By Dayan Jayatilleka –
It is hardly my habit to agree with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and disagree with ex-President and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom I supported politically for around 20 years. This is one of those rare occasions.
Addressing by video the 5th anniversary event of the founding of the ruling party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) “The President also said that an indelible role was already being played in the present in order to build a united, sovereign and prosperous nation.” (Daily FT)
His words are perfectly true, but that is largely to his own efforts, not Mahinda Rajapaksa’s. The keyword is ‘indelible’. How can anyone deny that the overnight ban on chemical fertilizer, weedicide and pesticide has left an indelible impression on the peasantry and peasant agriculture?
How can anyone deny that the resultant unprecedented protests by the peasantry have left an indelible impression on the Sinhala rural heartland and those who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President in 2019? How can anyone ignore the fact that the despair and anger of the peasantry have left an indelible impression throughout the island?
How can one bury under the rug the indelible impression of the Chinese embassy blacklisting the People’s Bank; an incident which would never have occurred if not for the “indelible” agrarian policy of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa?
How can one doubt that the experience of standing in queues for basics has been an “indelible” experience for the generations that have not experienced the Sirimavo Bandaranaike-NM Perera dispensation of the 1970s? Or that it has been a no less indelible experience for those who had been through it in the 1970s but never expected the nightmare to return in their old age?
How can we assume that the summoning of Rev. Fr Cyril Gamini Fernando, the spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Colombo to the Fourth-Floor offices of the CID will not make an indelible impression in the minds of the Catholic community of Sri Lanka? How can we assume it will not be “indelibly” recorded in the annals of the Catholic Church of Ceylon/Sri Lanka?
It would be impossible to imagine that the appointment of Ven Galagodaatte Gnanasara as chairman of the Presidential commission on One country, one law, will not register “indelibly” in the consciousness of Muslims, Christians, Tamils, and the legal fraternity of Sri Lanka.
The sheer symbolism of the simultaneity of the summoning of the impeccably behaved Fr Cyril Gamini to the CID headquarters and the exaltation of the demagogic Ven Galagodaatte Gnanasara to the Chair of the President Task Force on ‘One Country, One Law’, will indelibly impact the international image of Sri Lanka.
I wouldn’t bet on those being the only ‘indelible’ occurrences seared into the memory of the Sri Lankan people and the island’s contemporary history, during the term of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
All these indelible facts and phenomena will be indelibly associated by the Sri Lankan citizens and voters with the Rajapaksas. Before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the most indelible thing that would have been associated with the Rajapaksas would have been President Mahinda Rajapaksa having won the war. But that has been overtaken in the realm of the indelible.
These indelible experiences will also be associated in the mind of the voters with the Pohottuwa (SLPP). So long as there is a Rajapaksa at the helm of the party, the imprint of trauma will remain indelible.
That’s about what President Gotabaya got right at the 5th anniversary of the founding of the SLPP.
What about what former President and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa got wrong on this same occasion?
In a heartfelt speech he presented three key ideas:
1. The party should self-critically examine why the young people who painted murals on the walls of towns are now migrating in droves.
2. The party’s error has been absence of/withdrawal from a political presence and political work at the grassroots.
3. The SLPP and the smaller constituent parties of the coalition, who were at the inception of the comeback movement, should stay together and the bigger, newer party should treat those allies well.
It gives me no pleasure to say that Mahinda Rajapaksa meant well but got it wrong. The young people are leaving and the party is not doing grassroots political work for the same reason: the consequences of the policies adopted by his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In his video-address to the event, President GR talked of “The difficult decision to switch to organic farming with a focus on green agriculture has been taken for the benefit of future generations.”
What is a bit more difficult than that decision—over which he doesn’t seem to have agonized or consulted Mahinda Rajapaksa—is for the SLPP to do grassroots politics as MR has urged, among the people. The peasants are keenly awaiting the visit of SLPP personalities to do any political work, in order to have a few words with them. So are the urban lower-middle classes queueing for gas and kerosene even in Kurunegala.
It isn’t the absence of grassroots political work by the SLPP; it is the inability to do any. That inability is because of the policies of the President. The SLPP is being wrecked by those policies. The young people are running away from the effects and prospects of those policies.
All that may have been attenuated if not avoided had President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not seized all the powers of the 19th amendment and impounded them in the Presidency, and had instead implemented the recommendation of the Ministerial Committee appointed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. If that had been the case, Mahinda Rajapaksa, with his experience and popularity would have been able to balance some of the wildly imprudent and impractical of the President and his inner-circle.
In his recent speech, the final point that Mahinda Rajapaksa got wrong was in his very decent advice about the relationship between the SLPP and the smaller parties. In his mind, the United Front coalition government of 1970-1975 was doomed because of the split in that coalition in 1975. That is factually inaccurate on several counts.
(A). The Sirimavo Bandaranaike government was doomed because of the extreme economic hardship the citizens had to undergo owing to its horrible policies. That factor has returned today. The outcome will be the same or worse, because the post 1977 generations have never undergone such hardship before.
(C). It was not only the coalition that split; the SLFP did too, with TB Subasinghe, AM Jinadasa, Tennyson Edirisuriya and Nanda Ellawela breaking away and forming the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). That was because of the phenomenon that TB Subasinghe referred to in his letter of resignation as “extra-constitutional centers of powers”, which Dr NM Perera had earlier talked of as an ‘invisible government’. That factor has returned today, under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency. For instance, no one really knows who is responsible for pushing the overnight conversion to organic agriculture.
(B). Had the rebel SLFPers quit earlier than 1976-’77, and had the LSSP and CPSL quit the coalition in 1972, when the Communist Party’s Dr SA Wickremesinghe and Sarath Muttetuwegama left the government (they were unfortunately pushed back into the CP and government by the ‘parent’ Soviet CP), they would have survived in 1977 and not been wiped out as they were. There would have been a Left Opposition. The lesson today is that the SLFP and the other smaller parties in the coalition should quit early enough to survive, and there is no better issue to quit over than the disastrous policy towards the peasants. Having already lost the ‘guru’, the SLFP and the smaller coalition parties should not lose entirely their ‘govi-kamkaru’ vote base.