By N Sathiya Moorthy
The irony is true and striking. In the normal course, political leaders enter office in public, celebrating it all, and quit, when it became unavoidable, quiet and withdrawn. Not Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa. So much so when he quit as President after the adversarial electoral verdict in the early hours of 9 January 2015, that was more in the news and in the people’s mind than the ‘advent of democracy’ and the return of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, with Maithripala Sirisena becoming President, just minutes ahead.
It was so this time, too. When Rajapaksa became Prime Minister on ‘Friday, the 26th, not even his closest supporters knew it until after the event. Many of them even went on record, saying as much. The photographs and video footage released by the Government were all that the media and the nation got to see. But when Rajapaksa ‘quit’ as ‘prime minister’, this time following a court verdict, and signed the resignation letter, on Saturday, 15 December, there was ceremony and colour.
Whether or not Buddhist monks, the Maha Sangha, was present when he was sworn in, Team Rajapaksa ensured that they were present when he signed his resignation letter in front of the cameras – with other religious representatives too in attendance, in true Sri Lankan style. With the result, yet another return of UNP’s Wickremesinghe back as Prime Minister, less than 24 hours later, faded into relative media insignificance. But there is no denying the accompanying relief that ‘democracy has been restored’. There is greater peace that the nation after the 50-day constitutional impasse now has some Government, than no Government.
Pushing for polls
There is no denying that Rajapaksa feels more comfortable in the company of his constituency than with the political class. When he became President in 2005, Team Rajapaksa did massive floor-crossing to offset greater dependence on the JVP partner with its 39 MPs in the 225-member Parliament. But he himself seemed more comfortable, governing through a small group, or coterie.
This again was no different this time, too. Throughout the long run-up to his becoming ‘Prime Minister’ overnight, Rajapaksa was talking about advanced polls to Parliament, a fresh decision from the people. When he became Prime Minister, he said as much. When he quit as Prime Minister, then again, he sang the same tune, but in a tone that sounded worn out and defensive.
In his defence, at least Rajapaksa’s traditional civil society critics did see a indefensible position that sounded more hollow than otherwise. Prior to the constitutional crisis, which ended up as a constitutional impasse, initiated by President Maithripala Sirisena, these sections of public opinion were feeling unhappy and uncomfortable with the Wickremesinghe leadership, on a whole range of issues. These were also issues, which in their eyes belonged to the Rajapaksa regime, not their dear, own Wickremesinghe leadership.
Yet, there was no knowing if these sections would have voted for Rajapaksa, the only electoral alternative to the Wickremesinghe leadership, then and since. Now that Wickremesinghe is firmly back in the saddle, it remains to be seen if the UNP that he leads would continue to stand as firmly by him, or the unforgettable, pre-2015 internal squabble would return to the centre-stage. If staged, the UNP quarrels could have the potential to push even the Rajapaksa high-drama to the sidelines, between now and the presidential polls, due in January 2020.
Sounding the bugle
Rajapaksa seems counting on his traditional constituency, which adversaries, nearer home and overseas, brand as ‘Sinhala nationalists’. Truth be told, these are constituencies that are uncomfortable with the UNP’s ‘market capitalist’ economic policies in what is still a Third World nation. They also feel unsettled with every mention of the possible return of the LTTE from the Tamil side, and the militant JVP, which a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ make.
It is thus that Rajapaksa, in his exit statement, has targeted the UNP and Wickremesinghe, not on corruption or rudder-less direction of their Government until the 26th October, ‘Black Friday’. He has directly hit out at the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), sounding his poll bugle, already. He will continue to take his campaign conch shell at every turn from now on, and blow it, again and again and again, until presidential/parliamentary polls, if not beyond.
It will thus be interesting to see how the Rajapaksa strategy unravels from now on, until election-time. Is he planning to launch a ‘long march’ of the JRJ kind, though only after the dust over his controversial entry as PM and colourful exit had settled down. He may continue to count on his UNP adversaries, and their TNA allies, to launch his campaign for him. The chances are that they might not fail him, this time, too.
Two sides of coin
Despite all these ‘positives’, if they are any, Rajapaksa cannot run away from the responsibility for causing the ‘constitutional crisis’. The constitutional crisis is only one side of the coin. The other also belongs to Rajapaksa, more than even President Sirisena, at whose doors most of the blame should have rested. Sirisena is not in the electoral reckoning, but Rajapaksa is – and hence the poll issue of the future, too will be.
If ‘constitutional crisis’ is one side of the coin, there is the other, more important one from the urban middle-class voter’s reckoning. It refers to the ‘political morality’ issue in the entire affair. Even those that do not understand and/or do not care for constitutional issues of the kind understand ‘political morality’ in simple and straight terms.
The question is this: Can the UNP sustain ‘political morality’ as the main electoral issue for a year, until the presidential polls of January 2020? Or, will they readily hand down a more convincing poll issue for Rajapaksa to bandy about? Say, issues such as price rise and job-losses, which every Sri Lankan can touch and feel, unlike the constitutional crisis that to many may sound ephemeral, at best?
For now, there is no denying that Rajapaksa has lost the pre-poll round to the UNP. Rather, he seemed to have surrendered it all, even before the real game started. When the opposition was nowhere near his goal-post, he has done it for them, through a series of self-goals. Now, the UNP and Wickremesinghe need not have to score more goals against Rajapaksa, They need only to ensure that they do not score more self-goals than Rajapaksa, already.
Whether true or not Rajapaksa is being seen as the perpetrator of the current constitutional crisis. If nothing else, he is the visible and obvious beneficiary of Sirisena’s ‘largesse’ (?). So, every time, he goes on the offensive, Rajapaksa would also be pushed back to the defensive.
As the presidential polls that he lost showed in 2015, Sri Lanka is more urbanised now than before the war, thanks to the ‘Rajapaksa Effect’. This means there are more voters who tend to take an urbane view of politics than earlier. This means, constitutional crisis could still carry some conviction with them than the Rajapaksa camp may be prepared for.
True, Sirisena has since reiterated what seems to have become a genetic hatred for Wickremesinghe. The latter might not have said as much, but those who want to remember do know that he was the one who started it all. In his case, it was more in the nature of congenital distrust of everyone, everything.
In the normal course, Sirisena’s defence of the self and offense of Wickremesinghe should have distanced Rajapaksa from the spat between the other two. But it need be the case anymore. The MS-MR bonding now could give the Rajapaksa game away – whether or not there was/is a game in the first place.
At the end of it all, Rajapaksa was the President that the nation wanted, and got, when the nation got him. But Rajapaksa the ‘Prime Minister’ (?) was not the one that the nation wanted, the way the nation wanted him, but the way he ended up being. It is not just a blot on his personality, it could well be a blot on his political career, and electoral strategy – more than all the heap of dirt that his adversaries have been dumping on him, almost since the day he became President, way back in 2005.
And Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa just cannot hope to dust it all away, and walk around as if nothing had happened in the first place. He will have to undergo a ‘self-purification ritual’ of the political kind if his electoral future has to be as hopeful as it was pre-PM days, and as bright as it was during his presidential innings!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)