By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Contrary to his most recent backtracking (‘Of Saving Sirisena: Reply to Dayan’, The Island April 20th 2017), Mahinda Pathirana, a young academic-activist known as a firm supporter of Basil Rajapaksa wrote very clearly and categorically that “Basil’s argument for abolishing the executive presidency does not derive from his identification of political enemies, but by the conveniently forgotten question; what if that omnipotent presidency goes to a person like Ranil Wickremesinghe…?” (‘Who is the Real Enemy?’ April 13th 2017, The Island)
If Basil’s argument is not for abolishing the Executive Presidency, or if BR has not made any such argument, why did Mahinda Pathirana say otherwise? Why did he write something quite as categorical as “Basil’s argument for abolishing the executive presidency…”?
Why didn’t he say that it was his own interpretation of Basil—in which case why did he attribute it to Basil, terming it quite precisely and concretely, “Basil’s argument”? And how can he interpret “Basil’s argument” if he hasn’t heard Basil expressing it? How does he know whether Basil’s argument is not just the opposite? And if Basil Rajapaksa did not articulate this to Mahinda Pathirana or in a place where Mr. Pathirana was in the audience, why did he pin this argument on Basil?
Furthermore Mahinda Pathirana goes on in this paragraph to actually explain why Basil is arguing for the abolition of the Executive Presidency, telling the reader what “Basil’s argument for abolishing the executive presidency does not derive from…”! How does Mahinda Pathirana know what it does or does not “derive from”? And if Basil did not say he was for the abolition, on what factual basis is Mahinda Pathirana adducing reasons? As the well-known saying goes, “opinion is free but facts are sacred”. Pathirana is free to express his opinion about Basil’s argument for abolishing the executive Presidency, but what is the fact he is basing his assertion on the public record, that Basil argues for the abolition?
Speaking of facts, on what does he base his statement that I have shifted my position that Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be the presidential candidate in 2020? Can he quote anything I have written or said to that effect? No, he cannot, because I have said no such thing and continue to advocate a GR candidacy—by the way, that’s for 2019, not 2020, because the Presidential election is scheduled for late 2019. In fact the Meethotamulla tragedy has confirmed my view that the country desperately, urgently needs GR as President. The sooner that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa suggests/requests that GR step forward as candidate or invites him to do so, i.e. gives his blessing for GR to be elected, the better for the nation, the Opposition and GR and MR themselves.
As for Mr. Sirisena, I have never advocated that he run in 2019 nor said I would support such a candidacy, nor that he deserves to win if he does, but I have said that if he does want to run, and/or wants his wing of the SLFP to survive electorally, he’ll have to dump Ranil, CBK and Mangala very soon, or else he (and it) won’t stand a chance.
Now that we are on the subject of Mr. Sirisena, it must be recalled that his defection was in large part due to disaffection stemming from Mr. Basil Rajapaksa’s treatment of him. By contrast, Gotabaya Rajapaksa went on the record recently to state that he had (unsuccessfully) advocated to President Rajapaksa that Mr. Sirisena be made Prime Minister.
Indeed some percentage of the defeat was arguably due to Basil’s behavior. It was his clash with the Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake on the Divi Neguma issue that led to the impeachment which in turn alienated and antagonized the judiciary and the legal community. The Joint Opposition (with Wimal Weerawansa being the latest example) is still paying the price for that alienation. The alienation of the judicial and larger legal fraternity (one recalls the pickets all over the island) helped swing the urban middle class vote away from the Rajapaksa administration.
It was also the perception that Basil Rajapaksa as Minister of National Development was crowding out the other Ministers and hogging a disproportionate share of the Budget, that caused a crack in SLFP ranks, enabling Chandrika to conspire and intervene. Whatever their errors, it was neither Mahinda nor Gotabaya who gave the impression of an octopus-like oligarchy attempting to control the SLFP, the Government and even the economy.
Though I have no doubt as to the JO MPs loyalty to MR and their preference for MR over any other personality, I not only think they would prefer Sirisena to Ranil
(contrary perhaps to “Basil Chinthana”), I also suspect that if there is a secret ballot even today, many or most Joint Opposition MPs would vote for Sirisena over Basil!
The massive losses of votes in the Tamil majority areas was not unconnected to Basil’s ‘strategy’. When Gotabaya – whatever his other errors, which I have criticized–quite rightly advised President Rajapaksa to hold the Northern elections shortly after the war was won in 2009 and allow our Tamil allies to win at a time the TNA was still reeling (I later heard authoritatively that only GR and I had made this suggestion, independently of each other, at roughly the same time), it was Basil who had the brilliant idea of building up the SLFP in the North and forcing Douglas Devananda to contest on the SLFP or UPFA ticket rather than his own. This was as brilliant as imagining that the TNA could and should contest Hambantota on the TNA ticket or that Douglas should contest the South on the EPDP ticket!
As the great Sri Lankan journalist Tarzie Vittachi once said, “Everything is about something else”. Mahinda Pathirana’s polemic was of relevance only because it spotlights the sectarianism of the “Basil Line” and permits the public raising of ten strategically vital political questions for debate and discussion within the SLPP, the JO, and the Opposition Movement as a whole:
1. Who should be ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s closest associates and strategists and with whom should he formulate the JO’s and his political line? Should it be with his generational peers and comrades-in-arms, with whom he shares decades of experience of anti-UNP political struggle, namely Dinesh Gunawardena and Vasudeva Nanayakkara? Or should he turn to Basil Rajapaksa—an organizer but not a political strategist?
2. What should be the stance of the Opposition on the crucial issue of the abolition of the Executive Presidency when the draft comes before the Steering Committee in May?
3. Should the Opposition regard Ranil and Sirisena as equal enemies or Ranil as the main enemy and Sirisena as the secondary enemy, or Sirisena as a potential, if vacillating ally?
4. Should the Opposition regard the official (i.e. Sirisena) SLFP as much an enemy as the UNP or the Ranil wing of the UNP? Or should it be regarded as a secondary enemy? Or a potential ally?
5. Is the distance between the Opposition and the Sirisena SLFP more or less than the distance between the Opposition and the Ranil-led UNP?
6. Should the Opposition regard the SLFP as an enemy and attack it, as it should the pro-imperialist rightwing of the UNP, or should it strive to win over or neutralize the SLFP?
7. In a possible conflict of interest between Ranil and Sirisena, does the Opposition tilt to Ranil, to Sirisena or to neither? Is the Opposition equidistant between Sirisena and Ranil?
8. Is the Opposition’s policy towards the Sirisena SLFP the same as its policy towards the Ranilist UNP or rather, is it one of “unity and struggle” i.e. unity on issues where a common stand is possible and struggle on issues of disagreement?
9. What is the endgame? Is it possible or desirable for the Opposition to envisage the forming of the broadest National–Democratic United Front or bloc, embracing the JO/SLPP, the SLFP and the patriotic elements of the UNP?
10. Who should the Presidential candidate of the Opposition be in 2019, since ex-President Rajapaksa cannot run for the post? The argument that it is premature to think of that subject is silly, given that Democratic Party strategists were plugging Barack Obama as a potential candidate for 2008 the moment he had finished speaking at the Democratic Convention for John Kerry in 2004!