sirisena’s moderate, modern, non-Rajapaksa family SLFP may have been a viable, even attractive proposition, but not while he is in the company of Ranil and CBK, and the country is careening in the direction decided upon by them. In other words, President Sirisena’s vision for the SLFP would have worked and can work, only in the Opposition or as the dominant element of a government that is headed in a very different direction from this one. As things are, and so long as they remain this way, his line cannot work.
CBK and President Sirisena, albeit to different degrees, push the line that the main enemy is Mahinda Rajapaksa; that the main danger facing the country is a Rajapaksa return; and that the main task is to prevent it. Basil Rajapaksa and the SLPP’s line is that the main enemy is Maithripala Sirisena, rather than Ranil Wickremesinghe, and that the main target should be the official SLFP. In a classic “category error” all these players conflate “rival/competitor” with “enemy/threat”. Neither line is going to work with most SLFP voters (as distinct from hardcore activists) or anti-government voters; those who want change.
While Basil and the SLPF expect another 1956, they are not positioning themselves correctly for it. SWRD and DA Rajapaksa did not regard their competitors the LSSP and CP as the main enemies, but correctly attacked the UNP and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s precursor, the pro-Western, anti-national Sir John Kotelawela (whose ideological advisor was Ranil’s father, Esmond).
The SLPP’s “maestro” does not know what a real maestro, JR Jayewardene did when in the Opposition. JRJ knew that the coalitional character of the government of the day is not only a source of strength but also of weakness, and should be the “seam” or “fault line” that that numerically weaker Opposition should tactically focus on opening up, thereby causing an implosion, while strategically focusing on rebranding, repositioning and (re)building one’s own party as a powerful grassroots movement.
The SLPP counter-argument may be that the Sirisena SLFP is propping up the UNP, which was not the case with the LSSP and CP in the 1950s when the SLFP was launched. True, but when JRJ split the UF Coalition as a prelude to his landslide in 1977, he didn’t target the LSSP-CPSL as main enemy because they were a powerful prop of the SLFP, but instead drew the LSSP and CP out of the coalition while targeting the duo Felix Dias Bandaranaike and Mrs. B as the main enemy. An intelligent strategist would not attack the prop but deprive the enemy of it by detaching it and drawing it away from the enemy it is propping up! An intelligent strategist would also realize that the SLFP in government should not be targeted as the enemy but should be treated as allies, and converted into a Fifth Column waging a guerrilla war of attrition in the government camp, behind the UNP’s lines.
Basil Rajapaksa knows that if the elected Executive Presidential system remains there will have to be a common Opposition candidate at the next election; one whom all factions of the SLFP agree on. Whether the candidate is or isn’t a Rajapaksa, it sure won’t be Basil. No wonder then that the SLPP is fudging the issue of the UNP’s constitutional power grab i.e. the effort to transfer power from Sirisena to Ranil via the abolition of the executive Presidency.
Mahinda himself cannot run, but he won’t mind too much as long as the candidate is a Rajapaksa, because as PM he will have more power than ever before (thanks to the 19th amendment) and will be treated with more respect by the next President than Madam Bandaranaike was when she was PM and CBK was President. He is ambivalent on the abolition of the Presidency not on his own account but because of the complications of balancing the interests of all the political players of two generations within the family—which was the real motivation for the counterproductive 18th amendment (abolishing terms limits) anyway.
The SLPP strategists appear to think that a possible intervention by President Sirisena to recompose the government, ousting Ranil and the Right and effecting a centrist realignment under Presidential auspices would retard the chances of a landslide in 2020. They think that retaining Ranil undisturbed till 2020 would help a backlash and an avalanche. They forget several factors. Firstly, the Presidential election comes before the parliamentary election and a Presidential candidate is an imperative. A split in the anti-UNP vote could mean a victory for the UNP candidate supported by the minorities. Secondly, the UNP’s ongoing sell-off of the country would leave very little to inherit in 2020 except a rump Sri Lankan state. Therefore exploring to the maximum any possibility of an intermediate, interim and transitional solution, a re-set of the political equation, is in the national interest.
If that doesn’t work out, then a “Jathika Virodatha Dinaya” (Day of National Protest), a “Samastha Maha Veda Varjanaya” (General Strike), a “pipireema” (explosion) and “Peraliya”(overturn) – to use terms that are currently in the public political discourse–and are not only inevitable but could also prove our country’s salvation.
Meanwhile, “Stop handing Trincomalee to India!” should be the key slogan of the JO’s May Day 2017 at Galle Face Green, and every citizen who is opposed to giving Trincomalee to the Indians should be urged to be present on that day at that venue.