Now that the nomination process for the 16 November presidential polls are behind the nation, at least one thing has become clear and sure. Whoever wins the polls, incumbent Maithripala Sirisena would not be there – unless of course, he sees reason to ‘impose’ emergency for reasons beyond the comprehension of the nation’s higher judiciary and Parliament put together. Given his own experience with both late last year, after he had triggered the uncanny ‘constitutional crises’ with disastrous consequences for the high office of the President and as much, if not more for the nation, political decency and propriety demands that Sirisena should not try to fool himself and the nation twice in as many years!
The Sirisena presidency will be remembered for good and bad things in national politics – more of the latter than the former. It will be remembered even more for the kind of illegitimate cohabitation that he lived in the company of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP – not in terms of constitutional provisions but in terms of political morality and probity in public life. For a die-in-the-wool SLFP ‘worker’ for 40 years and more (as he had wanted the people to remember him, while seeking their votes), he had no qualms crossing over, as any other parliamentary back-bencher did.
Yet, there are others who need to accept the guilt for forging an unholy alliance of the kind that UNP’s Wickremesinghe put together, with an ‘SLFP stooge’ in Sirisena in particular. The rest of the allies in the UNP-UNF for the presidential polls were the party’s fellow-travellers. Maybe, now is the time for the UNP to repent (whole-heartedly) and seek the nation’s pardon before seeking votes for party candidate Sajith Premadasa.
Given that Sirisena is not contesting, and the UNP is back in the presidential race for the first time after 2005, the leadership has a lot to explain to the cadre, and even more to the innocent voters, who had remained ignorant, too.
Smarter than the other
The problem with Sri Lankan polity, of whatever ethnic hue, is this. Every party and leader thinks and also believes that he is the smartest of them all. With defection being the order of the day, even an incumbent President has nothing much to worry about until the political Opposition of the day moves a no-trust move in Parliament. Then he or she is called upon to focus on organising defections, if possible, from the ruling party. Otherwise, who cares about the Government and governance!
Name each and everyone of them, CBK, Mahinda R, Ranil W, Sajith P and Gota R, each one of them thinks and acts, not for themselves, and not certainly for the nation, but only for the other. Given their stronger identification with the elitist ‘Colombo Seven’ crowd, it is in the UNP’s genes and the DNA of party leaders that they are born to rule. Unfortunately, each one of the party leader thinks that he alone, and not someone from the UNP, too, has the required qualifications and pedigree, experience and exposure.
‘After-me-the-deluge’ was thus Wickremeisnghe’s one-liner while deciding the party’s presidential and parliamentary candidates, and striking electoral alliance. So, if I cannot win the presidential poll, it is unworthy of my party to contest the same. It was the logic that ruled Wickrmesinghe in two successive presidential polls of 2010 and 2015, and ruined the party to that extent.
‘After-me-the-deluge’ was also the guiding principle for Sirisena when he offered himself as a candidate in 2005, defeated incumbent Mahinda R, and went on to rule a ‘motely crowd’ of ‘had-been’ leaders and parties. Look back at the alliance that Wickremesinghe put together for Sirisena in the presidential polls of 2015, and the picture would stand out even full five years down the line.
Family rule and….
It is this kind of attitude and approach of individual leaders and their parties that ends up creating the impression that ‘family rule’ of the Rajapaksa kind may after all have its own collateral benefits for the system, just as it also wrought collateral damage on the system. At least theirs is not a case of ‘after-me-the-deluge’, as the exit of one of them from the centre-stage of national politics and power-centre. The family, or grouping of whatever kind in its place, has reasons and causes to fight for another day.
On this score, Sirisena did not have that compulsion, as he did not see that he owed it at least to the SLFP where he still belongs. Wickremesinghe had all those compulsions, yet, he would not and did not think that he owed it to the UNP. It is not that unlike many other leaders of his generation, both within the UNP and outside, he was not capable of thinking that way. Both Sirisena and Wickremesinhe were and are among those who could think correctly for the nation – but act (only) for the person.
It is thus that when Gota R’s nomination became doubtful, the ‘Family’ could pull out older Chamal R from the closet, where he had himself confined himself, possibly repenting for all the wrongs of his brothers, when in power, 2005-15. Chamal R too owes it to the nation, how and why he presided over parliamentary proceedings as the Speaker, when it came to the unprincipled way the Rajapaksa Government sought and obtained the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.
Yet, if the Rajapaksas have hopes of returning to power, it owes to the much-touted ‘family cohesion’, where Mahinda’s son Namal R is already knocking at the doors, with certain legitimacy, which his paternal cousins seem to lack, at least just now. It remains to be seen, how the Gota presidency gets to work on this score, if and when he were elected President in the first place.
… ‘Family law’
It is here that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe’s mischief has left the nation with more of Rajapaksa options than already. Nowhere else in the democratic world has a law been brought in, to try and curtail the political growth of a bunch of family members that the Rajapaksas constitute in contemporary Sri Lanka. By cunningly smuggling in new conditions for presidential candidates alongside weak provisions for diluting (and not ending) the Executive Presidency, the duo committed what should be declared a ‘fraud on the Constitution’, worse than any other that previous Presidents had done, and more than what previous generations had suffered.
As may now be recalled to repent in leisure, the 19-A took away the 18-A provision of Mahinda R, to facilitate his own contesting a third time, after his two terms, 2005=15, though in both cases, he cut short the six-year term to five years, which has since become the 19-A norm. The rejection of 18-A provision under 19-A may be morally and legally justified, but the same cannot be said of other provisions of the kind.
The 19-A provisions on presidential candidates held that persons with ‘dual citizenship’ cannot become President. Fair enough and much needed under the Sri Lankan circumstances of all times, but the aim was not to set the past wrongs, right. It was to deny Gota Rajapaksa a chance to contest the presidential polls, five years hence. That was the music that Gota was singing around the courts in Colombo until last week-end.
Worse than the other two provisions is the one increasing the age-limit for presidential candidates, from 30 to 35 years of age. Again, a wise provision if it was not tainted by the fear of the duo to face even a Namal Rajapaksa, the youngest bloke in the Rajapaksa clan in politics at the time and since, five years hence. It was yet another politically dishonest move that had the blessings of Parliament, for right reasons and wrong.
Clearly, the duo worked together to try and have the Rajapaksas out of the field, working as they did on a negative politics, well into the future, when the nation and the rest were hoping that they would herald a new hope and change in the texture and colour of national politics, political governance, et al. Worse still, while seemingly working together at the time, they were actually working against each other for presidential polls, five years hence (that is, 2019, now).
The irony is that Fate and Fortune are now having the last laugh! Whoever is in the presidential fray now and whoever becomes President in mid-November, neither Sirisena, nor Wickremesinghe is there. It’s all about their love’s labour lost. Worse still, Sirisena can almost forget becoming Prime Minister. Mahinda R, as the SLPP president, has declared himself PM if Gota became President.
Though the likes of UNP’s Akhila Viraj Kariyawasam keep saying that Sajith Premadasa would continue with Wickremesinhe as Prime Minister if he was elected President, under the Sri Lankan scheme, the incumbent holds absolute freedom in such matters, though it is for the parliamentary group to decide otherwise. If nothing else, after having lived with the JRJ-Premadasa, Sr, years, within the UNP and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe spats through the past five years, even ardent UNP voters for generations would have their own doubts – if not, other preferences for voting.
Does it mean that the current social media campaign about ‘infighting within the Rajapaksa clan’, especially going down to the Namal generation, could help ‘balance off’ the Premadasa-Wickremesinghe spats of the continuing kind in the incumbent Government, for their party to win the presidency? Or, would fears of another five years of ‘high-level spats’ influence ‘non-committed voters’ especially, above and over the hang-overs from the Rajapaksa past of anti-democratic acts and undemocratic initiatives?
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Chennai Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org