By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The mood in shifting in Sri Lankan society. It’s waiting with a mix of patience and restlessness, for the return of Mahinda’s leadership, but also something else. I sense a public in ferment, across classes. Society is waiting for ‘MR Plus’: Mahinda’s magnetic center-left Populism, upgraded and ‘weaponized’ to finish strong, with an Alt-Something.
It was almost 15 years ago that the NGP Panditharatne Report (2004) noted that testimony from UNPers at the grassroots island-wide had a uniform theme: the problem of the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe!
It was entirely appropriate and heavily symbolic that none other than Vasantha Senanayake, great-grandson of UNP founder and the ‘Father of the Nation’, DS Senanayake, when pressed for the second time by the media on the issue of the replacement of the PM as part of a course-correction, said on prime-time TV news that “it [the PM’s replacement] was bound to happen the easy way or the hard way”. He followed this up last evening by saying on TV that if the matter isn’t resolved in the next two weeks, the UNP rebels could collect and “would easily exceed by about 15” the numbers needed for a no-confidence motion on the PM to pass in parliament.
By any standard of ‘good governance’ (‘yahapalanaya’) and political decency, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe should have resigned, or been made to, for five reasons. Firstly, he was responsible for the appointment of Arjuna Mahendran, against the explicit advice of the President. His crony Mahendran (who had been his appointee in 2001 as the head of the BoI) has been responsible for enormous damage to the economy, the citizenry, the Government and his own party, the UNP. Mahendran is now safely back in Singapore, where he came from. The Prime Minister showed atrocious judgment in retaining him and in seeking to continue to do so when the President wished to remove him. In any decently functioning country, the PM would resign or have been asked to fall on his sword.
Secondly, Mr. Wickremesinghe has been responsible for a crash in the electoral fortunes of his party. In 2018, the UNP that had just celebrated its 70th anniversary, has been beaten into second place by a party that is just a few months old, and that too, by a wide margin. The UNP is the predominant force in the Government, and yet, after three years in office it was convincingly beaten by a party that neither enjoys the status of being in office nor that of being recognized as it should, as the official Opposition. As the leader who led his party to defeat once again, Mr. Wickremesinghe should resign or be forced to by his party.
Thirdly, Mr. Wickremesinghe based his strategy and his strategic confidence on the alliance with and the subsequent split in the SLFP. The strategy failed abysmally. The populist Pohottuwa unofficially led by the iconic Mahinda Rajapaksa, sowed the seeds and reaped the harvest of an anti-incumbency protest vote. The official SLFP retained but a sizeable residue, which was hopelessly inadequate in preventing a Pohottuwa victory. Thus Mr. Wickremesinghe proved himself a dreadful political strategist, though a shrewd tactician in power struggles. As the architect not only of a failed electoral strategy, but far worse, of a trajectory or long term trend of electoral decline, it is ethically incumbent on him to resign as party leader.
Fourthly, Mr. Wickremesinghe is just not on the same page, in political, ideological and programmatic terms, as the country’s leader, President Sirisena. Worse still, he and his UNP see him as the co-leader if not the de facto leader of the country and conduct themselves on that basis. As with President Kumaratunga in 2001-2004, this attitude is counterproductive and unsustainable.
Fifthly, Mr. Wickremesinghe who is unpopular among the Sinhala Buddhist voters, has proved enormously toxic to his coalition partner the SLFP and to its leader, the country’s elected President, Maithripala Sirisena. While the SLFP split, the obvious question is why the liberal faction in government did so badly while the populist-nationalist faction in the Opposition did so well.
Why did the official SLFP with all the advantages of office, including the Presidency, fail, while the SLPP-JO with none of them, benefit and succeed?
Why did the SLFP’s voters shift as a bloc to Mahinda Rajapaksa who is not even the Opposition Leader and cannot run for the Presidency next year?
Why did the SLFP voter not stay with the incumbent President who is also the leader of their party?
Why did the SLFP voter in Attanagalle not stay loyal to the two-term former President and daughter of the legendary SLFP founder and of the first woman Prime Minister?
The answer is that subordinate association of the SLFP with the rightwing, pro-Western, cosmopolitan, Tiger-appeasing, proto-federalist Ranil Wickremesinghe is anathema to the SLFP vote-base which is overwhelmingly Sinhala. That association shipwrecked the SLFP, which is the only political – as distinct from institutional– power base the President has. Therefore it was only logical and legitimate that the President would seek to save his own party and power base, by replacing the present Prime Minister.
Flying in the face of the most basic survival instinct, the UNP opted to retain Mr. Wickremesinghe as its leader, and the SLFP’s Chandrika faction opted to remain in alliance with him as PM. Why so? If one rules out political sado-masochism as a factor, that leaves money and ideology.
The strategic value of this island is high in the context of the competition between the US-India-Australia-Japan Quartet’s “Indo-Pacific” project on the one hand and the China-Russia strategic alliance’s “OBOR-Greater Eurasia” project on the other. Maintaining the status quo on the island is presumably worth quite a lot of money, Green cards, scholarships etc. In any case there must be some of that bond scam money sloshing around or black money coming in.
Money apart, there is also the ideological factor, which at bottom is a matter of social psychology. Marx says that the dominant ideology is the ideology of the dominant class. The Ranilian UNP is not dominated by classic bourgeois values and virtues, liberal or conservative—thus the note of dissent expressed by Vasantha Senanayaka, Pradip Jayewardene, Navin Dissanaike and Rajiva Wijesinha. The UNP is currently dominated by a stratum branded (even proudly tattooed by itself) as the “Toiyyas”, while the opposing Rajapaksa camp is said to represent the “Baiyyas”.
I find it impossible to translate either term—I’m guessing that “Baiyyas” mean plain folk (or rustics)–but “Toiyyas” is an updated version of the 1950s term “thuppahi” which is an update of an earlier epithet, “kalu suddhas”. The closest rendition in the English language would be Philip Gunawardena’s leftist label of “rootless cosmopolitans”, a social stratum which the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist LH Mettananda referred to as a “microscopic minority”. Writing in the Ceylon Observer Magazine edition of May 1967, my father Mervyn de Silva commented on the same sociological phenomenon: “The Western-oriented Ceylonese is the perfect pasticheur. He is the intellectual counterpart of the Japanese manufacturer—he will copy anything or anybody.”
In this “Toiyyaland” Ranil Wickremesinghe is the poster-boy, the concentrated expression of everything Toiyyas aspire to: a patron-client relationship with the West. The symbol of the Toiyya UNP is not the proud tusker; it is a pet poodle in a Western lap.
But can retaining Ranil and patching up the Yahapalana model work? It can’t because it is a case of the blind leading the blind. A Western bloc that has not had a success anywhere for quite a while; a Western bloc that is in disarray even in Europe; a Western bloc that is in relative historical decline, is supporting and relying on a Lankan ally/alliance that is suffering dramatic social and electoral rejection.
How will this end? All that is needed is to plot the trend lines and ask a few questions out loud. What is the likelihood that a new party that scored 45% on its first outing, within several months, will be unable to top it up with 5% and vault the 50% mark in the coming 500 days? How difficult can this be when it is clearly suctioning SLFP votes and those votes are down to 13% of which 5% can easily slide over to the SLPP-JO? If the SLFP remains in coalition with the UNP, how long will it be before has to fight the JVP for third place? The natural, organic convergence of 45% +13% is a sure-fire winner for the anti-UNP cause.
The crisis of Yahapalana can only be temporarily managed, not resolved. But the citizens have an exit ramp coming up.