It was amusing to see Mr. Sampanthan of the TNA ascending to his full moral height in the Budget debate and making an impassioned oratorical appeal to Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, while sitting in (rising from) the seat that rightfully belongs to Mahinda and which Mr. Sampanthan has no moral (or arithmetical) right to occupy—that of the Leader of the Opposition. Mahinda was gentle, and gentlemanly enough, not to point that out.
I would like to see the TNA take a stand against the Northern Provincial Council’s Education Minister Sarveshwaran’s outrageous conduct. Dr. Sarveshwaran, Suresh Premachandran’s brother, refused to unfurl the Sri Lankan flag, saying he didn’t recognize it because it stood for the notion of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist state.
Now this being a democracy (unlike ‘Tamil Eelam’), he is entitled to his point of view and to fight for a modification of the flag, but this being a State with a written Constitution, he is not entitled to practise this view and hold office in a sub-state unit. It wouldn’t be tolerated even in a federal state, starting with India and Pakistan, leave alone a unitary state with devolved powers, specially a mere eight years after a Thirty Year War ended in a crushing victory for the State.
The Government must ask the Chief Minister to remove Sarveshwaran or must dissolve the Council if the Chief Minister refuses. If the Yahapalana government and its Governor fail to take action, then the voters should add that to the bill at the local government election and all future ones. Accountability is not only judicial and not only to Geneva; it is political and to the sovereign citizen-voters of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan armed forces didn’t make the colossal sacrifices it did, to have a Northern Minister of Education refuse to honor the Sri Lankan flag.
The obvious question arises as to what would happen, to what extent Tamil politicians would go, if the Northern and Eastern Provincial Council is conferred greater executive and legislative powers as UNP-TNA bloc seeks through a new Constitution. Ranging from Wigneswaran’s “Genocide” NPC resolution, right up to his appointee Sarveshwaran’s atrocious conduct, the evidence is incontrovertible and ample, that there should be no devolution beyond the 13th Amendment in this generation (while 13A must still stand structurally, for geopolitical reasons).
Furthermore, devolution of power over land should not be enhanced, and a moratorium should be imposed on the implementation of the grant of Police powers. The grant of such powers must be explicitly linked to a decade of moderate, constructive and responsible political behavior on the part of the Northern Provincial Council.
The correct liberal notion that the Tamil moderates should be strengthened undergoes surreal distortion in Yahapalana Sri Lanka. At its obvious level, the most moderate Tamil leader and politician around has long been Douglas Devananda, but no one talks of strengthening him. No matter, let us admit that the name of the game is to strengthen the moderates within the Tamil nationalist mainstream, and that means the TNA or its present leadership.
Where the craziness comes in is that nobody talks of similarly strengthening or even accommodating the moderates in the Sinhala nationalist mainstream. These moderates would obviously be the JO and its leaders, Mahinda, Dinesh et al. Who else could it be? The JVP with five seats? Then why not strengthen Douglas and the EPDP instead of Sampanthan, Sumanthiran and the TNA? If the logic is that Sampanthan heads the TNA which has the votes in the North, then the obvious counterpart would be Mahinda. Instead, Mahinda is deprived of the leadership of the Opposition and it is given to the TNA, while he, his family and supporters are legally targeted.
This absurd formula for reconciliation is based on the liberal prejudice that the Tamil nationalists are good guys and the Sinhala nationalists are villains; Sampanthan and Sumanthiran should be boosted, but Mahinda and Dinesh should be marginalized. One reason is that the Tamil nationalists have historically been allies of the UNP, the West and India, while the Sinhala nationalist mainstream and its moderate leaders are nobody’s stooges or class allies. The other is that Chandrika dominates North-South ‘reconciliation’ policy and regards the TNA as an ally while the Rajapaksas are seen as rivals for control of the SLFP.
The Bond Commission revelations of the intense, dense connectivity between ruling party MPs and the bond scammers prove how suicidal it would be to transfer, as envisaged by the UNP-TNA advocates of the new Constitution, executive power from the President to a Parliament full of venal MPs. Between the minority parties’ stranglehold and Diaspora-pumped LTTE black money, this country’s destiny would be determined by a remote-controlled Parliament.
The rise in Sinhala neo-nationalism is sourced in and a reaction to the Government’s policy triad of neoliberal economics of foreignization, Northern (and Geneva) appeasement and federalization, and the displacement, defrauding and partial disenfranchisement of the Southern Opposition.
Electoral Judgment Day is at hand. With the Local Government election results, ‘Dual Power’ could be born, the balance will shift, political space will reopen, and the real Opposition could ‘govern from below’ with the local authorities as ‘liberated base areas’. The dominoes will begin to fall. The stakes are quite high for the President. If the SLFP faction which is loyal to the incumbent loses badly, it will weaken him and that in turn will weaken the SLFP-MS, which will turn into a downward spiral, affecting and afflicting any chance of re-election.
President Sirisena’s popularity is perhaps significantly less than Mahinda’s but he is more popular than the PM, has rural roots, a reserve of public goodwill, and retains state power (as Mahinda does not), so it should have evened things up on the ground, at least at the SLFP’s base constituency. But it does not seem to be (yet) the case. Why so?
1. CBK has a sphere of influence in the SLFP (Official wing) and the Government, and she just hasn’t the sense to grasp the obvious: you cannot take on Mahinda Rajapaksa at the SLFP grassroots and hope to win.
2. Mahinda is thriving on anti-Government sentiment which is spiking because things are back to where they were under Ranil in 2001-2003, which swept MR to the candidacy and the leadership of the country. In 2015 Ranil started where he left off in 2003. MR has returned to his natural game of populist parliamentary and street politics whenever the UNP is in office, be it under JRJ, Premadasa or Ranil (in the CFA years). He is back on a time machine to 2003-2005. When no longer burdened by two-term incumbency, but as the footballer he is, playing against an unpopular, elitist UNP establishment past halftime, Peronist populist politics is a game in which Mahinda Rajapaksa has no peer.
That said, I’ve seen Sri Lankan leaders under worse pressure than President Sirisena currently is, extricate themselves by a ‘pivot’. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike pivoted to the left with unexpected balletic grace and invited the LSSP to join a coalition government in 1964, after she had felt threatened by a re-unified Left (1963), the 21 demands of the unified trade union movement, and the Borella by-election result.
In far worse and deadlier circumstances of civil war, newly elected President Ranasinghe Premadasa turned the tables on the JVP-IUSF-SLFP-MEP bloc by pivoting to an anti-IPKF position, thereby seizing the opposition’s patriotic banner while simultaneously stealing the main plank of its social platform by kicking off in the Deep South no less, an ambitious anti-poverty program, Janasaviya.
Does President Sirisena have the political will to do likewise before nominations open for local government elections? Can he pivot politically before the year ends? Will he?