By N Sathiya Moorthy
Half-way through the five-year term of the incumbent Government that commenced its journey in January 2015, it is becoming increasing clear that the Maithiri-Ranil duo has paired with the predecessor Rajapaksa regime in all but only one department. Whatever be his other crimes and sins, he could provide political leadership and stability, which they have not been able to ensure – despite two heading the Government in the place of one.
Theirs is not the first ‘cohabitation’ Government in the country, but this is the first time that this one cohabitation is through consent. Earlier, SLFP President Chandrika Kumaratunga and UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did try to work out a cohabitation arrangement, but theirs was one of confrontation, from beginning to end.
Yet, that cohabitation did serve an unacknowledged crucial purpose at the time. Bent on eliminating successive political leaderships of the country, the LTTE found itself cornered in a way as wily CBK and wilier Ranil would have made a political pair that successor President Mahinda Rajapaksa became later on. The purported cooperation their two parties have evinced since the exit of Rajapaksa could have re-written contemporary history in more ways than one.
It was not destined to happen, over egos that needed to be on display. Today again, egos are at play, but that of President Maithiripala Sirisena are subdued in public but decisive in the end. Possibly learning from CBK’s term from close quarters, he does not quarrel with the PM and his UNP from the start. Be it ‘international probe’ into war crimes, or ‘Avant Garde investigations’ or ‘Hambantota deal’ or whatever, he lets them have their say in full force and has his final say.
It is the same way he operated while deserting Rajapaksa and contesting against him – and winning the presidency, too. Everyone else from the UNP to the international community worked for him, either before the cameras or away from it, and he became the President without shedding sweat or tears. Yet, learning his lessons from Mahinda R long before the latter mastered it, he waited till the very last before putting his self-taught lessons to practice.
Sniper, lying low
Mahinda had done it during the tense run-up to his first election as President. Against the advice of his ‘kitchen cabinet’ of the time, among who many were from the present set-up, he waited until after his swearing-in to ‘renege’ on the public commitment to make CBK’s brother, the late Anura Bandaranaike his Prime Minister. It is another matter the Bandaranaike clan had reneged on their part of the deal even before the polls.
Yet, Rajapaksa could not have risked the family’s Attangala votes, and the results proved him right. That made him too confident on the poll-front, and when he lost he lost because of the over-confidence from the past, interspersed with the post-war victory of 2010, which could not have been replicated five years, hence.
It is anybody’s guess why Maithiri Sirisena did not deploy his ‘sniper’ instincts take a pot-shot at the pre-poll ally UNP and Ranil soon after becoming President. Possibly, his well-honed greater instincts for lying low had overtaken his impulses by then that he seemed to have willingly sworn in a Ranil-led ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU) with him as President still heading and chairing it, as with his predecessors.
Today, as the euphoria of the governance is wearing thin, and not only on the two leaders but the entire Cabinet as a whole, historic fissures between their two parties down the line are coming out in the open. Gone are the days when they wanted to be seen as being united against a common, unwinnable adversary in Mahinda R.
The latter is still around, but they all have got used to him. For Sirisena’s SLFP Ministers, MPs and other second and third-line leaders down the line, his sniper-effect has not weakened the UNP ally, nor has it undone the Rajapaksa effect in their individual Provinces and electorates, as hoped for. They need a Rajapaksa still to win their elections for them. Side-lining him outright in the Sinhala-majority areas is not an option for them.
Breathing free air
At last count, the one and possibly the only major difference between the Rajapaksa regime and the incumbent duo is the sense of breathing free air that the latter has been able to instil in the population. It goes beyond the war-affected Tamil population, in the North and East, Colombo and elsewhere. It includes the urban and rural Sinhalas, among whom many had begun feeling stifled even before the decisive ‘Eelam War IV’ had commenced in earnest.
It could not have been otherwise. The Rajapaksa regime, with brother Gotabaya as Secretary, Defence, had made the war-effort a national mission, going beyond the conventional branding of the same as ‘national problem’. To them, all was fair in war, and stifling of human rights in the name of ‘war-effort’ became justified up to a point – and at times beyond.
Having climbed up with unchecked purposefulness, it would have taken time for them to do the climb-down part. The change of Government and leadership provided the much-needed break. Possibly, it could not have been otherwise, but then efforts to delink the Police force from the care of the Defence Ministry, for instance, had begun even then.
Otherwise, there is nothing for the Sri Lankan voter to choose between the two regimes. Off again on again, PM Ranil in particular and his camp otherwise has been taking snipe-shots at the nation’s media, which in times of peace can produce worse effects than the ‘white-vans’ of the Rajapaksa era.
The traditional tendency of the post-Independence rulers to scoff at and stifle justified criticism has not gone away with the Rajapaksas. This raises the question if the post-Rajapaksa air is all that free as is being believed and made out to be.
Rather, how long could it take for a return of the old ways but without necessarily return of the old leadership? The reference is not to the actual return of the ‘white-vans’ culture, but of the attendant anxieties accompanying the ‘midnight-knock’ syndrome.
On larger issues of graft and governance, this Government may have proved worse than all predecessors put together. There is nothing equivalent to the ‘Central Bank bonds scam’, in terms of depth and width, and worse still, the timing.
Going by records, such a massive scam had been staged within the first month of the new Government taking over and even before most ministers had settled down in their job. If it did not burst out as it has done since, it owes to the questionable indulgence of President Sirisena, who dissolved Parliament just when the House was to vote on the issue, in mid-2015, citing a pre-poll promise that he had not bothered to keep in the ‘first 100 days’.
Less said about the Hambantota stakes-sale, which is assuming the proportions of a scam and worse, if one were to look at the real intentions of China, which in turn can compromise Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity at the time and on issue of Beijing’s choosing. Fair enough to all concerned from within the country, Rajapaksa was in power at the time, Maithiri was a part of his A-Team in party and Government, and Ranil and his UNP looked the other way when the regime was signing off an uneconomical construction contract.
The worse-hit in all this is the minority Tamils, and the best beneficiaries of the current confusion at the top is the Tamil hardliners. The moderates Tamils hoped that the duo would keep up all their poll promises if they were backed to oust the Rajapaksas, democratically.
The TNA and the Tamil leadership kept is part of the promise. The Duo has not, and will not. The timing of Mangala Samaraweera’s exit from Foreign Ministry to Finance Ministry was made to look like a cover-up for avoiding an embarrassment caused by then incumbent Ravi Karunanayake, thanks to the ‘bonds scam’.
There was/is more to it than meeting the eye, then or now. Having repeatedly committed to the international community and the UNHRC on an ‘international probe’ into war-crimes and other human rights violations without even any primary examination on his part, Mangala S cannot be expected to go back and tell them the unpalatable ‘No’ when his time is up, this time next year.
The new choice of former Attorney-General Tilak Marapana is aimed not at larger aspects of international relations, but mostly at addressing the UNHRC with a firm ‘No’ and in a way, making it as legalistic sounding as is possibly – and taking it away as much as possible from the ‘human angle’, where it now rests.
Hot-brick and worse
The international community pressed the war-crimes probe more than a political solution to the ethnic issue from day one, not because they loved Tamils more. They did so because they loved Mahinda R the least. The chemistry did not work, and UNHRC and war-crimes was/is one place where they could scalp the Rajapaksas dry and also have the Tamils back home on their side in terms of domestic elections.
They now have the Rajapaksas out for half way through the Duo’s current term, but the former refuses to fade away. Having set ‘Demolition Rajapaksas’ as the new Government’s prime and possibly only target even over improving the economy and law and order situation, they all still have Mahinda R at the centre of it all. They now want to drop him like a hot brick, but are unable to do so.
In calculating for Rajapaksas’ political downfall, the international community (read: West) forgot that those that they had propped up at the time are also Sri Lankans first and last, and that they would be apprehensive about the future that might await them, in case…..They needed the Rajapaksas to keep them going and going and going, nearer home. In the absence of any claims to credit for war-victory and terrorism-fight, they also needed China at UNHRC and UNSC, more than even Mahinda R might have ever required.
Today, in every department of governance barring ‘political stability’, the Duo has done exactly what the Rajapaksas did or worse, without the latter’s excuse of ‘war effort’. On political stability, the other scored while this one continues to totter from day one, mutual distrust between the two ‘Big Two’ as personalities and political parties is inherent to the post-Independence Sri Lankan system and scheme.
Both are waiting for the other to blink first, the President holding the limited yet available constitutional cover to dismiss Prime Minister Ranil in the last six months of the Parliament’s life, and UNP for the next round of elections where it feels comfortable and confident of wiping out a divided SLFP. Here and here alone Mahinda R makes the difference to the SLFP cadres and now, closer to the elections each passing day, to the second-line, too.
President Sirisena who had once talked about quitting after four years has forgotten it, and so have all those NGOs who backed him at the time. Rajapaksa never quit politics, nor did his adversaries encourage him to do so, post-defeat. Instead, they created a situation wherein, he needed the party more than the other way round in the early months. Today, the reverse is the truth, even more!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: email@example.com)