By Kumar David –
Newspapers and websites are filled with columns, essays and Editorials declaiming the botches of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency, the bondage of servile MPs and the vassalage of public officials. Columnists are waking up somewhat late in the day! I did say two months ago that the regime was in terminal decline and I have pointed out recently that the window for military-authoritarianism has closed. We need to move the discussion to other post-Gotabaya options. Three broad possibilities invite tactical consideration by the opposition.
In the face of mounting adversity the President throws in the towel, quits and makes a dash for the exit. If the miserable state of the economy continue, mass living conditions deteriorate and foreign debt obligations worsen and if mass discontent intensifies (what else?) then a wise man will bundle-up his belongings and say adios before he sinks from waist to neck deep in sludge.
The President does not cut and run but clings on for the remainder of his term and either seeks a second term or someone else from the clan is anointed as candidate. Mahinda is debarred so it could be Basil, Chamal, or neophyte Namal. No matter which, any SLPP candidate is likely to be mauled at the polls.
Absent a surprise dissolution, presidential elections come first, parliamentary elections after that. Faced with disaster in both polls what constitutional jiggery-pokery will the regime attempt in its efforts to avert calamity? (The military putsch option is not within the purview of today’s column).
Were you a Rajapaksa or a SLPP strategist what can you do? I have put myself in these shoes and wracked my brain but come up blank. The government’s efforts are all blank cartridges except in pandemic control where the record fluctuates and at the moment is moderately good at less than 1000 new cases a day. The most confident note is struck by Basil: “Confident of not defaulting on debt repayments and will work to improve quality of foreign reserves” he told the Madras Hindu on November 13, however a few days later he was on his knees before Modi begging for a $ 1 billion SWAP deal to tide over repayments falling due in the first half of 2022. The outcome of his pleadings is not known yet but getting indebted to Peter to pay Paul is no solution to a deepening foreign debt imbroglio.
The President announced with much pomp that chemical fertilisers and pesticides would be banned immediately and a Gazette notification was issued on April 26 this year, but on November 24 Agriculture Minister Aluthgamage backtracked lock stock and barrel: “Permission will be granted to import chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides from today”. The fake claim of 70% renewable energy generated electricity by 2030 will be quietly forgotten, the Gnanasara Task Force is being de-fanged. There have been no takers of the UDA’s offer of prime state land to foreign investors for development projects. The Central Bank’s official exchange rate is more honoured in the breach than the observance; it’s an Alice in Wonderland attempt; importers can’t get funds at this rate, exporters are robbed. One can go on and on, but it’s not necessary, there is no one alive in Lanka who does not know it all.
This is how I justify my first two bullet points: It would be entirely justifiable and defensible if Gotabaya were to cut and run, and second there is no way in heaven or earth (leave out hell, outright election rigging) whereby a nominees of the present regime can win the presidency or win a parliamentary majority. Thus we arrive at the opposition needing to nurture political arbitrage. I will lead up by recounting the events leading to the January 2015 convolution. I confess to have been the initiator of the Single-Issue Common-Candidate (SI-CC) concept. The strategy was correct and achieved its objective. I first germinated it in 2012, developed it over time and in July 2014 presented it in full to Ven. Sobhitha’s National Movement for Social Justice.
The Single-Issue Was to ‘Stop free-fall into Dictatorship’ and prevent Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return for a third term as it would have spelt autocracy. The crafty deletion of term limits, the egregious removal of Shirani Bandaranayake from Chief Justice, assassination of journalists, white-vans, the impunity and impudence with which his two younger siblings misused the armed forces, police and state institutions and the crooked financial deals for which they were arraigned before the courts, validates the charge of creeping dictatorship.
The electoral victory was spectacular and Mahinda’s defeat on January 8, 2015 was liberation; ‘the people that lived in darkness saw a great light and no longer walked in the valley of the shadow of death’. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution re-imposed term-limits. But oh dear, life, “thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature”, outsmarted everyone. The thread that unravelled after the election and jinxed everybody was the common-candidate himself. The necessity of putting forward a common candidate was an acknowledgement of Mahinda’s electoral strength. He had won a war, he had charisma, his machine could bend and abuse every organ of state in elections, and a mountain of money stood behind him. Sans a common person behind whom leftists and radicals, liberals and democrats and the national minorities united, Mahinda would have been unstoppable. But unpredictably, the common candidate turned out to be an oddball, eccentric Pissu Sira. It is true there were early indications that he was gaga, but even if one had picked up the warning signs of personality disorder nothing could have been done after Ranil and Chandrika announced their choice. Acceptance of the common-candidate was a Mephistophelean contract that could not have been voided. The gods of arbitrage extracted from the nation a high contractual commission, imposing a hither-and-thither coot as president in exchange for voiding dictatorship. Still it was a price worth paying.
I had no illusions of the class character and economic programme of the government post-August 2015 parliamentary elections. Did SI-CC strategists have illusions that the yahapalana government would take a social-democratic turn and adopt policy orientations palatable to the likes of me? Very firmly NO. This was the second part of the Mephistophelean contract; the left had no doubt that the government would plumb for a traditional liberal economic orientation but what has to be done has to be done. What is relevant to this essay is that the left worked for the defeat of the Rajapaksa’s presidency and the defeat of his party at the subsequent parliamentary elections knowing that the UNP’s economic orientation was not it’s cup of tea. Mephistophelean Contracts No. 1 and 2 – I saw and accepted from day one with my eyes open.
This was a longish digression for a purpose which relates to the third of my bullet points. To a degree we cannot avoid the primacy of a single-issue again, that is, riding the country of a Rajapaksa regime for the second time. We can expect the Rajapaksa-SLPP combine to try to push a new constitution or constitutional amendments gerrymandered to save as much of its skin as possible. Then a key demand of political arbitrage facing the nation would be to disavow sectarianism and coordinate as trade unions, civil society movements and political parties to defeat such constitutional subterfuges. The JVP, the non-dead left, the parties mobilised under Sajith, the TNA and Muslim parties must display this maturity and foresight. A list of minimum conditions to throw back a deceitful constitution must be agreed and mass mobilisation set in motion to defeat dictatorship by constitutional amendment. Engineering the breakaway of say 10 MPs to undercut the government’s two-thirds in parliament won’t be easy given the low calibre of government party MPs, be they SLPP, Dead-Left or opportunist Muslims.
The next challenge is Presidential and Parliamentary elections due in 2024 and 2025. Arbitrage and understanding between social and political groups, like good wine and cheese, takes time to mature. Sectarianism and unrealistic self-expectation are its worst enemies. It is by no means too early for informal conversations to commence. I am sure Sri Lanka’s ever vigilant network of NGOs and civil society organisations will spring to life when the constitutional draft is made public. Maybe the best way for opposition political entities, ever shy to court each other, to start is to throw themselves into these prenuptials with manly enthusiasm. Nor must the Left when consummating an arranged marriage have illusions; if a right-of-centre candidate is chosen by the country as the next president, too bad but better than the authoritarian alternative.
President Gotabaya’s exit will be more interesting than his entry. His in-between period has been disastrous. The people of Sri Lanka have made bad choices often but they deserve an opportunity to erase this last one.