President Ranil Wickremesinghe has to be praised for making a joke of a sad, personal loss. In Kandy and elsewhere, he has been telling those who want him to go home that he has no home to go. It was burnt down by arsonists in the name of the ‘Aragalaya’ protests on the evening of 9 July. The police has been able to make one arrest after another case with some certainty but not enough details are publicised likewise on those arrested for burning down the homes of 78 ‘ruling’ SLPP politicians weeks earlier, on 9 May, all across the Sinhala South. If this was not an organised crime, pre-determined in terms of the near-simultaneous timing and possibly based on detailed instructions on the number and name of participants and the material that they should possess at the time, nothing else could have been, in this decade after the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’.
Investigations into, and court-ordained punishment, if proved, for the perpetrators, even if it takes years, should send a strong message to aspiring insurgents, their political masters, their international plotters and in turn local co-conspirators. According to some media / social media reports, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, until recently Prime Minister, in an informal chat, with some Cabinet ministers that he knew about it all – and would let truth come out on its own, sooner than later. Thereby hangs another tale.
Yet, none of it would help the nation just now in ensuring – and also reassuring itself – that the worst is over, at least on the political front, and that from now on, people could hope for a safer and peaceful today for a better and predictable tomorrow. The way some have started talking about ‘Aragalaya 4.0’ and have fixed a 9 August deadline, just because of the coincidence with the two fateful days in the nation’s contemporary history, namely, 9 May and 9 July, there is apprehension that the worst may not yet be over.
The nation should thank the Opposition SJB for clarifying that they are not with party chairman Sarath Fonseka’s call for joining such planned protests, if any, on 9 August. If the party has also distanced itself, if not condemned the Field Marshal, for calling upon the armed forces not to cooperate with the government – ‘mutiny’ is the word in their dictionary – there has not been enough media coverage for the same. This one assumes importance as Fonseka has said so on more than one occasion in recent days.
Convincing nation & world
And to this all could be linked the fate and future of the all-party government that President Wickremesinghe wants to put together –- both to convince the people that the nation’s polity is at economic reconstruction together, and to tell past lenders to whom is owed $ 51 billion in ‘defaulted’ payment and to future backers that there is national consensus on all policy matters that this government signs up for. It is possibly in the absence of such common commitment that one government could go back on the thrift measures promised to international institutions like the IMF and undertaken by a predecessor.
It does not mean that a national government would ensure an IMF bail-out package for starters, followed by such other commitments by the West. India, which was the only nation to help out the distressed neighbour through the past months has also committed to support the IMF initiative. China has stopped with promising to support the nation in the IMF – without making any aid-commitments of its own, at least thus far.
Thereby hangs another tale, of an all-party government arriving at a consensus before the nation could make bold commitments of the kind that the IMF wants and the West especially would expect. It is one thing for a Rajapaksa-centric SLPP combine having a coalition government and Cabinet, and another for the kind of ‘government of national unity’ (GNU) that the Maithri-Ranil duo headed for close to five years (2015-19), where cohabitation was a disaster.
What the nation now requires and what Ranil is now attempting is yet another hotch-potch of the latter kind, for which there is not even the minimum pre-poll commitment. Today, despite it being the loner of a UNP President at the mercy of the one-time bete noire SLPP, there is some kind of a uniformity, understanding. These will be the casualty in an all-party government if constituents are going to join in, not because of conviction but because of pressure from within and/or without.
First and foremost, tough and at times controversial decisions could not be taken – or, even rejected -– without Cabinet positions on specific issues being ‘leaked’ to a favoured few in the media, to be twisted and turned at will as a package to the people, for them to resent – and also protest, if there are enough ‘drivers’. Two, at every turn, one partner or the other could threaten to pull out, if its demands on specific issues are not met. This is not to mention the political egos of parties and/or personal pride of individuals, most of whom that may not deserve it.
Third and foremost, the government would still function under the shadow of the Rajapaksas – especially, the Mahinda-Basil combo. Those that tried to stop Basil Rajapaksa from leaving the country through a court order – which he has not appealed against, at least thus far – may regret having done it to the man, who is a past-master still in splitting and re-uniting parties and partners, respectively. If nothing else, there would be constant complaints and grumblings about it all from the anti-Rajapaksa groups within the the all-party government and/or the national media.
Honourable way out
The immediate first hurdle in the matter could be a possible pre-condition from one or the other of the invited/intended partners in an all-party government for President Ranil to end the Emergency proclamation and stop arresting ‘innocent’ protestors from the Aragalaya days. Their parties, if not they as individuals, had all announced their decision to vote against Ranil in Parliament’s presidential vote, and a week later, on the Emergency resolution. They cannot undo the former, and could still want a honourable way out in the case of the latter.
It is good news that TNA leader Sampanthan has since announced their willingness to support the government. He has not clarified if they would join the government and accept ministerial positions. The chances are that they would not, but there definitely is increasing pressure from within. If it did not work out that way, it could also be because of the difficult in choosing Alliance nominees for ministerial berths, both of the Cabinet and State ministers’ ranks.
According to reports in a section of the Tamil media in particular, other Tamil parties like the SLMC, ACMC, both of the Muslim community, and also the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) of Upcountry Tamil parties under Mano Ganesan (who has since announced his exit as the leader of the combine, owing to internal squabble), are also expected to join the government. The CWC, having quit the Gota government, took bold to affirm its support for Ranil in the presidential vote.
The good thing about the minority parties is that once they decide to support a leader or a government, they stick to that decision until calamity struck again. That would take years, leading to a tendency for the President of the day and his party to take minor/minority allies for granted – for which the latter gets a huge hit from their committed constituencies. The TNA had 21 MPs a decade ago, but has only 10 now, all because of the leadership’s blind faith and consequent commitment, especially to the Ranil leadership.
That leaves the main SJB Opposition, which is obviously divided over the issue, as much on policy as personality. Party’s Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa will find it difficult now to work with Wickremesinghe, his one-time-boss-turned-bete noire. Nor would he want to work as a minister under Prime Minister Dinesh Gunarwardena, who obviously is the choice of the Rajapaksas, the official under-writers of the Ranil leadership.
This makes it all the more difficult for anyone in Sajith’s place not only for him, but also for the SJB as a party to join the government. Already, two ‘outsiders’ whom he had promoted, as if to spite Ranil when they were together in the parent UNP, namely, Fonseka and Pattali Champika Ranawaka, are singing different tunes.
Pattali may want to join the government, but the Rajapaksas may still have reservations for admitting Fonseka, as he might demand ministerial berths like Home and Internal Security. Even if Ranil could talk the Rajapaksas out of their reservations, it is unclear if Fonseka would play like a team-player. The last time he was a minister, it was under Ranil, who ended up dropping him, precisely for the same reason. That was when Ranil himself was fighting his battles with his President, Sirisena, who ended up sacking him – only for the Supreme Court to reverse his decision, end-2018.
Yet, there are those like more visible SJB leaders like Harsha de Silva, who prefer an all-party government. It would be cheap to attribute his support to the possibility of his being named Finance Minister, which President Ranil is now holding as an ‘additional burden’. Yes, it is a burden in the present circumstances, and Harsha knows he would be walking on a knife’s edge. If he still turned around the economy, or showed up early signs of such recovery, his stock and stars would go up.
In such a scenario, incumbent Ranil could well become a candidate in his own right for the presidential polls, due in 2024, whatever be the current perceptions about the electoral fate of the Rajapaksas. To the extent that he has more partners in government and more MPs in Parliament who do not swear by the Rajapaksas, that much more independent could President Ranil become – and also challenge Brothers Mahinda & Basil, if it came to that. But then, it would all depend on the cohesion that he can manage in an all-party government in which the SLPP would be one more partner, though the dominant partner, still!
(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: email@example.com)