By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
President Maithripala Sirisena’s speech, covering several key aspects of his six-month rule, was timed to be a critical political intervention on the eve of election. The broad overview of his stewardship was angled to undermine his bete noir, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Though it was also meant to give a shine to his “100 days” (it ran into six months!) it did not enhance his image as the head of the promised Yahapalanaya (good governance). In fact, by the time he ended his speech he had put his foot in his mouth, exposing himself as the captain of a disastrous political “Titanic” that carried on deck some of the biggest crooks in the land. The most remarkable note in his speech admits that he saved his “Titanic” which was sinking because of crooked navigators who could not float even a paper boat down a rain-filled drain. Of course, it was not a Q & A session where the media could question him on the issues he raised to boost his agenda. It was one long monologue in which he provided an insight into his thinking. In the main it was a justification of his actions and inactions. In his speech he was aiming strenuously to project himself as a man who means well and achieved the best though the value and the consequences of his actions / inactions raised more questions than the answers he provided.
All in all, his speech was simple to the point of being naive. In fairness to him it must be said that he did not try to be more than the al-lay, vel-lay, pal-lay village rustic. He gave his own interpretation of events tracing the crisis way back to JR Jayewardene’s Constitution of 1978. It was a plain narrative that could have been heard in any kopi kad-day in the village. It lacked the depth of understanding of the undercurrents and the overwhelming forces at play. He was more obsessed with justifying his actions and inactions rather than spelling out a vision for the nation. The”vision” that came out loud and clear was his determination to keep the Rajapaksas out of power. By the time he finished his speech he had also declared that he will play his cards to keep the “January 8th revolution” going, meaning that he will lend a hand to Wickremesinghe to keep him in power. He was quite sure that Rajapaksa will be defeated. Other than that he had nothing to offer the nation. He was not even aware that, under him, his “Titanic” was drifting into a Bermuda Triangle, leading to uncertainty and the instability – a dangerous situation which is spinning out of control with his mates on board feeling the chilly winds of change coming their way. But buoyed by his blissful naivety he ended his speech on an optimistic note, quite convinced that his name will be cleared by posterity, at the end of his five-year term, as the man who restored freedom and democracy to the nation.
Though he kept saying elsewhere that he was going to remain neutral the lines in between in his speech made it clear that he was bent on keeping Wickremesinghe in power. The main thrust of his speech, the selected points he highlighted and his vindictive politics made it abundantly clear that he was going to work, during and after the election, to bring back Wickremesinghe. His anti-Mahinda Rajapaksa bitterness is entrenched irremovably in his psyche. This should normally disturb his Buddhist conscience, if he has one. But he has now written himself into history as the first leader of a party to work against his own nominated candidate.
Perhaps, it was his guilt that prompted President Sirisena to give his speech a gloss in the best way he can. He was making a strenuous bid to explain the reasoning behind his acts of commission and omission. All of which sounded somewhat like a confession-cum-justification. He also sounded a bit aggrieved that he was subject to “the worst ever onslaught” (translation) than any other president had faced before. This paranoid statement is an exaggeration. If he has a grasp of the facts on the ground, he would know that the I/NGOs, the Western embassies and the media, both local and international, gave him the proverbial nudge-and-wink to carry on as he was linked, through Ranil Wickremesinghe, to the West-Indian lobby. But he tried to turn the attacks on him to his advantage by portraying himself as a democrat who had opened the path for a hundred flowers to bloom. He summed up his role as that of the captain of the “Titanic” — his glorified term for Wickremesinghe’s bamboo raft . The difference, he argued, was that he did not allow it to sink.
This metaphor is central to understand his political thinking. So to clarify issues, let’s consider how his metaphor translates into the political realities of the day. First, let us consider what the equivalent of the “Titanic” is and, second, who was running it. In real terms, the “Titanic” referred to by Sirisena is the state which he called the Yahapalanaya. It was run by his Chief Officer who was handpicked by him even though there were other competent and legally entitled deckhands to run the “Titanic”. He floated this metaphor assuming that it would demonstrate his greatness as the Captain of the Sri Lankan “Titanic”. But he couldn’t push the metaphor to its final conclusion as Edward Smith, the Captain of Titanic, became a hero by going down with the ship. President Sirisena claims to be the hero by saving his “Titanic” which is yet to be proved on August 17.
It is appropriate, therefore, to scrutinise his claim of saving the “Titanic”. There is neither logic nor appropriateness in drawing this conclusion because the Titanic represents, in any language, a symbol that stood for total disaster caused by foolishness and hubris. There were no heroes available to rescue the Titanic. All were miserable failures. As everyone knows two main things happened on the Titanic : 1. due to miscalculations and refusal to heed the warnings it crashed headlong into an iceberg; 2. it sank and no Superman, or a Sirisena could have saved it from sinking. So, as the captain of his “Titanic”, Sirisena is unwittingly confessing to total failure. He is admitting that he was a part of the blind folly that led to the crash of his “Titanic”. In the same breath, our hero makes a sly attempt to distance himself from the crash by passing the buck to his Chief Officer on board, Wickremesinghe.
The “Titanic” crash happened because Sirisena handed the navigation to his trusted mate, Ranil Wickremesinghe — a failed pilot who could never read a map of the realities surrounding him. He has no compass to find his way around either, particularly in choppy seas. Besides, Sirisena allowed Wickremesinghe to pilot the ship even though he knew his mate was steering the ship on a disastrous course leading to a multi-billion dollar collision that could have been avoided with some intelligent navigation. He said he asked Wickremesinghe to get rid of Arjuna Mahendran – the man who ripped off everyone on board the “Titanic”. But it did not happen. Why? Who is responsible for not carrying out the President’s order / request? Or is Sirisena now trotting out this lame excuse to cover his back? Doesn’t he know that the last thing he should do is to expose his backside to Wickremesinghe? Unable to draw the appropriate conclusions from this disaster he makes a pathetic attempt to portray himself as the hero who saved the Titanic. That never happened. It was the biggest blunder in maritime records.
In plain language, it means that when the Prime Minister (Chief Officer) overrules his President (Captain) and keeps the man responsible for the biggest financial scandal (i.e., steering the ship off the course of the map of Yahapalanaya) the Sirisena’s “Titanic” was bound to crash. The Prime Minister did not give two hoots to the President’s order / request. In his speech he did not explain as to why he allowed Wickremesinghe to get away with the corrupt deal at the Central Bank, even after he had asked him to get rid of Mahendran. He glossed over it hoping that the listeners will not take much notice of his ploy. This questions the integrity and the commitment of Sirisena to be the genuine guardian of Yahapalanaya / “Titanic”. His duty was to follow up and see that his “Titanic” kept a steady course, according to the map of the Yahapalanaya. At least he should have sent a complaint to Wickremesinghe’s FCID and demanded immediate action. But he failed to do his duty. Isn’t President Sirisena complicit in letting his Yahapalanaya sink in the mire of stinking corruption? It is the Parliament that galvanized into action. And when the Parliament was about to tighten the noose round the Prime Minister’s neck Sirisena rushed in to loosen the knot by dissolving Parliament, according to his own admission.
Clearly, the President and the Prime Minister were acting contrary to the basic principles of Yahapalanaya. The Central Bank scandal contained all the strands of corruption that were condemned by the Yahapalana- yakos. It contained shady deals with the Bank of Ceylon lending billions on just a phone call from the right sources, nepotism, the unprecedented presence of the governor of Central Bank at the sale of the bonds, hints of political patronage for the wheeler-dealers, cover-up at the Prime Ministerial level with UNP lawyers white-washing the deal, etc., – and yet neither the President nor the Prime Minister took the necessary steps to bring to book the man responsible for the biggest scandal in the Central Bank since it was established in 1950. Knowing that the full blast of the scandal was hitting the proverbial fan of Yahapalanaya and his own image as a clean man the President made a pathetic attempt to hide behind the Titanic metaphor. He admits that it crashed but he claims that he did not allow it to sink. In other words, he is admitting that he saved all the corrupt wheeler-dealers on board his Titanic by not allowing them to sink. He boasts about it as if it is his greatest achievement. All of which boils down to the admission of how he leapt to save his mate Wickremesinghe from sinking by dissolving Parliament. He saved the ship not to save the country, his party, or good governance. As Ranil Wickremesinghe was on board the Titanic Sirisena’s intervention could have been only to save the crooks on board his “Titanic”. The classic Sinhala saying on the Titanic sums up Sirisena’s pathetic role : “Na-wer gilu-nath bang chune” (The ship may sink but the band plays on.)
Sirisena’s Freudian use of the Titanic metaphor has placed him in a corner from which he cannot escape. According to him, he knew that Arjuna Mahendra should have been held responsible and sacked for the Central Bank scandal. Mark you, Mahendran was also on the deck of the Sirisena’s “Titanic”. When it crashed Sirisena rushes to save the ship from sinking. Why? Was his duty to throw life belts to the crooks on board? This is where Sirisena put his foot in the mouth : saving the “Titanic”meant saving the crooks. He thought he was making a smart, intellectual and heroic defence when, in fact, he was tying himself in knots. On his own admission he had rushed to save the crooks who should have been thrown into the Indian Ocean, somewhere near Singapore to keep the waters of Trincomalee and Colombo clean. As a Yahapalana-yek his duty was not to save crooks but to let them sink (metaphorically speaking) without any compunction.
But, of course, in saving Wickremesinghe he saw another great advantage : saving Wickremesinghe meant fixing Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was hoping to kill two birds with one stone. He feared that the SLFP majority in Parliament was plotting to install Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Ministerial by rolling its majority. It was at this critical point that Sirisena rushed in to save the crooks on board his “Titanic”. The public admission of Sirisena that he saved a shipload of corrupt crooks from sinking is good enough reason for him to be impeached in the next Parliament. In his own words, he is guilty of rushing to save a shipload of corrupt wheeler-dealers. He let the multi-billion scandal go unpunished. After all he is responsible for it because it happened on board the “Titanic” he captained.
According to the metaphor of President Sirisena he moved in to prevent the Titanic from sinking by dissolving the Parliament in the nick of time. This is a metaphor used to cover-up all the crooked deals, nepotism, mismanagement and total abuse of power, let alone the good governance. He used the metaphor as if he had done a great service to the nation. In the same breath he also passed the buck to Wickremesinghe for crashing the ship and stops at that without taking responsibility for his inaction.. He does not take responsibility for the crooked deals that rammed the ship into the iceberg. All said and done, the President’s speech sounded more like the band on board the Titanic playing Amazing Grace, as it was listing perilously in the icy waters. In his speech he was also singing the other hymn, How great Thou art — “Thou” meaning Sirisena.
Sirisena is now hoping that the people will vote to bring back the ship that crashed to port on August 17? But the ship that he claimed to have saved, along with Wickremesinghe, is still listing dangerously. Both are jointly engaged in playing the futile role of rearranging the chairs on the deck.
However, no one is quite sure as to how many chairs will be there for them to sit on August 18th.