Numbers do not stability make

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Through the tumultuous years since Elections-2015, the nation is learning a hard lesson. That parliamentary majority for the ruling party and leadership does not automatically translate as political stability in the traditional sense for them to touch, feel and take for granted. This raises the feared and unsaid question if the nation’s polity, especially of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist variety needs the LTTE gun of the pre-2009 kind on their temples to behave, otherwise, too?

The last government that functioned without fear of political instability was headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now Prime Minister. His maiden innings (2005-10) was mired by stability threats of the JVP kind, when the poll partner with 39 of 225 MPs walked out on the eve of a crucial Budget vote, that too when the smell of military victory over the LTTE was already pervading the air. He overcame such threats by getting the very JVP split, with party’s propaganda secretary, Wimal Weerawansa, now Industries Minister, walk out of the party with nine other MPs. Today, Weerawansa is among the thorn in the flesh of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, along with other alliance ministers.

On the defection front, Mahinda had begun well (?) by getting just the required 20 MPs from the traditional UNP rival to cross-over. He would not let other willing MPs from the UNP to cross over as it would have stripped the party of being the official Opposition. Worse still from the Rajapaksa camp’s perspective, the JVP ally would have got that honour and would have been tempted to walk out of the government earlier than it was expected to do.

Mahinda Rajapaksa did win a respectable victory in Elections-2010, but it was not as convincing as his leadership’s military victory over the LTTE only months earlier. Even his presidential re-election was as nail-baiting as the earlier one in 2005, when he scraped through, against then UNP boss, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Though the voters were ready to cheer him through, the Mahinda campaign was not ready to take on the surprise choice of war-time army chief, Gen Sarath Fonseka, now Field Marshal, as the candidate of the combined Opposition.

But in ensuring that Mahinda got a second term, the voter sent a stronger message to men-in-uniform, reiterating the traditional, customised role of the armed forces in a democracy, however popular it too may have been in the situation centred on the LTTE war victory. That has also ended since all talk of a ‘greater role’ for the armed forces, starting with celebrated veterans, in the nation’s well-honed civilian administration, however corrupt and inefficient it otherwise may be.

Government of National Unity and worse

The irony is that since 2015, the incumbent governments have had a parliamentary majority on paper. But with a difference. During 2015-19, the SLFP junior partner in the government, both led by then President Maithripala Sirisena, was in the government and the Opposition at the same time. A ginger group from within and identified with ex-President Mahinda, functioned as the unofficial Opposition.

The worse irony was that of R Sampanthan heading the TNA outside-underwriter of the government being designated as the Leader of the Opposition. Whenever the chips were down, constituents of the ruling combine, calling itself the ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU), would contest the claims of their colleagues from the Treasury Benches. Likewise, the TNA would talk only about the ethnic issue, whatever be the subject under discussion in Parliament, yet vote for the government.

It was thus a greater ‘fraud’ on the Constitution when the amended the statute to grant themselves the unproven, hence unacceptable title of GNU, the purpose of which was only to facilitate the addition of more ministers. Having achieved it through constitutional subterfuge, the leadership could not feel that they were on a stable ground ever. Worse still, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who at the time headed the decades-old mainstay political and ideological rivals in the country, indulged in shadow-boxing.

The duo’s rivalry became public knowledge before long, leading up to President Sirisena inducting Mahinda as PM, if only to have incumbent Wickremesinghe replaced in a palace coup. The Supreme Court came to Wickremesinghe’s help, and after that their respective constitutional powers co-existed without doing any good either to themselves or to the nation. So much so, the complete absence of communication between the nation’s top two led to a situation in which the post-LTTE disaster of Easter serial blasts happened in 2019, where the police investigators and judicial processes are still fixing the legal responsibility, if any, for political amorality.

What end, two-thirds majority?

On paper, both the Mahinda presidency and the Sirisena presidency both enjoyed the coveted two-thirds majority in Parliament, required for passing constitutional amendments, and they did get some amendments passed. Yes, the Wickremesinghe UNP coalition cheated on the nation, especially the Tamils of the North and the East on the promised new Constitution on what is euphemistically still called as 13-plus power devolution. But may be the Tamil dserved it after a point for insisting with the post-war Mahinda leadership that they would not participate in a new Constitution Assembly and all decisions had to be bilateral in nature, and yet went on to do precisely that when Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister.

Today, the Gota presidency also commands a two-thirds majority, which is not really a much- manufactured figure as Mahinda’s second term especially. It almost was there at the end of the 2020 parliamentary polls, with Muslim-centric SLMC and other rebels voting with the government without actually crossing over from parent parties. It is on this score that the Gota leadership has promised a new Constitution, but without taking the nation into confidence as yet on what proposals would roll out of the government-appointed drafting committee, promised before the year-end.

Be it as it may, the problem is that the government, despite the two-thirds comfort zone, does not seem to feel that it is actually in command. For months now, the senior-most junior partner of the Rajapaksas’ SLPP, namely the SLFP parent, with 14 MPs, has been playing hide and seek. They say that they continue to be a part of the government but everyone from party chief Sirisena and SLFP ministers, have been publicly criticising the government of which they are also a part.

Less said about allies like Udaya Gammanpilla, Vasudeva Nanayakara and Wimal Weerawansa, who despite being Cabinet Ministers heading important economic ministries, have moved the Supreme Court alongside the political Opposition and civil society critics of the government, seeking to throw out the controversial ‘New Fortress deal’ involving an American company. On the streets there are protests by every section of the society, to press their varied demands, happily defying whatever Covid-19 pandemic protocols on safe-distancing.

Unlike in the case of the GNU and closer to the Mahinda-II era, the Gota government is in full command of Parliament, as the Budget-2022 vote showed only weeks back. But neither does the leadership act as if it is in control of the situation, political, economic or otherwise, nor has it given that sense to the larger population.

If the common man gets the feeling that the government has failed him thanks also to such Quixotic ideas as hastily-imposed organic fertiliser controversy, which is acquiring the designs of a politico-economic scam, he may after all be right. Despite having the nation’s three tallest Rajapaksas, namely, President Gota, PM Mahinda and recently-inducted Finance Minister Basil, at the helm, this government most definitely seems to have lost a sense of direction, any direction. What remains thus is an unstoppable downward slide for the nation, with no hopeful brakes or hurdles even to slow down the slide and pace, leave alone stop it, if not reverse it.

Who then said that in a democracy, numbers and numbers alone matter. What Sri Lanka has been proving to itself and the rest of the world is that head-count, either in the number of MPs or vote-share can take leaderships to the foothills of governance. Climbing up is a masterly act, which the two or three governments cited did achieve in their time. But staying in place, firm and strong, is an entirely different game, where not everyone can qualify!

(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)