By Rajan Philips –
Most political societies, to generalize Marx’s writing in 19th century France, are accustomed to circumstances that enable “grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part”. But over the last two weeks Sri Lankan politics witnessed the spectacle of grotesque mediocrity playing out grotesquely mediocre roles in brokering and nominating candidates for the parliamentary election. There was no heroism, not even hero acting. Manifest blackguards thumped at every scintilla of political decency. The sheer weight and the subversive inertia of the political system has been snuffing out every bit of life from the offspring of hope for good governance that an inspired and a heroic electorate had brought forth on January 8, pushing aside every official obstacle that stood in its way. With due apologies to principled purists for mentioning Marx and Nanayakkara in the same paragraph, I am constrained to quote Vasudeva Nanayakkara’s intuitive assessment of one of the most heinous betrayals in Sri Lankan politics that was played out over the last fortnight: “The President has given up the January 8 mandate, and has joined us.”
If, as Marx also wrote, world-historic facts and personages have a tendency to appear twice, first as tragedy and later as farce, in Sri Lanka historic facts and personages have shown a tendency to repeat themselves multiple times, tragically as well as farcically. And within these cycles, the same individuals are heroic at one moment and mediocre at another. Maithripala Sirisena acted heroically in November last when he broke loose from the Rajapaksa regime to challenge and eventually defeat the incumbent president against all odds. For six months, he conducted himself with dignity and seeming sincerity. But then in the last two weeks he unravelled inexplicably and has become a lame duck waiting for direction from a new Prime Minister after the August election. In January, he achieved something extraordinary in not only defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa, but also securing a victory for the project of good governance. Now he has performed something extraordinarily mediocre. The Maithri-Mahinda moment is, rather was, a moment of grotesque mediocrity.
Maithripala Sirisena was not elected by 6.2 million people to draft the UPFA nomination list, or to resurrect Mahinda Rajapaksa from presidential defeat to parliamentary victory. He was technically elected on a mandate but most people voted for him mostly because they were fed up with the corruption of the Rajapaksa regime and the swaggering, in-your-face, abuse of power by the Rajapaksa family. Sirisena was elected as President on the promise that the new government(s) under him would investigate and hold to account the perpetrators of corruption under the old regime. How could he expect a UPFA government with Mahinda Rajapaksa, or any one of his cronies, as Prime Minister to continue the investigations against its own members? Imagine the fate that awaits police officers and government officials and lawyers now handling the investigations, in the event of a UPFA/Rajapaksa victory. Imagine, as well, the confusion and vendetta that will spread throughout the government machinery.
Having given away nomination blank cheques to the UPFA bullies, Mr. Sirisena is relying on karma to punish the corrupt and the abusive. Addressing a gathering of Archeologists in Colombo a few days ago, the President reminded everyone of the warning in a rock inscription attributed to the reign of King Nissanka Malla: “Those who steal state assets will be reborn as dogs and cows”. Now he plans to place this warning on every government desk – starting from his own, to remind politicians and officials their rebirth destiny if they were to steal government money. In other words, it is alright to let every scoundrel run on a UPFA ticket and leave it to karma to deal with them if they steal from state coffers. But many UPFA ministers and chairmen are not going to be worried too much by karma. They will consider making money in a re-elected Rajapkasa government fully worth the risk of being born as dogs and cows in the next birth. Looked at it another way, there will be no need for investigations of corruption because those who are corrupt in government are doomed to be reborn as dogs and cows anyway. Someone might make that argument in the Supreme Court as an argument against double jeopardy.
More to the point, there is double-mediocrity, as well as double-jeopardy of a different kind, in the much celebrated Mahinda-Maithri unity. The smarter option for both men would have been to stay clear of each other, politically speaking, after the presidential election. No one asked Mahinda Rajapaksa to hand over the SLFP leadership to Maithripala Sirisena, but he did so voluntarily. The suggestion that this was done on the advice of Basil Rajapaksa to set a future political trap for Sirisena is rather farfetched to fathom. But the pro-Mahinda (Dinesh-Vasu-Wimal) troika, none of whom is a member of the SLFP, made the SLFP leadership transfer a broader political issue by ill-advisedly and illogically interpreting it as a betrayal of the 5.8 millions who voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa. They formulated the ‘bring Mahinda back’ campaign as a fight to win UPFA/SLFP nomination for Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters, and invariably put Rajapaksa and Sirisena on a collision course. In hindsight, a head-on collision would have been politically better for both men than the contrived unity that is claimed to have been forged between them over the last two weeks. An open collision would have shown off the two to be at least less grotesque even if not more principled. The forged unity has made them not only look grotesquely mediocre, but also politically vulnerable.
If principled politics, and not the craving for power and perks and positions among the beneficiaries of the old Rajapaksa regime, was the driving motive behind the ‘bring Mahinda back’ campaign, it would have charted a third way independent of the UNP and the Maithri-SLFP. But there is nothing political about the Rajapaksa beneficiaries except their self-interest, and they cannot be in politics without the UPFA apparatus of their benefactor. So they bullied Sirisena to forge the Mahinda-Maithri unity and hijacked the announcement of the Rajapaksa candidacy a week earlier. Now it has backfired on them, because the coalition of forces that was ranged against the Rajapaksa juggernaut, in January, is now reunited for the August parliamentary election. The August parliamentary election will be a re-staging of the January presidential election, but without Maithripala Sirisena likely playing any role to play on either platform – either as the heroic common opposition candidate or the wounded mediocre president.
Without the Mahinda-Maithri unity, the common opposition parties that supported Maithripala Sirisena in January would have been competing against one another in the August election. They were already discredited and divided in government thanks to mediocre political leaderships and self-serving agendas, not to mention the Central Bank scandal. There is nothing heroic about the new United National Front for Good Governance, but it will be seen as much less grotesque and mediocre than the Mahinda-Maithri axis. That axis itself may not last another week, let alone the full campaign. President Sirisena has lost all his allies who supported him in January, and even though he has little credibility left to lose, he is unlikely to campaign for the UPFA that will include Mahinda Rajapaksa. And he may not be invited to the new Front. Sirisena has brought political isolation upon himself, but that may be a blessing in disguise inasmuch as he could stay neutral in the campaign. His capacity for silence that deafened the country over the last two weeks may be his greatest asset until August 17.