When Ranil is here, can Basil be far behind?

N Sathiya Moorthy

Two in a row, and it now seems national politics and parliamentary proceedings may be in for ‘rejuvenation’ (?), which has missed the economy and public life. Or, so it seems. One of course is former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who with his delayed re-entry on 22 June has reasserted his position as the senior-most member of the House.

The other is also a story of the return of the native – ruling SLPP national organiser,Basil Rajapaksa. If media reports are to be believed and he enters Parliament on 6 July, give or take a few days to weeks, this will only be his second term, after the first one, 2010-15. According to reports, President-brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa is toying with the idea of making Basil a minister, too, possibly in charge of economic development.

Under another brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Bail was in charge of the same portfolio. Critics often refer to how under various heads, much of the budgetary funds ended up in Basil’s ministries. But they forget his methodical operation, which most political leaders and bureaucrats lack. This trait of Basil was in full display in the post-war rehabilitation phase, when by 12 noon, all reports on the previous day’s work across the affected areas and plans for the day had to land at his table – for his team to assess them and pass further orders, keeping the President’s office and the line ministries in the loop all the time.

Bone of contention, but…

Still, there may be a catch – or, so has a section of the media flagged constitutional concerns. But such concerns have been pooh-poohed by none other than Elections Commission Chairman Nimal Punchihewa, an attorney-at-law by qualification. Should someone still challenge it legally, then it would be for the Supreme Court to decide on the merit of Basil’s appointment – be it as an MP or as a minister, which right flows only from the former.

The argument against Basil’s parliamentary nomination is based on the fact that even under the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, brought about after the Rajapaksas’ return to power in end-2019, Basil cannot be nominated to the National List. This has nothing to do with his US citizenship, which is not the bone of contention just now.

Accordingly, it is said, for a National List nomination, the candidate’s name should be on the one submitted by the party concerned to the Election Commission. Basil’s name was not there, either in the SLPP’s National List or any of the district-level lists. This means that not only is it enough for a sitting National List member resigns his seat to make way for Basil, but each and every one in the SLPP National List and district-level lists also have to separately give it in writing to the EC that they were not in the race.

The SLPP then would have to submit a fresh list to the EC, where Basil’s name could be on the top. The alternative would be for an existing ally of the SLPP to make its NL members to surrender their claims before the EC, and help Basil enter Parliament that way. Yet, it may be politically amoral and legally untenable for the founder of one party to enter Parliament through another political party – or, that’s the argument.

However, according to EC chief Punchihewa, the Parliamentary Election Act does not hold any bar. Media reports quoting him have said that political parties can nominate anyone of their choice, and there have been enough precedents for the same. As pointed out, Basil Rajapaksa’s previous nomination as a National List MP was also on similar lines.

The question still arises, even if there are precedents, it they are bad in law, does a bad precedent make it legitimate. It is a question that would have to be agitated before courts, and not through media reports. In the current case, how far will the courts be inclined to accept the EC’s views on the subject is again a matter of contention. And the commission boss also obviously knows about it.

Thereby hangs a tale, also because the SLPP’s relations with its alliance is no more what it used to be through the ten years of Mahinda regime, and their days together in the Opposition, 2015-19. In fact, an SLPP leader even sought the PHU ally leader Udaya Gammanpilla’s exit as Energy Minister, blaming him alone for the recent petrol-diesel price-hike.  In a way, it is the SJB Opposition’s decision to move a no-trust motion against Gammanpilla that is expected to bring the SLPP and allies together, even if temporarily, than any mechanism within the ruling combine.

Dubious and the obvious

It is in this background former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s re-entry into Parliament may have created legislative history the world over. The UNP that he still leads taking such a long time to fill the lone constitutional gift of a National List seat, made it a political mockery, in a way.

Dubious as this record may be, yet, Wickremesinghe holds an obviously real record in the nation’s parliamentary history. With Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena swearing him in as an MP, he now holds the honour of being the only one to have been a member in every Parliament under the Second Republican Constitution, 1978. Rather, he was a member even a year earlier.

That is to say a lot for Wickremesinghe’s legislative experience, from which both younger and relatively older members have a lot to learn. During this four-decade long service, he was Prime Minister thrice – namely, 1993-94, 2001-04 and 2015-19, and as Leader of the Opposition twice, from 1994-2001 and from 2004-2015.

In this, add a fourth term as prime minister, when his own chosen President, Maithripala Sirisena committed what the Supreme Court held tantamount to a ‘fraud on the Constitution’, for a brief period, through the closing months of 2018.  By the same token, the intervening period saw him serve a third term as Leader of the Opposition, with no effective Parliament in operation.

This also shows up for the irony that the man is, and the irony that he made the nation’s oldest party, namely, the UNP, to be. His real terms as the Opposition Leader, 1994-2001 and 2005-15, were much longer than his time as prime minister. That is saying a lot for his political leadership, party management and electoral charisma – or, absence of the same. Clearly, something was rotten in the State of Denmark (no, no, not Sri Lanka!).

Yet, there is no denying Wickremesinghe’s inherent sense of purpose and deep-seated thinking. In his case, all his qualities  of the mind and brain, as different from the heart, ended up making him as the nation’s most cunning politician, whom no one wanted to trust – including the voter, friends and allies alike. This is what has made his position more untenable than it otherwise could have been.

It is also this mind and mindset, many strategic analysts say, was behind the later-day war victory, for which the entire credit later went to Rajapaksas, now back in power after a break. According to them, it was Ranil’s tactics of breaking the Karuna faction away from Prabhakaran’s leadership during the Norway-facilitated ceasefire and peace process that led to the LTTE’s final rout.

Some even attribute his desire to claim all the glory for the peace process for himself, keeping Executive President Chandrika away Kumaratunga away and aloof that made it possible for the Rajapaksas to crown the glory. Incidentally, that’s the only instance under the Second Republican Constitution, when the prime minister actually defied the President.

Even the LTTE-slain Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa defied his President, J R Jayawardene, on the Indo-Lanka Accord, 1987, only up to a point. Premadasa and his cohorts opposed the India-facilitated peace process at the time and even boycotted the Parliament session that passed 13-A.

But Premadasa did not take the President’s Executive powers into his hands, as Wickremesinghe did later vis a vis CBK. That was when CBK as President publicly complained that she did not even know what was happening on the peace front, leaving aside the fact that those decisions were technically being taken in her name and under her seal.

Jittery, not shaky

With some help from some breakaway SJB members, as also the unsaid blessings of the ruling SLPP leadership, a section of the media began claiming that Wickremesinghe would break the breakaway SJB, to claim the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ status for himself, as if on day one of his entering Parliament after a year-long hiatus. It is not only that the heavens did not fall with Ranil’s arrival. There is also nothing to predict that such a thing would happen in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, it is the ruling SLPP combine that is feeling a little jittery, though not outright shaky.

Yet, it is not that every SJB member continues to be loyal to the Sajith Premadasa, party founder and Leader of the Opposition in the House. But even for Wickremesinghe as a leader and the rival SLPP leadership as his brains trust, it is a very tall order. If they still made it, that can only bring down Wickremesinghe’s public esteem and the SLPP’s standing in its own constituency. Anyway, no media person seems to have asked Ranil as to what he thought about it all, in the first place.

Yet, with two new and important faces in Parliament, or their very names by itself has electrified the atmosphere, at least as much as is possible under Covid conditions. With also come the twin-controversies. One is about SJB’s internal politics and equations. The other, the more important one is about SLPP’s internal politics and equations, where speculation about issues and egos within the Rajapaksa clan refuses to die away – despite half-hearted denials by the ruling party, if not the family itself.

As if all this is not enough, a Buddhist monk once close to the Rajapaksas when they were in the Opposition is reportedly look ahead, for Mahinda and Ranil to work together, in the common good of the nation. It is speculative, yes, but why such a cooperation did not happen earlier, or between Ranil and President Chandrika Kumaratunga before that is the question that needs pondering about, even more.

‘Ancestral home’ and more

Now that Ranil is back in the House, his UNP has since extended a public invitation for SJB’s Premadasa to return to his ‘ancestral home’. It is highly doubtful if Premadasa would honour the invitation, or would be allowed by his SJB colleagues to do so.

Nor can he be seen as ditching them. Such a course would not also be able to serve his own purpose as the residual UNP is still in the hands of Wickremesinghe. Both should also learn to work with each other all over again, so should be the respective camps. That is not an easy job. According to reports, Sajith has since met with former Parliament Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, who used to be his political partner in repeated rebellions against Ranil’s UNP leadership.

For now already, and independent of the UNP invitation for Premadasa, fellow SJB leader Patali Champika Ranawaka, once heading the centre-right Buddhist clergy party JHU, has openly stated his desire/intention/willingness to lent ‘leadership’. He was known to have an eye on the SJB’s presidential nomination, which stuck with Sajith Premadasa.

Now Champika seems wanting to float a third front. He has begun referring to a ‘43rd Brigade’, or a new outfit to which he has also invited disenchanted minister Gammanpilla’s PHU to join. Incidentally, Gammanpilla used to be the trusted and more popular deputy of Champika in the latter-led JHU. They parted company towards the last weeks of the Mahinda presidency ahead of the 2015 elections, with Gammanpilla floating the breakaway PHU and staying back with the Rajapaksas.

Alongside in the SLPP camp now, a substantial number of youthful back-benchers have reportedly met to promote the cause of Basil’s re-entry – rather, their appeal for him to return to Parliament, supposedly uninfluenced by any of the Rajapaksas. News reports have also spoken about President Gotabaya telling his friends that neither he, nor his Prime Minister brother Mahinda was opposed to Basil’s return – and that he was the first to invite Basil back.

A clearer picture is expected to emerge when Basil R completes his period of self-quarantine this week, after his month-long stay in the US. That is also when President Gota’s promise of a peaceful Rajapaksa clan may come under stress – or, display its inherent strength and cohesion!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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