By N Sathiya Moorthy
Given his standardised prescription for friends-turned-foes, President Maithripala Sirisena should have announced a commission of inquiry on allegations of corruption against the Ranil Wickremesinghe dispensation the very minute he sacked the latter as Prime Minister. But he has taken a full month after the 26 October replacement of Prime Minister to announce his intention/decision in this regard. It remains to be seen how he proceeds in the matter, and it is not without reason.
A few notable and noticeable allegations on the corruption front against the erstwhile Wickremesinghe leadership do come to the mind, yes. But then on the most serious one among them, a Presidential Commission did go into the ‘Central Bank bonds scam’ already. On the Hambantota ‘debt-equity swap deal’, the Maithri-Ranil duo did strike a compromise before the latter sold out on, to China, all the same.
This takes one to the question as to what other scams that Maithri has in mind when it comes to the Wickremesinghe dispensation. And if there are any, or any more, what was President Sirisena doing about them, if and when they were brought to his notice. Better or worse still, it may require, at least going by the customary practice, there should have been enough noise made about them in the public arena and possibly also in Parliament, before the President gets to intervene, at least Sirisena style.
It is now quite likely that Sirisena’s action may be coloured by civil society perceptions of his ‘unconstitutional act’ in ‘sacking’ Wickremesinghe and ‘replacing’ him with former boss, President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This goes beyond the customary protests and protestations by Wickremesinghe’s UNP, all the same, but then, all are likely to be linked to the upcoming Supreme Court hearing/verdict in the ‘Parliament dissolution case’, where again the presidency is as much the target as the person of President Sirisena.
While the Supreme Court could be construed to be taking an unbiased and upright position in the matter, the events and the impossibilities of the past fortnight, since the three-member Bench stayed the presidential gazette notification in the matter too may be weighing with the Judges. If nothing else, any possible verdict declaring the presidential notification null and void ab initio, could have as much political consequences as there may be constitutional outcomes.
The simple and simplistic possibility is that the court declares the dissolution of Parliament unconstitutional, and Parliament goes back to business more usual than during the current interregnum. That does not change the situation on the ground as otherwise too the Rajapaksa regime does not seem to have a proven majority in the House.
But then the removal of Wickremesinghe and his replacement with Rajapaksa, not having been contested in the Supreme Court, as yet, the question of the court order going to restore status quo ante does not arise in the normal course, unless of course specifically agitated in the court, and the Honb’le Justices too attests to the same, one way or the other. That means the Rajapaksa team could be defeated in a constitutionally-reaffirmed Parliament but that would not automatically restore the Wickremesinghe dispensation.
‘No, no’ to Ranil
It is in this context that Sirisena’s repeated reiteration that he would not make Wickremesinghe Prime Minister any time soon needs to be considered in all seriousness, especially by the latter’s UNP. Unless any Supreme Court verdict overturning the dissolution decision of the President passes personal strictures against Sirisena, the chances are that he would continue in office, and would continue to be vested with powers to name the next Prime Minister, who in his view might command a majority in Parliament.
It is here that the twin-approach, or double-timing by the 15-MP Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the six-man JVP might come to play all over again. Even as they are committed to voting out the Rajapaksa dispensation, the two parties seem to be clear, at least as of now, about not supporting a Wickremesinghe/UNP-led replacement, or restoration.
In this, the JVP seems firm and stands as a group, or so it would seem. The TNA continued to be a divided house when reports last came in on this particular aspect. There is now confirmation that at least four or five MPs belonging to the three-party TNA parliamentary group have strong views against support for a Ranil/UNP dispensation. It could also be difficult for the UNP to stick to its guns and thus hope to retain the pre-dismissal TNA backing for a party-led Government.
That would once again reduce the 122-strong anti-Rajapaksa parliamentary group to a 101-member pro-UNP combine (minus TNA’s 15 and JVP’s six). In a House of 225 members, it would mean that a restored Ranil/UNP dispensation might fall short of the required 113-seat majority by 12 MPs. This could either mean or lead to poaching/horse-trading of the present-day Rajapaksa MPs by the Ranil/UNP dispensation, or a continuing deadlock of the present kind.
It is in this context that Sirisena’s reiteration of not restoring Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister may come to impact the UNP thinking or so does the President’s camp still seems to hope. Even for convincing the TNA to reconsider its position, the UNP may have to offer a new leadership, and a new promise on a political solution to the ethnic issue. Whether it will still ‘convince’ the four or five below-the-radar rebels in the TNA remains to be seen and tested. AT least, they seem to be doubtful about backing Wickremesinghe and possibly the UNP, too, all over again, and hope to win back their own parliamentary seats, whenever elections became due.
It is even more so in the case of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, whose name is also doing the rounds in some UNP circles. If nothing else, Sirisena has reportedly taken Fonseka’s name, as the one other UNP leader whom he would not have as Prime Minister, besides Wickremesinghe. As coincidence would have it, all three got the Tamils votes in successive presidential elections – Ranil 2005, Fonseka 2010 and Sirisena 2015 – but only the last one could become President.
Trapped into poll-talk
Independent of their public posture on the twin issues of dismissal and dissolution, the UNP has unwittingly begun talking about polls – but not of the parliamentary kind as Rajapaksa wants but of the presidential type, where again the party has no say. Unless there is a court verdict that forces Sirisena into quitting office, there is no w
ay that the UNP could hope to have him impeached, the only way that they could force early presidential polls on the nation.
The very fact that the UNP is now talking polls of one kind or the other could well mean that they might soon be forced into talking polls even of the parliamentary variety, especially if it meant that they could not have their purported/perceived way. There is the other possibility of twin polls to the presidency and Parliament, but here Rajapaksa is on record that the problem pertains not to the presidency but only to Parliament, hence only polls for Parliament, first and before turn.
It is not without reason, either. Rajapaksa would want to fix ‘Parliament’, if he could help it before deciding on the presidential choice of his kind – whether or not it would be Sirisena is for another time for him to decide, or so would it seem. But given the fact that he had been faced with Hobson’s Choice in the matter, Rajapaksa would want to be more than doubly careful in his choice of the President, if he could not replace the 19-A with another 18-A, which alone allowed him to contest a third time (which he however lost).
The option thus before the UNP, if the Supreme Court were to ultimately concede their argument, could be for the party to choose another Prime Minister who could and would ‘work with’ President Sirisena, at least until the latter’s term ends in January 2019, when alone fresh elections to the high office could become due in the ordinary course. In such a case, the party could promise Wickremesinghe the presidential nomination, and he could begin his campaign way ahead of his opposition, which could well be in a greater disarray than at present.
The alternative could well be for the UNP to stick to Wickremesinghe and then get tie down in knots, by which time the civil society supporting them now could well grow even more tired of them than when they were in office. The option could well be for the UNP to keep the Prime Minister’s job even if it is another leader and face the presidential polls while in power, against a weak Sirisena and a weakened Rajapaksa than they are now. The choice is before them – to act pragmatically or to put personal prestige and ego before political practicality.
(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)