By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Sri Lanka won the cricket World Cup once, but never again. We started down the slippery slope almost the morning after we had reached the zenith of achievement. That was because we dismantled the winning combination which included Ana Punchihewa and Davnell Whatmore. The most crucial mistake we made was in the succession. The captaincy should have automatically devolved upon the vice-captain, who was one of the world’s best batsmen at the time; perhaps THE best. That was Aravinda de Silva. He was allowed to captain only sporadically.
The same mistake is being made by the Sri Lankan Opposition. In a situation in which the captain and commander-in chief of the national opposition, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, cannot run for Presidential office, the obvious front runner in the choice of candidacy should be the vice-captain. There can be no question as to who the vice-captain is because the country’s citizenry sees it every night on TV news, whenever there is footage from the center of the nation’s political life, the parliament. And that man, that vice-captain, is Dinesh Gunawardena.
Now the obvious question arises as to why, though I had been mentioning Dinesh’s name for years, I had suggested Gotabaya as candidate at one time—and why I no longer do so. I did not push early on for Dinesh though I kept dropping his name, because I remembered what another political family had done to a worthy successor who was outside the family. My father, Mervyn de Silva, was perceived as even closer to the SLFP’s Deputy Leader and the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Maithripala Senanayaka, than he was to Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike. I therefore had a ringside seat watching the rise and fall of Maithripala, a left of center populist who had progressive views on foreign policy and was supported by the Left within the coalition. When Mrs. Bandaranaike’s civic rights had been removed and she was unable to contest the Presidential election of 1982, Maithripala, if given the SLFP candidacy, might have won. Instead he was overlooked, and double-crossed by his political ally Anura Bandaranaike. Hector Kobbekaduwa, a distant cousin of the Bandaranaikes, was chosen instead, but he too was backstabbed by the Bandaranaikes as was his ally and Mrs. Bandaranaike’s son-in-law Vijaya Kumaratunga himself.
Having watched the fate of both Maithripala Senanayaka and Hector Kobbekaduwa, I did not want the same fate possibly visited upon Dinesh Gunawardena. I was counseled by veteran observers that the Rajapaksas would only support one of their own, and I thought Gotabaya would be a good choice, provided he could be persuaded to go with his best self rather than his ‘Tea Party movement’ type Alt-Right constituency at the core of which are irrational ex-military colleagues and militant monks, both verging on neo-fascism.
Even more simply, while I had advanced the slogan of “MR Plus” for the Opposition Presidential candidacy, in which GR would be the Plus, the GR camp (NOT GR himself) had for many years planned the reverse: they thought of MR as the “Plus” in a “GR Plus” formula! Their project was not MR-centric, it was GR–centric. They felt that MR’s time had come and gone and he was to be merely a stepping stone for a leadership model and policy agenda which they felt was more advanced and superior to MR, because it was less populist, more nationalist, and ex-military driven. They felt the ex-military vanguard was superior to an experienced political vanguard. They felt that MR ran a ‘soft state’ while they wanted the dominance of a hardened state machine.
In his historic valedictory address to the American nation, retiring US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, WW II military hero, warned the citizenry about the growing power of what he termed “the military-industrial complex”. If the Sinhala Alt-Right takes over, we shall be dominated by a “military–corporate complex” or a “military-big business-managerial-monk complex”, which will replace the “Govi-Kamkaru” component of the “Pancha Maha Balavegaya”.
I engaged constructively, tried to reason and persuade, and failed. Veteran leftists Vasudeva Nanayakkara and DEW Gunasekara (especially the former) were right all along, but I think my effort was worth it. As the Apostle of Cuban Independence, Jose Marti said: “I have lived in the belly of the beast and I know its entrails, and my sling is that of David”.
Now it is time to speak plainly. I firmly believe that there are two excellent, risk-free choices of candidate for the Opposition. One is, as Vasudeva has said, Chamal Rajapaksa. The other is Dinesh Gunawardena. Dinesh can probably get support from an improbably diverse array of leading players, namely two ex-Presidents and the serving one: Mahinda, Maithri, and perhaps even Chandrika.
After the shock defeat of Jan 8th 2015, opposition strategy pivoted on Dinesh Gunawardena. I recall a discussion 48 hours later at Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa’s residence in which Mahinda Rajapaksa correctly concluded: “Dan Dinesh thamai inne!” best translated as “now it is up to Dinesh” or “now it is Dinesh we have to rely on”. The Mayor of Matale Hilmy Mohamed was witness.
Dinesh played his role as Opposition Parliamentary leader and Mahinda’s deputy extremely well for years in Parliament under very difficult circumstances in which the numbers fluctuated, the official SLFP joined the Government and the real Opposition did not (does not) have the status of the Opposition. He has the respect of both the Government benches and the Opposition. When he speaks he does so with authority. His television performances, of which there are too few, are superbly skillful. In or out of Parliament, none dare trifle with him. He combines a steely temperament with civility, mischievous charm and a warm smile.
If the Opposition is looking for a Presidential candidate who would be an effective yet safe proxy for Mahinda Rajapaksa, how can there be anyone better than Dinesh, who has played that very role splendidly since 2015?
Dinesh is a veteran of Opposition politics since the toughest days of the 1980s, coming into Parliament in the second term of a hegemonic administration, and after the Referendum of 1982 when the regime had hardened. He has served in Cabinet under two Presidents. His experience ranges from trade unionism to Parliament, from the Parliamentary to the extra-parliamentary, from Opposition to Government. With that richness of experience he is surpassed only by Mahinda and Vasudeva.
In a period of history when the tides are against the neoliberal elitist establishment the world over and running heavily in favor of change under the auspices of populism and nationalism, Dinesh is a populist nationalist with a Socialist orientation. At a time when progressive, left of center populism is to be vastly preferred to the angry ultra-nationalism of the Alt-Right, Dinesh is a progressive nationalist and patriotic populist who has consistently been left of center.
Not only has Dinesh the benefit of learning from his father, Philip Gunawardena and being raised in a great political family that included his militant uncle Robert and aunt Vivienne (a socialist icon), he has also worked with Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike as an ally and fought against President Jayewardene in the 1980s, engaged sympathetically with the JVP in the 1980s, served in the cabinets of Presidents Chandrika and Mahinda in the last 20 years, and been a close comrade and parliamentary colleague of Mahinda’s for decades. Now that is what I call a wealth of political experience, in both senses of political combat and political engagement.
The balanced, mature style of Dinesh’s politics is best evidenced in his stance on Constitutional reform. He has been a sharp critic of the elitist establishment’s efforts to short circuit Parliament, as well as to perforate the unitary framework by means of slippery terminological deceit. It is a pity that the TV news failed to catch his strong rebuttal of Sumanthiran’s and Jayamapthy Wickremaratne’s responses to their critics, after their strong arm tactics were exposed within the Steering Committee. However, Dinesh has also engaged with President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe (his former classmate at Royal College) and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, in all parliamentary matters, including in the Constitutional Assembly and Steering Committee processes. While insisting on correct parliamentary and Constitutional procedure and practices, he has also insisted that the Opposition engage in the Constitutional reform conversation by presenting a 14 point policy paper. Dinesh believes in drawing broad parameters, red lines—not in rejecting reform or foreclosing the space for its consideration and deliberation.
For his policy of constructive engagement, Dinesh has come under heavy pressure and public criticism by the ultranationalist Far Right (e.g. Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, Dr. Wasantha Bandara, Ven. Elle Gunawansa), which insisted that the JO disengage from and boycott the process itself. When this ideology threatened to seep into the JO itself, it was Dinesh who beat it back, with Mahinda’s overarching support, since the latter believed in Parliamentary participation. If not for Dinesh’s excellent parliamentary tactics in a difficult and complex situation for the Opposition, the hegemony of the neoliberal establishment would have been entrenched.
Throughout, Mahinda has been able to rely on Dinesh as his right-hand man in the parliamentary battle since 2015; the one who manages the JO forces in Parliament and confronts the government every day, while being at MR’s side or functioning as his representative at all important meetings with the President, the PM and the Speaker.
Dinesh Gunawardena has a shrewd understanding of international affairs and as a Realist he is a far safer bet than the Alt-Right GR bloc which criticizes a solution to the Tamil question based upon “bala bedeema” i.e. power-sharing, and refuses even to guarantee that the existing 13th amendment will be respected. The Alt-Right bloc questions the very existence of a Tamil political question and a legitimate Tamil political identity i.e. a Tamil collective identity. Their ideology seeks to put the clock back, not merely to pre-1987 and the Indo-Lanka accord but to 1957 and the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact which was the first recognition of the political nature of the Tamil issue and the need for a political solution based on territorial autonomy and devolution/sharing of power between center and periphery.
The ideologues of this Alt Right camp regard any political reform based on territorial autonomy, indeed the very recognition of the need for territorial-based devolution/autonomy itself, to be separatist! If it assumes state power in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan state will face geopolitical consequences of a devastating and terminally destructive nature. By contrast, Dinesh Gunawardena as Presidential candidate and MR as powerful Prime minister or Prime Ministerial candidate will be able to balance the Sinhala and Tamil nationalist concerns, with Sri Lankan national interests as a whole.
Dinesh is a perfectly bilingual ex-Royalist who has a Colombo elite constituency just as he has a broad Sinhala Buddhist base. While a Sinhala nationalist, he is a pragmatist who knows that India must be kept on board and that the principle of devolution cannot be renounced, and the Provincial Council system cannot be dismantled. Dinesh Gunawardena is a ‘Smart Patriot’.
On the Geneva front, Dinesh has been a fiery critic of the 2015 Resolution while supporting the deployment in our defense, of the report by Sir Desmond de Silva. In this he was opposed not only by the neoliberals but also by the Alt-Right including one or two foreign policy/Geneva hawks within the Opposition.
Dinesh has been in the political struggle for longer and more continuously than any of the Rajapaksa brothers apart from Mahinda. With Dinesh’s wealth of experience in the political movement, he could fit into the role of the candidate for the highest political office in the land less controversially than anyone else. As the Parliamentary leader of the JO who has led the struggle day in day out in parliament, it is unthinkable, even inappropriate , that the JO Parliamentary Group should turn to anyone but their own Parliamentary leader as the Presidential candidate in a situation that Mahinda cannot contest.
Perhaps above all, society, civilian governance and our deep rooted democratic system are safe with Dinesh. He has been a thoroughgoing democrat, combining principle with prudence, wedded to the parliamentary tradition for decades while being unafraid to brave bullets while leading demonstrations on national and democratic issues (one recalls the breaking of the ban on May Day celebrations in 1987, the demonstration at Abhayaramaya temple and the death by Police gunfire, of young Kithsirimevan Ranawake). His proven, deep-rooted democratic conviction and commitment are without question. A strong opponent of economic neoliberalism and a staunch defender of the state sector of the economy, of social welfare, and of students and workers rights and trade union rights in general, Dinesh Gunawardena is easily classifiable as a national-democrat and a Social Democrat.
Sri Lankan society has produced three great political families on the center-left: the Bandaranaikes, the Rajapaksas and the Gunawardenas. Dinesh is the son of one of the biggest names ever in the island’s politics– Philip Gunawardena, the father of the socialist movement in Sri Lanka. With the Bandaranaikes breaking their alliance with the Rajapaksas of the South and allying with their erstwhile rivals, the dominant family of the center-right, the Rajapaksas turned to the Gunawardenas. The Gunawardenas, represented by Dinesh could have defected to the Bandaranaikes in 2015 but instead stayed with the Rajapaksas and remained loyal to Mahinda. It is time that loyalty be recognized and rewarded by making Dinesh the Presidential candidate.
Dinesh has one political weakness but that could turn out to be a strength. He heads a small party, the MEP, and is not a member of either the SLFP or the SLPP. However, that means that he does not have the national mass base to be a rival to Mahinda or any of the Rajapaksas. This alone should reduce any apprehensions and insecurities, and render him a safe bet.
Which factor Mahinda Rajapaksa will go for—the high risk option of spectacular (pan-Sinhala) but geopolitically and geo-strategically unsustainable (zero-devolution, ‘Trumpian’) success, or the low risk option of moderation, experience, pluralism, sustainability and stability—is known only to him, and he may make the decision much later than sooner.
In these difficult years, Mahinda’s vice-captain and right hand man has been Dinesh and he should not be denied his due. From my perspective as a political scientist and student of international relations, what MR said on January 10th at Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa’s official residence, remains true today and will be truer still next year, the year of the Presidential election: “Dan ithin Dinesh thamai inney!”