By Malinda Seneviratne –
A few weeks ago, Krishantha Cooray, member of the United National Party’s ‘Working Committee’ and a well-known mover-shaker of that party, especially when it comes to positioning the party in the media, wrote an article titled ‘The Ranil-Factor in 2016 and Beyond‘. Krishantha correctly pointed out that defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa was just one necessary element in a longer and a broader struggle to establish democracy and good governance. “We are in the infant days of reform,” he pointed out correctly. He also said, correctly, that this is a vulnerable time and argued, therefore, for patience. To Krishantha, the man who could deliver was Ranil Wickremesinghe.
This is how Krishantha put it:
“We are not out of the woods yet. We need a road map and we need the courage to walk a difficult path where light at the end of the tunnel is so dim that it is barely visible. As things stand, Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be the one individual who has a map and has the will to walk the talk, at least until the cement dries to the point that the foundation laid on the 8th of January can hold a sturdy democratic edifice. His record shows that he is a logical and not an emotional leader who has the country’s interests at heart.”
When you take the current lot of Parliamentarians Krishantha might appear to have a point. Ranil is logical. However, Ranil’s notion of ‘country’s interest’ is not necessarily correct. His ‘country’s interest’ between 2001-2004 almost handed victory to the LTTE. Sarath Fonseka, back then, would have agreed. But back then Sarath Fonseka was a soldier. A good one. And ironically, it is Sarath Fonseka who is in the middle of a process that ought to make Krishantha think again about the character certificate he has given Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Even his strongest critics will admit that Sarath Fonseka was THE MAN to lead the Army in the national effort to rid the country of the scourge of terrorism. He was clearly a necessary element but certainly not a sufficient one. He believes otherwise of course. However if you imagine Fonseka as Army Commander during a Chandrika Kumaratunga presidency heavily under the sway of LTTE sympathizers disguised as federalists or under the defeatist Ranil Wickremesinghe, you would quickly conclude that he would have been rendered impotent. But he was THE MAN of THAT moment. No debate there.
After the successful conclusion of the campaign against the LTTE there was nothing to stop Sarath Fonseka from enjoying a retirement akin to that of the first Indian military leader to be conferred the rank of Field Marshal, Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, better known as Sam Bahadur (Sam the Brave). Nothing, that is, except himself. He did get the title, he is considered a brave soldier, but Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka is certainly no Sam Bahadur. You can blame politics for this, or rather Fonseka’s (probable) belief that what he knew of military engagements could be applied to politics. He was naïve. He paid the price for naiveté.
Here’s a recap of his post-military political life: Fonseka decided to run against a popular president and was backed by a UNP (and its leader) that knew the outcome was a foregone conclusion; Fonseka was unceremoniously and scandalously put behind bars immediately after the election and was thereafter dropped like a hot potato by those who backed his election campaign; Fonseka decided to contest the General Election believing in all likelihood that a chunk of the votes he received would be cast for his party; Fonseka tied up with the JVP and the results were utterly disappointing; Fonseka’s party fared even worse five years later. Fonseka finally entered Parliament through a slot in the National List made vacant by the death of an MP.
Six years after he entered politics, Sarath Fonseka has found his political maximum: a national list MP. The ‘national list’ was unfortunately always a refugee camp for the politically displaced. And that’s what Fonseka is: a political refugee who has to depend on the largesse of men he has ridiculed. His achievements as a soldier will always be dulled by his dismal record in politics. He is no Sam Bahadur.
But that’s his problem. There are claims that Fonseka, since he holds the lifetime rank of ‘Field Marshal’ cannot enter Parliament unless he ‘retires’ the rank, so to speak. Indeed, some would argue that the rank should have been taken away the moment he submitted nomination papers for the General Election. Perhaps it is respect and gratitude for services rendered as a soldier that is stopping the courts being petitioned on this matter. Considering the ‘credentials’ and abilities (or their lack) of the current set of Parliamentarians, Fonseka is certainly parliament-worthy. No debate there. He might recover some glory. Indeed one hopes that he does.
However, even as we wish Fonseka all the very best as a Parliamentarian, one has to question the wisdom of those who paved the way for him. This is not because of who Fonseka is. It has to do with the implications.
Fonseka did not contest under the United National Party. Let’s forget the fact that he said that Ranil Wickremesinghe doesn’t have a clue about the economy (“And Fonseka does?” did someone whisper?). In politics one forgives and forgets. However, Fonseka was a defeated candidate. Maithripala Sirisena voluntarily wiped off quite a bit of the gloss of his victory and looked quite your run of the mill politician when he opened the ‘national list’ to defeated SLFPers. The UNP leader, this time around, seemed determined to charter a better course. However, with this decision regarding Fonseka, the UNP has shown that it is still comfortable with ‘same old, same old’.
How can we conclude under these circumstances that Ranil Wickremesinghe is THE leader of the future, the only man who could steer the country towards democracy and decency, the statesman who can ‘change the game’ by setting up the rules necessary for good governance and a wholesome system of representative democracy?
Human Rights Watch, that dodgy outfit, is opposed to Fonseka entering Parliament. Given this Government’s servility to those who take such groups seriously (or lap up their rhetoric because they happen to be useful) this decision might cause some embarrassment, but that is not something that the general population will worry about. Apart from the legal issues alluded to above, few if any will begrudge Fonseka’s right to be in Parliament. The fact that he was rejected by the people will matter, though. And that’s why the wisdom of the UNP’s decision has to be questioned.
What is the signal that the UNP (in its latest avatar – they went through ‘Dharmista Samaajaya’ in the 70s and 80s before they discovered ‘Yahapalanaya’) gives the electorate? That the will of the people counts for nothing? The ‘slot’ was obtained because the people voted for the UNP, not for Fonseka’s party. Is the UNP telling us that political expedience is what matters, not the basic principles of democratic representation?
The SLFP leadership (post-Mahinda) cannot find fault with Ranil of course. The UNP membership ought to, or else we will have to, conclude that this ‘Yahapalanaya’ talk is hogwash and so too all the democracy-rhetoric, as far as that party is concerned.
The UNP has given a clear signal: democracy is not their thing. What’s most disturbing here is the fact that this ‘signal’ is not news. If anyone had illusions about the UNP having turned over a new leaf, well it’s time to shed them.
Krishantha concludes thus: “Wickremesinghe, as the most senior politician in the country, the most experienced leader and the one individual who has vision and political will, has an unenviable task ahead of him. He has many easy ways out. He can be just another ruler and be successful too in terms of securing power for his party and himself. That will not make history remember him as a statesman. He has to take the difficult path and has to convince the people that it is for everyone’s benefit. That would be his challenge in the coming months.”
Wickremesinghe has taken the easy path. He will find it difficult to convince Krishantha that this move was for his (Krishantha’s) benefit, and we are not talking about the fact that Krishantha, being the UNP’s ‘national list’ could have been chosen instead of Fonseka. It seems that Wickremesinghe has has slipped.
Fonseka, unwittingly perhaps, has finally done something politically significant. He has undressed the UNP, or rather has got the UNP to undress itself.