Round One goes to Rajapaksa, but…

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By N Sathiya Moorthy

By formally signing in as a member of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) or the ‘Sri Lanka People’s Front’, former President and ‘interim Prime Minister’ Mahinda Rajapaksa may have cleared the next agenda item in his list for returning back to power with a ‘popular mandate’.

Yes, his formal parting of ways with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), now headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, may bring to a (temporary?) end, his five decades of association with the party, whose founding member his late father D A Rajapaksa, too, was, but in the immediate context, electoral pragmatism than emotional linkage has greater relevance.

First and foremost, in the light of the successful Local Government (LF) polls of February this year, the nation’s electoral politics has become Rajapaksa-centric. It was so even during the parliamentary polls of 2015, months after he had lost the presidential polls, that too as the incumbent. The current constitutional impasse, thanks to his decision to accept the Prime Minister’s job, when Sirisena ‘replaced’ incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe on the fateful evening of Friday, 26 October, has put back Mahinda R as the centre of electoral attraction all over again.

If nothing else, to the present-day critics of Srisena, who had backed him to the hilt in Elections-2015, needed a fall guy, and Rajapaksa once again fitted their bill. After all, very few can accept that they had gone wrong in pre-judging Sirisena, who had stabbed his own party and leader of the time in the back, needed to assuage their own guilt and ignorance.

Unsurprising, but…

Especially after the LG polls, where his SLPP-JO combine got 40-45 per cent vote-share, way ahead of Wickremesinghe-led United National Party’s (UNP) 30 per cent and Sirisena SLFP-UPFA’s 12 per cent, Rajapaksa’s cadres would not have him ‘taking orders’ from a party boss who could not ‘lead’ the party to an electoral victory. The last time they worked together, in the parliamentary polls of 2015, Sirisena was playing ducks and drakes with Mahinda R, which in turn might – or, might not – have contributed to then ‘unified’(?) SLFP-UPFA coming a ‘distant’ second to Wickremesinghe-led UNP-UNF combine.

The question before the Rajapaksas at the time possibly was this. Should Mahinda R have ‘bowed’ before Sirisena for a second time after losing the presidential polls, if only to become Prime Minister, or was there a way he could do it on his own? The increasing lack of popularity of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo seemed to have encouraged him to go his way, and Team Rajapaksa ‘took over’ the little-known SLPP ahead of the LG polls.

For those not in the know, all of Rajapaksas candidates contested under the SLPP’s ‘Lotus’ symbol, and won. He himself had campaigned for SLPP candidates, and not of the parent SLFP. Today, thus, when he has formally quit the SLFP to ‘join’ (!) the SLPP, it should be as unsurprising as Sirisena parting ways with Wickremesinghe. In both cases, only the ‘timing’ may read a little surprising – and also the modus, or method.

Twin murder…

At the end of the day, the first round in the current constitutional imbroglio has gone to Rajapaksa. With the Wickremesinghe loyalists, both inside the country and outside increasingly blaming Sirisena for the ‘twin murder of democracy’ – PM replacement followed now by Parliament dissolution — some of the dark spot-light had already moved away from Rajapaksa, whom this section loves to hate the most, otherwise.

By seeking to contest the parliamentary polls, almost on his own under the ‘SLPP-JO’ brand, even while continuing as ‘caretaker Prime Minister’, Mahinda R’s politico-electoral position may sound incongruous to his critics, who take pride in ‘intellectualising’ their own positions. Not so with his cadres and voters. They want him back, asap – the modus and explanations do not count. It is another matter that his voters alone may not be able to bring him back to power, all by themselves – or, at least that should be the conventional wisdom on contemporary Sri Lanka.

The alternative could well be for MR to negotiate seat-sharing and the like with MS-led SLFP-UPFA on his terms, and possibly citing in private the way he was ‘humiliated’ during the parliamentary polls of 2015. Even when the poll campaign of the combine rested on the exclusive shoulders of Mahinda R, Sirisena at every turn declared that he would not make the other man Prime Minister, if they won.

That the occasion did not arise because the nation’s voters gave Wickremesinghe & Co a clear superiority in numbers and clearer majority with the ‘outside support’ of such parties as the TNA and the JVP did not mean that Sirisena would have ‘invited’ Rajapaksa to form a government if only their own combine had won. Worse still,

Those that now charge Sirisena with constitutional impropriety and political immorality should look themselves in the mirror. They should ask themselves as to what they were thinking and doing when Sirisena made Wickresinghe Prime Minister on assumption of office as President, and then declaring his intent not to make Rajapaksa his Prime Minister if their combine had won the lat

ter’s campaign-strength. Put to a dock, the Rajitha Senaratnes and the Sarath Amunugamas too needed to answer questions too have more questions to answer than the kind of questions they might want to ask of others of the ilk.

Last laugh or what

Today, Rajapaksa has Sirisena and Wickremesinghe where he might have wanted, at least in the interim. The other two, who were continuing to live through an unhappy marriage, broke may be because both trusted Rajapaksa, but in exactly opposite ways. Sirisena, when he ‘sacked’ Wickremesinghe, might have hoped for Rajapaksa to do business with him, and do business as if it was business as usual. He did not possibly know the other Rajapaksa, from whom he too had hidden the other Sirisena in the years preceding the parting of their ways in late 2014.

Likewise, Wickremesinghe might have hoped that Rajapaksa would not rush to Sirisena’s help if the UNP-UNF partners in their ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU) were to side-step and side-line the President of the nation, again and again and again, on matters of national interest and State sovereignty. The Wickremesinghes saw only the Sirisena in the man, not the President of Sri Lanka that they had made him to be.

Today, Rajapaksa seems to have had the last laugh, at least for this first round. Despite Sirisena using his constitutional mandate (also) to order fresh parliamentary polls on 5 January 2019, the Supreme Court is what might hold a decision.  Yet, granting that the Sirisena decision holds, Rajapaksa seems to have calculated that if the other two Sinhala majority stake-holders were to remain as ‘disunited’ as they were in the LG polls of February that would be enough to take him to the top of the parliamentary poll line-up.

Alternatively,  if Sirisena were to join hands, on the other’s terms, pushed to the electoral walls as already has been, then it could bolster his technically improve Rajapaksa’s vote-share in some parts, but also cut into the same in ‘urbanising’ parts of rural Sri Lanka, where ‘democracy’ began getting some resonance since Elections-2015. It is a challenging task for Rajapaksa – whether or not to align with Sirisena in the open, or just continue to cut into the latter’s strength in the just-dissolved Parliament, and also the Provincial Councils that were technically with the Sirisena camp but have since been dissolved at the instance of the Wickremesinghe camp within the eminently forgettable GNU.

Already, Team Rajapaksa has sent out a hidden message of sorts that they were looking at a single-party Government led by their man at the end of the parliamentary polls. For once, Team Rajapaksa is swearing by 19-A and has declared that under the Amendment, the ministerial strength of a single-party Government would be much less than for a GNU, however non-functional the latter might be. Whatever the final results – including the possibility of Rajapaksa returning to power, as ‘elected’ Prime Minister – the message is that for all those SLFP and even UNP members wanting to become MPs and Ministers under a post-poll dispensation, and if they also believed that Rajapaksa is the man for their own future, then this is the last chance!

If nothing else, going by the presidential proclamation, the nominations for the parliamentary polls begins and ends later this month, unless of course the Supreme Court stays that part of the order at least, if not reverses the dissolution decision too, here and now! The alternative expectation could be for in a uniquely unprecedented occasion of the kind, the Supreme Court might also consider the possibility of directing the Election Commission to continue with poll-related works, but binding the polling itself to the final verdict in the cases that the anti-Sirisena camp-followers have threatened to file, possibly this week, after the weekend recess that followed the dissolution decision!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:sathiyam54@gmail.com)

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