WHAT NEXT?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Full 24 hours after the unprecedented mass protest that overthrew an elected but failed government in all of South Asia for the first time, there is no clarity on the next steps that require to ensure that Sri Lanka did not become a ‘failed State’, too. Multiple Opposition parties have been talking about an all-party government for weeks and months now, but at this moment of truth, they all are either cagey or withdrawn or both. And this seems to be the reason for the IMF to say that they are watching the unfolding scene and for the US, the sole super-power, to ask the Sri Lankan stake-holders to hurry up.

There are reasons for those concerns – however political and however politicised they may be otherwise. Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are ‘lame-ducks’, to borrow an American term, but unlike in the US during the long run-up to transition between presidential polls in November and Inauguration in January next, every four years, there is no name on the card. In the last 24 hours, no one has ventured out with any name, either for consideration or for cancellation. That’s not a good sign – not at the moment.

It is a chicken-and-egg situation as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has reportedly promised to quit once an all-party government took shape. Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeyawardena has said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would quit on 13 July. But there is no official confirmation from either.

Unlike the all-party meeting called by the Speaker even when public picnic of the President’s Secretariat and official residence were still on, on the afternoon of Saturday, 9 July, participants in that meeting are not known to have established formal contacts since, to decide on the next course. The impossibility of the evolving situation is borne out by the fact that even the usual post-poll drama of proposing and cancelling of names has not started yet.

Fait accompli, again

Today, it is the protesting public who have handed down a ‘fait accompli’ to the nation’s polity, particularly the Opposition that too was braying for the Rajapaksas’ blood. The latter failed themselves and the nation once earlier when the Galle Face Green beach-front protestors caused the exit of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on 9 May.

If Ranil could assume office as Prime Minister a couple of days later, on 12 May, it was also because the anti-Rajapaksa camp could not come up with a common name for the post, so as to pressure President Gota from within, to quit. They used their demand for Gota’s exit instead to stay away from forming a government.

There are two issues now. One, the choice of the next President. Two, the chosen person’s support in the current Parliament. At last count, the Rajapaksas had the numbers. It is not impossible that after the ‘mass struggle’, Aragaliya, many of the ruling SLPP parliamentarians may be willing to ‘defect’, to support a ‘new dawn’ government.

It is equally not impossible that the SLPP under the Rajapaksas offer support to such a government, as a matter of goodwill or penance or whatever. If not, if the SLPP parliamentarians were to stick together, whom they name will become President. In such a situation, Gota may reconsider his purported offer to quit. Forcing Ranil to resign may not make sense, more so for those who want him to quit along with Gota.

Of course, it’s a theoretical construct, but it can become practical if the anti-Rajapaksa camp(s) do not throw up a name acceptable not only to them all, but also to at least a section of the Rajapaksa MPs. The longer the time that the Rajapaksa-baiters take to go through the processes and are seen as doing the consultations, even if it may take a couple of days to a week, to finalise a name or names (for the two positions that are supposed to fall vacant), greater are the chances that they may falter along the route.

Staring at anarchy?

It is not to scare but the third alternative in such a situation is scary. There is no denying that there are elements (ideological or otherwise) among the protestors who are arsonists and anarchists in mindset. They were the ones who possibly set Ranil’s private house on fire after their demands had been met in principle by Saturday afternoon.

These anarchists were behind the coordinated ‘retaliatory’ arson-attacks on the residences and other property of a high number of 78 SLPP parliamentarians, including incumbent Gota and politician-members of his family, including two-time President Mahinda Rajpaaksa, on the evening of 9 May, hours after the latter had quit as Prime Minister and hours after the ‘Rajapaksa goons’ had manhandled peaceful protestors in capital, Colombo.

The spectre of violence has the potential to return if the political class begin playing around with the people’s sentiments all over again. For the record, and thus far at least, protestors who had occupied the presidential secretariat and residence, have decided to stay put until the Gota-Ranil duo quit. The message, though unintended just now, is also for the likes of SJB Opposition Leader, Sajith Premadasa, and the rest to hurry up, patch up and do whatever else is needed to announce a new government.

Operation Storm

There is no denying the fact that the uniformed services as much ‘protected’ the protestors as they were supposed to ‘protect’ the President and the rest. Like with Mahinda earlier, they whisked away Gota too before the protestors’ ‘operation storm’. They were also extra-careful not to open fire on the agitated protestors, who were angry at the entire system for failing them in their hour of hunger, which was a product of that system.

Any provoked or provocative action by the security forces could have caused multiple deaths, possibly running into hundreds if not more. That could have angered the people even more. Anarchist groups that were supposedly waiting on the wings to convert it into what possibly could be termed as the ‘third insurgency’ of the JVP kind or anti-state terrorism of the LTTE type, or a hybrid of both, could have taken over from then.

Either the military had to fight them in the name of the Sri Lankan State or yield space for the mostly peaceful protestors, to vent their pent-up ire against the Rajapaksas, the visible enemy, and the polity and political systems, not named in detail, as yet. The top brass chose the lesser evil, it would seem, and that has saved the day, for all of Sri Lanka and all Sri Lankans.

Thereby too hangs a tale!

(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)