Sirisena shift, Maithri-Mahinda moment?

Maithripala MahindaBy Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka 

Who was it who narrowed the gap between President Sirisena and ex-President Rajapaksa? Whose efforts were strong and effective enough to override the wishes of the external consortium that backed the peaceful ‘regime change’ of January 8th?  Was it the SLFP Establishment, i.e. its top bureaucrats and old warhorses? Was it Basil Rajapaksa? Was it the Buddhist Sangha? Or could it have been the Chinese?

Not really. It was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose political behavior in the short period in which he held office was so polarizing that President Sirisena felt the ground shifting beneath him and was forced to act to re-stabilize the situation.

Of course Ranil Wickremesinghe has done it before. Having won a parliamentary election in 2001, he acted in such an arrogant, anti-national and polarizing manner that an earlier SLFP President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, was pressurized by nationalist backlash and a centre-left patriotic bloc of the JVP and SLFP, to throw him out. 

Then it was Chandrika, this time it is Maithri. The latter hasn’t thrown him out but has grudgingly assented to a reunification of the SLFP as well as the broader anti-Ranil forces, and  signed off on the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the center stage of the SLFP, thereby virtually guaranteeing the defeat of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Not having learnt a lesson from the disastrous experience of 2001-2003, Ranil, heading an even more vulnerable (minority) government than on the previous occasion, moved far too fast, on far too many fronts and in entirely the wrong direction.  His conduct was accompanied on the external front by the outrageously pro-western policy of Minister of External Affairs, Mangala Samaraweera, and paralleled  on the Northern front by the TNA’s cocky MA Sumanthiran and the raucously adventurist Northern Provincial Council.

Instead of building consensus and adopting a cautious gradualist approach, as any sensible Conservative would and as befits a minority government, Ranil and his UNP went for “shock therapy” and the “big bang” with truly evangelical zeal (the pun is intended). This unholy alliance and its adventurism were cheered on from the sidelines by a chorus of Colombo’s cosmopolitan civil society—a stratum that is so deracinated, so “high on its own supply”, that it cannot feel the rumble or hear the sounds of a huge nationalist-populist mass movement beneath its feet.

One result of Ranil’s ‘good governance’ was downright bad economic governance—the bond scam, stagnation on the economic development front, a downturn of the local currency and a shedding of jobs. The other outcome was a patriotic-nationalist backlash. The Mahinda revivalist movement sprang from and fed into the confluence of these two currents. Matters were sharpened by the witch-hunt of SLFPers and former officials, by the newly established police agencies. This came on top of the shift in Sinhala opinion.

Mahinda Rajapaksa himself operated cannily in the narrow political space available to him after he had given the SLFP over to President Sirisena. He stayed off the political grid –leaving that to the Quartet or rather, the Four plus One, of Dinesh, Wimal, Vasu and Udaya, plus Dulles. Meanwhile Mahinda Rajapaksa himself operated in the non-party political space, on the socio-cultural grid: the temple network. This was possible because of the rising tide of Sinhala Buddhist sentiment.

Thus President Sirisena felt the shift in public opinion among those he ruled and had sprung from: the popular masses of the Sinhala heartland. More: he felt the ground shift within his own party, the SLFP. He is now moving to recover that ground, but to do so he has to share it with its principal occupant, Mahinda Rajapaksa. In so doing has he betrayed the mandate of January 8th? That rather depends on what you think that mandate was, what you think of it—was it good or bad?– and whether or not you think it should have been fulfilled in totality.

I would argue that the progressive aspect of the mandate of January 8th was fulfilled with the passage of the 19th amendment in its  final, moderate form—the form the UNP is on the record as defining as inadequate and as a halfway house to complete abolition of the executive Presidential system.

One may ask what of that part of the mandate that was for post-war political reconciliation between North and South? No ethnic reconciliation is possible unless it has the broad support of the Sinhala majority. It cannot proceed under the administration of a leader such as Ranil who is heavily mistrusted by the majority as pandering to minoritarianism. This is one of the lessons of 2001-2003. Therefore a sustainable political reconciliation between South and North requires as a prerequisite, a political reconciliation between the two tendencies of Sinhala patriotism as exemplified by the two wings of the SLFP: the liberal democraticreformist as represented by President Sirisena and the populist-nationalist as represented by ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

From the viewpoint of systemic stability, it is eminently sensible that President Sirisena prefers ex-President Rajapaksa’s independent mass movement, with its radical populist and nationalist ideology and consciousness, “on the inside pissing out than on the outside pissing in” (as US President Lyndon Johnson so famously put it about an opponent he had chosen to accommodate). Maithripala Sirisena has just channeled a rising nationalist revolution from below, into the safer reservoir of reformist SLFP politics, just as SWRD Bandaranike channeled a social revolution from below, namely the ‘Hartal’ of August 1953, into the safer, calmer waters of left-of-centre parliamentary politics.

Also from a systemic point of view, it is eminently sensible that President Sirisena takes his distance from Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who was pulling too far to the right, in his domestic, ethnic and external policies. This partial de-linking from Ranil and the hesitant re-incorporation of Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only way in which President Sirisena can re-balance the equation and get back to the most vital real estate: the middle ground. By the strategic move of accommodating Mahinda Rajapaksa and reunifying the SLFP instead of losing most of it, President Sirisena has made himself more popular in the country’s heartland; not less so. He has broadened his base.

The Gaullist Presidency of 1978 is eminently suited for the purpose of power balancing; indeed it needs to constantly balance in order to rise above the fray. By his new move, President Sirisena shows that he understands this. 

What then of another ex-President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga? She was an “accidental President” who won massively in 1994 simply because her UNP rival, the dynamic Gamini Dissanaike was blown up by a Tiger suicide bomber and she ran against his widow. She won again in 1999 because she faced Ranil Wickremesinghe rather than Karu Jayasuriya.  CBK played a deft hand by nudging Ranil Wickremesinghe out of the presidential candidacy and coaxing Maithripala Sirisena into the fray as common candidate. She failed since, because she lacks concentration and because of her own ideological confusion and political fickleness (reinforced by politically ignorant advisors).

She should have kept Ranil on a tight leash, but did not do so. Instead she played Ranil’s game by trying to keep President Sirisena on a tight leash. She also went out on a limb on the ethnic issue, publicly commending a federal constitution. Instead of balancing off Ranil, she took the most popular political personality in the country—indeed the single most loved person in the country—Mahinda Rajapaksa, head on. Thereby she evaporated her own potential appeal, and by so doing, reduced her own utility to and claims on Maithripala Sirisena. In short she became at least as much a liability as an asset to him among the SLFP rank and file and the Sinhala Buddhist masses.

CBK could have represented the liberal current of the SLFP, while Mahinda represented the populist and Maithripala the centrist, but she chose instead to position herself as the UNP within the SLFP. In the final round she has been seen to be obstructive towards and destructive of SLFP unity while Maithri and Mahinda have been seen to be willing to make compromises and sacrifices for the sake of party unity—and implicitly, the unity of the party’s Sinhala social base.

Maithripala Sirisena represents the Jan 8th movement of reform from above, while Mahinda is buoyed by the Feb 18th movement (from Nugegoda to Matara) of populist-nationalism from below.  Notwithstanding its bristling contradictions, the Maithri-Mahinda détente has caused these two movements and moments to intersect. 

Ranil has been beaten twice by center-left SLFP candidates: CBK in 1999 and Mahinda in 2005. Put differently, every time Ranil faced center-left SLFP personalities he lost, and whenever the UNP fielded him against such personalities, the UNP lost and the SLFP won. He is unlikely to be third time lucky. Ranil fought Mahinda once in 2005 and lost and avoided him twice in 2010 and 2015. Now he is back in the ring with Mahinda, with no place to hide.

The Mahinda of 2015 is not the Mahinda of 2005 who beat Ranil. He has grown to be the leader who beat Velupillai Prabhakaran, reunified the country and went on to modernize the foundation of Sri Lanka’s economy. He is a much bigger figure—a “history making” man–than he was a decade ago. 

This time around the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration was and is a minority government in several senses and dimensions. It not only had no majority in parliament, it is perceived as a government by the minorities, for the minorities and of the minorities. The ideological subtext of the slogan “Bring Back Mahinda” was “Let’s Take Back Our Country”/“We Want Our Country Back”. The UNP is bound to be overthrown at this election, which is already shaped up as the successor to the Silent Revolutions of 1956 and 1970. President Sirisena sees this coming. Why else would he shift to a policy of rapprochement with Mahinda Rajapaksa and his mass movement? President Sirisena has been very prudent, indeed quite canny, to step nimbly out of the way, and position himself on the safe side of a social tectonic shift and an electoral tsunami that is less than six weeks away. As in 1956 that tsunami will sweep away a social elite and its project.

The geopolitics of the electoral map of January 8th already showed the bedrock strength of Rajapaksa and the potential for the defeat of the UNP. Now, at the time of nominations, Ranil has already walked the UNP into an electoral Nandikadal; a ‘killing box’. It can recover from the inevitable electoral carnage only if, on the morning after August 18th it does what it should have done some years ago—install a populist leader.

I recall with no little amusement the definitive relegation of Mahinda Rajapaksa to a ‘marginal cult figure of Sinhala ultra-nationalism’—at best a third force, behind the UNP and the official SLFP; desperately pining for but incapable of being a serious contender once more. These pseudo-intellectual observers and commentators forgot the single most important factor in politics: the masses of people; the vast multitude. “Politics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions, that is where serious politics begin remarked Lenin sagaciously (March 1918). Across the island’s heartland where millions live, the masses have carried Mahinda back to the center stage of politics. What a comeback it has been, in just six months!