(This is the second and final part of an article published in the "Dailymirror" of July 18th 2015 under the heading “Bring back, Oh Bring Back, Bring Back Mahinda to “Temple Trees”)
The Nugegoda Rally demanding the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa to politics was the opening gambit in a planned series of political chess moves by the “bring back Mahinda” movement. It was a political experiment! The organizers had carefully selected the location. They did not dare to hold it within Colombo city regarded as the citadel of the United National Party (UNP) and chose to stage it elsewhere but within the Colombo district for demonstrative effect.The venue was on the outskirts of Colombo in proximity to the Colombo district Sinhala majority electoral divisions of Maharagama, Kotte, Homagama and Kottawa where there was greater support for Mahinda Rajapaksa as opposed to the multi-ethnic Colombo city electoral divisions.
What was sought to be accomplished by the Nugegoda rally was a two-fold test. The first objective was to gauge the public mood and see whether the ground conditions were suitable to begin sowing the seeds of the campaign demanding Mahinda’s re-entry to active politics. The second was to assess the political pulse of President Sirisena in his new transfiguration as Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) leader and see how he responded to the challenge posed.
In keeping with the Indo-Sri Lankan practice of “Contrived crowds” where crowds for meetings are brought by organizers, bus loads of supporters were transported to the venue to make up a large crowd at the Nugegoda rally. Since the meeting was the first of its kind after Mahinda’s political defeat on January 8th, the organizers could not rely upon people attending on their own volition alone. A poor crowd at the preliminary rally would have been a political disaster.So thousands of people were brought to the venue. But what exhilarated the Mahinda movement organizers was the unexpectedly large voluntary turn out. The “contrived” crowd was outnumbered by the people who came on their own. The organizers exaggerated the numbers as being in the range of six figures. That was not so! The attendance was in five digits.This by itself was quite impressive and sufficient to cause shock waves in the anti – Mahinda camp.
The second part of the test was about President Sirisena’s reaction.As stated in these columns earlier the Machiavelli of Medamulana had closed one front and opened another. Mahinda had ceded the leadership of the SLFP to Maithripala without resistance and seemingly embarked upon a life of political retirement and religious contemplation. It was very necessary for the defeated ex-president to project an image of being disinterested in political office and politics. While this optical exercise was maintained at one level, a second front was opened on another to mobilise public opinion in support of a Rajapaksa re-entry into politics. Rajapaksa should not be perceived as hankering after political office so soon after the Presidential debacle. He had to be seen as a retired statesman being re –drawn into politics reluctantly due to popular demand.
The Lion of the Ruhunu
This was initially done by arranging for people from all parts of the country to visit the “Lion of the Ruhunu” in his traditional dens at Medamulana and Tangalle. The trips were subsidized and free but the people concerned made the choice freely to avail themselves of an opportunity to travel down south and return home. No one was forced to make the trip. People decided for themselves.What must not be lost sight of is the fact that most people who did undertake such “pilgrimages” to see their fallen hero were from the lower economic strata in rural areas. Even the election results showed that Mahinda retained much support within this segment of Sri Lankan society. The feelings displayed by these rural sections visiting Mahinda were rustically genuine in contrast to the sophisticated hypocrisy of the urban upper classes.When the visitors returned home the feedback generated was positively in favour of “Apey Mahinda”.
While these regular visits certainly boosted Mahinda’s sagging morale they did not serve him well in a larger political sense. Busloads of people journeying to “kurakkan country” to visit their ex – president were not enough to capture the national imagination or iinternational attention. Excursions to Hambantota are of little consequence in the broader canvas that is Sri Lanka. Hence the second front had to be broadened. Since the reins of the SLFP were no more in the hands of Rajapaksa “officially”, the elements favourable to Mahinda within the United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA) were activated. The political quartet of Dinesh, Vasu,Wimal and Udaya began singing”Bring back Mahinda to Temple Trees”. The Mahinda movement was launched without the overt involvement of the SLFP.
There is a school of thought which opines that Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to re-enter active politics due to the members of the above quartet because they saw no political future for themselves without Mahinda. Therefore they launched a campaign to bring back Mahinda and rise up along with him.It is correct to assume that Gunewardena, Nanayakkara,Weerawansa and Gammanpila would face bleak prospects in a political future without Mahinda Rajapaksa , but it would be incorrect to state that an unwilling ex – president was being pressurised to re-enter politics by these four Mahindaphiles. Those who know Mahinda well realise that he could never be pressurised in this manner. Also none of the four leading figures advocating a return of Rajapaksa would have dared to to do so without Mahinda giving the greenlight.The orchestrated “pressure” campaign to make a re-entry was something which the Medamulana Machiavelli has masterminded himself. Other world leaders have threatened to quit office and then relented in deference to “spontaneous” demonstrations organized by supporters. In Mahinda’s case the defeated president was creating an illusion that there was a spontaneous public demand for him to make a political comeback. There is a large constituency in Sri Lanka that wants a return of Rajapaksa to power. What this Bring back Mahinda movement did was to articulate this demand in an organized manner within a few weeks of the Presidential election.
It is against this backdrop that the UPFA sponsored rally was held at Nugegoda.It was a success from the point of view of the organizers. A very large crowd both contrived and voluntary had converged at the venue. More importantly a large number of SLFP parliamentarians , provincial councillors and local authority representatives attended the event without mounting the stage. The defiance displayed by these MP’s and councillors from the SLFP was a direct affront to the new party leader Maithripala. This was the acid test for the president. How would he react?Would he sting like a bee and show who the boss was?
President Sirisena did not sting like a bee! If at all he did sting, it was like a butterfly. Empty warnings and feeble threats were issued. None of which was taken seriously. No punitive action followed. Sirisena was perceived as a weak leader. The Mahinda movement tasted blood. A series of demonstrations followed at regular intervals in places like Kandy, Ratnapura, Matara, Kurunegala etc. The participation of SLFP parliamentarians and councillors increased in numbers. Some even took to the stage.Later the “iron butterfly” Hirunika Premachandra was to observe that had President Sirisena cracked down hard on SLFP elements in the aftermath of the Nugegoda rally, the other rallies may not have occurred. That however did not happen as President Sirisena was found wanting. Instead of fizzling out the “Bring back Mahinda” movement continued to dazzle.
Mao Ze Dong
The Chinese communist leader Mao Ze Dong who was hailed as the “Great Helmsman “ by his followers gave a series of speeches at the Yenan Association for the Study of the War of Resistance Against Japan from May 26th to June 3rd 1938. Mao called for a protracted peoples war during the course of those lectures and outlined a theory with three distinct stages for revolutionary success: the strategic defensive, the strategic stalemate, and the strategic offensive. “During the first defensive stage, numerous guerrilla offensive actions at the tactical level seek to wear down, by ambush or battle, the forces of the enemy. The second stage, stalemate, is characterized by attrition forced on the adversary’s moral and material strength. - The third and final stage of the campaign is a coordinated strategic offensive designed to annihilate his adversary in a series of decisive battles”. The strategy enunciated by Mao was within the parameters of protracted guerilla warfare. It was however possible to apply the essence of that strategy in the sphere of democratic politics too. I know I may be stretching things a bit too far here, but to me, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign to make a political comeback appears to reflect a slight mixture of principles articulated by Mao Ze Dong. In that context the series of rallies calling for Mahinda’s return could be likened to defensive battles of the strategic first phase. Victories were notched in the form of public attendance and participation by frontline SLFP leaders. The movement to bring back Mahinda began gathering political momentum.
The tactic of raising the demand for Rajapaksa’s return by non – SLFP leaders of the UPFA sustained the illusion of the SLFP being under the total control of Maithripala Sirisena. It was as if the SLFP frontliners marking attendance at pro-Mahinda rallies were doing so in their individual capacities.The party as an entity was not supportive of such a stance. After all, was not Maithripala Sirisena the accredited leader of the SLFP? The reality however was different. There were certainly sections in the party who were hostile to Mahinda and amenable to Sirisena but the bulk of the MP’s, councillors, local authority heads,office –bearers of party organizations and branches, financial backers, propagandists and above all members at the grass root level were supportive of Rajapaksa. These included two key figures namely the secretary of the SLFP, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and UPFA secretary Susil Premajayantha.Opposition leader Nimal Siripala de Silva was an enigma. He was trusted by neither side.
President Sirisena had acquired the nominal leadership of the SLFP but real power was still in the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa who was quite content to let Maithripala lull himself into the false belief of being the undisputed SLFP leader. Sirisena’s political blunder of taking over the leadership of the party that had fought against him fiercely at the presidential polls began causing fissures within the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe Government.Sirisena however was hopeful that he would be able to oust Mahinda permanently from politics and establish full control over the party. This belief was bolstered by the “dead rope” given to Maithripala by senior SLFP leaders who were engaged in acts of political deception for their own reasons.
Three schools of thought
The SLFP itself now could be categorised broadly into three schools of thought. One category was strongly supportive of Mahinda Rajapaksa and opined that notwithstanding his flaws the ex – president was the only personality capable of mobilising votes for the party. Another category was opposed to Rajapaksa and had thrown in its lot with Sirisena. Still, many in this category were uncomfortable about aligning with the UNP. The third category was undecided and wavering. Some in this third category were like cats on the wall prepared to jump to whichever side considered to be more beneficial. Others were firmly loyal to the party only and were ready to support the acknowledged leadership of the SLFP.
Another foible – if one may call it that - in President Sirisena was his self – perception of being a great statesman. Being a liberal democrat by temperament and attitude, Sirisena felt that he could achieve many things through dialogue and discussion. Former President Ranasinghe Premadasa used to describe his political approach as the “3 C’s” namely “Consultation, Compromise and Consensus. Despite paying lip service to the consultation, compromise and consensus formula, the headstrong Premadasa seldom practised this sincerely. Realpolitik decreed otherwise. But President Sirisena sincerely thought he could govern by consensus or more particularly bi-partisan consensus. Since the SLFP was the largest party in Parliament, he needed to exert greater influence over it, as leader to achieve that elusive consensus.
The mistaken notion that he was the supreme leader of the SLFP compelled Sirisena to protect the party and preserve his leadership. It was also necessary to increase SLFP representation in the government to counterbalance the UNP. When the “Yahapalanaya”govt was formed there were only a handful of SLFP’ers with Maithripala. Now he thought he had the entire party under him. He naively believed that the party would be loyal to him after he became the accredited leader.So more posts had to be given to the SLFP as rewards to guarantee support and ensure loyalty.What Sirisena failed to recognize at that juncture was that some of those SLFP’ers who joined the govt had the underhand motive of sabotaging his relations with the UNP and Chandrika Kumaratunga.
As a result of accommodating more SLFP members in the government, the initial pledge of a small sized cabinet was flouted. What was even worse was the need to cushion party members from being penalised for alleged offences of omission and commission when in power. If consensus was to be reached, the cooperation of the party was essential. Logically party members could not be expected to cooperate at one level when legal action was being pursued against them on another level. Besides donning the leadership mantle of the party meant Maithripala Sirisena had to watch the interests of the party.
What many tend to ignore is the fact that Maithripala Sirisena was part and parcel of the Mahinda led Govt and SLFP until he crossed over in November last year. It could be argued therefore that Sirisena had a vested interest in safeguarding most members of the Rajapaksa regime even in a changed equation.
There was also the duty of separating the non – corrupt from the corrupt among party loyalists and winning them over to his way of thinking.
This led to a pronounced lethargy in the “yahapalanaya” government’s avowed objective of cracking down on those who had abused or misused power. This lack of speed won more time for Mahinda. His tactic of trading space for time had succeeded to some extent. Nevertheless it was necessary to proceed from the strategic defensive phase to the next stage of stalemate. If “defensive operations” were in the form of defiant demonstrations held earlier, the stalemating process was attempted through Parliament itself.
The SLFP/UPFA had the majority in parliament and the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe regime was a minority Govt. The important point of who retains majority support in the house was emphatically illustrated.Notice of no confidence motions against two ministers and the Prime Minister were given on separate occasions. A finance ministry bill was defeated. The COPE report on the alleged Treasury bond scam was presented without the participation of some members. Above all, in a disgusting violation of Parliamentary decorum over a hundred MP’s stayed overnight in the house where they wined,dined, played cards, sang songs and gossiped as part of a political protest.Never had the dignity of Parliament been so denigrated.
At another level the SLFP/UPFA parliamentarians also managed to dilute provisions of the draft 19th Constitutional amendment. President Sirisena prided himself on getting the amendment passed via bi-partisan consensus. Many hailed Sirisena as a remarkable leader who governed by consensus. There is indeed some truth to this and Maithripala was entitled to that praise. The important question however was at what cost? How much was compromised to achieve consensus? In this regard one is reminded of the boasts made by Wimal Weerawansa after the 19th amendment was passed. Weerawansa claimed that they had turned a lethal “naya”(cobra) into a harmless “garandiya”(rat snake) meaning the original “bite”envisaged in the 19th amendment draft had been whittled down. Though the 19th amendment had many positive and progressive features the process of getting it passed with SLFP support showed the numerical clout retained by that party in Parliament. Equilibrium in Parliament could be maintained only if the SLFP/UPFA restrained itself by not exercising its majority against the govt. Such restraint had its price.Sirisena was president and Wickremesinghe Prime minister but the whip hand in Parliament was held by another.Parliament was virtually stalemated.
Moves were now on to pass the 20th Constitutional amendment. Apparently the project was of paramount importance to President Sirisena as he had reportedly obtained SLFP support for the 19th amendment by pledging that he would pass electoral reforms through the 20th amendment. Sirisena said the new electoral reforms would not be applied at the next elections. The SLFP/UPFA parliamentarians being “puppeteered” by the master politician from Medamulana were working to a plan.They engaged in filibustering and delaying matters.Theirs was a hidden agenda.
UN Human Rights Council Report
The UN Human Rights Council report on alleged war crimes committed in Sri Lanka was expected in September this year. The report contents were expected to be “leaked” in the public domain by mid August. It was surmised that the report would be critical of ex – president Rajapaksa, ex –defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and a number of defence and security force officials. It was speculated that such an adverse report could be politically advantageous to Mahinda Raapaksa domestically as patriotic fervour could be whipped up against conspiratorial imperial forces and their domestic “running dogs” to create a sympathy wave. Thus a Parliamentary poll after the release of the UN report was desired by the Rajapaksa camp. So delaying the 20th amendment and by extension the elections were necessary items on the agenda.
A more sinister move was also being planned. When the 20th amendment draft was taken up at the committee stage, an amendment was to be brought in and passed by the SLFP majority. This would make the new electoral reforms applicable to the next election. If that happened elections would get delayed further as electoral re-demarcation was necessary for the proposed scheme of combining the first past the post system and proportionate representation. This meant Parliament would have to go on until its full term ending in 2016.
In such a scenario another political stunt was being planned. A no confidence motion was to be brought against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe citing alleged threats to national security, the Central Bank Governor issue and alleged Treasury bond scam. Given the Parliamentary balance that prevailed then , the motion would have been carried. Meanwhile Mahinda Rakapaksa himself would be brought into Parliament as a national list MP. A woman parliamentarian on the UPFA national list was to resign and clear the way for Mahinda to become MP just as UNP national list MP Mr. Amith did to enable Gamini Dissanayake enter Parliament in 1994. Once that happened , President Sirisena would be pressurised to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.
This then was the hidden agenda of the “Bring Back Mahinda” movement at that point of time. Exit for Ranil Wickremesinghe and entry for Mahinda Rajapaksa. This plan if successful would have constituted the third phase outlined by Mao Ze Dong – Strategic Offensive! This however did not materialise as Maithripala Sirisena having been alerted about the “plot” acted fast and in a sudden move dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections. Election day has been scheduled for August 17th which is just four days ahead of the date on which President Sirisena is expected to receive an advanced copy of the UN report.
Strategic political offensive
With elections being called early the strategic political offensive being planned via Parliament was negated. However the offensive moved outside into the electoral arena. Political moves became more open and the nature of prevailing balance of forces got clearer.The Bring back Mahinda movement now took on a new form and became more aggressive .The quartet of Dinesh,Vasu, Wimal and Udaya gave way to the triad of Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Susil Premajayantha and Nimal Siripala de Silva. The triad dispensed with pretences and rooted for Rajapaksa in a big way. Maithripala was not unaware of the possibility of such a twist, but was surprised by the vehement sharpness of the turn around.
Pressure was exerted in favour of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s candidacy and potential appointment as premier after the elections. Sirisena attempted to resist but found himself virtually isolated within party echelons. He was a clear minority within the central executive committee.Once parliament was dissolved and elections announced, the President had become a lame duck within party folds. Despite his defeat in January, Mahinda Rajapaksa was still the single most popular mass figure within the Sinhala polity. SLFP/UPFA politicians without strong individual vote banks had no option but to hitch their wagon to the Rajapaksa star if they wanted to win at the hustings. After winning they could always shift allegiance to Sirisena to procure posts and perks. The pressing need however was victory at polls and for this latching on to Mahinda was necessary. Mahinda’s political clout could wane if the performances at elections were poor. If that happened many of his sycophantic followers would desert him. All that of course depends upon the electoral stakes.
Enormous pressure was mounted on Maithripala to accept and endorse Mahinda Rajapaksa’s candidacy. The Mahinda movement had an alternative plan if Maithripala Sirisena refused to relent. This plan “B” was to break away and form an alternative political front comprising loyalists and friendly forces. Given the current political state it was expected that the SLFP/UPFA faction supportive of Mahinda would be larger and stronger than the opposing faction.But Mahinda wanted to avoid such a drastic course as far as possible. He wanted greater political legitimacy by getting party sanction and authority. Besides getting Maithripala Sirisena to endorse his candidacy would amount to a political coup. In one stroke the anti - Mahinda camp would be undermined. The moral high ground to which the “Yahapalanaya rainbow coalition ” lays claim to would have been flattened.How could the “Ramayana” portray its good vs bad theme if Rama gave a clean chit to Ravana after militarily vanquishing him and then appointing him as his chief of ministers?
Eyeball to eyeball
There was however no need of “Plan B”. Relentless pressure made Sirisena Relent or so it seemed at that time. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 the US under President John F Kennedy had imposed a naval blockade. There were reports that a flotilla of Soviet ships was approaching within a few miles of this blockade. A naval clash with dire consequences for all concerned seemed imminent.Then at the last minute the Soviet ships turned around and went away. The then US Secretary of state Dean Rusk came up with a famous quote”We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked”.
The US was jubilant and President Kennedy’s stock rose skyhigh. It later transpired that there never had been a looming naval clash and all that crowing about the other fellow blinking in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation was unwarranted. Michael Dobbs in his book “One minute to midnight” laid bare the fact that there had been no high seas confrontation. Apparently the Sixteen missile-carrying Soviet ships had already been turned around on the orders of the then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev the day before. There was no “Armageddon” to be averted.
Similiarly there was much jubilation in the Rajapaksa camp that Sirisena had given in to pressure. Maithripala was also criticised by what was considered his own side for caving into pressure. Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa were in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation and the former had “Blinked”! And then President Sirisena came out with his address to the nation in which he reiterated his opposition to Mahinda’s candidacy and declared that he would not appoint him as Prime minister. So the nation at large was made to understand that President Sirisena shutting his eye momentarily was not a blink but a wink. He was having a joke at the expense of the Bring back Mahinda movement.Rajapaksa acolytes like Wimal Weerawansa who had gloated about a “Maithree – Mahinda Govt” were thoroughly deflated.
Notwithstanding the vacillating political approach of President Sirisena the “Bring back Mahinda”movement had seemingly struck bull’s eye by securing nomination for Mahinda Rajapaksa under the UPFA. However much Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena may flay Mahinda Rajapaksa and predict electoral doom the fact remains that the President had granted nomination for the former President to contest the forthcoming Parliamentary elections on the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) ticket under the betel symbol.The proverbial camel has been able to place its foreleg inside the tent.That tiny concession was a monumental boon for the Mahinda movement which hopes to rise up with the ex-president.Mahinda himself is contesting from Kurunegala district where his immediate challenge would be to get more preference votes than Dayasiri Jayasekera.
Whatever his critics,detractors and political opponents may say , Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cohorts will be walking tall until election day. Due to prevailing adverse circumstances , Mahinda may or may not be able to retain the same volume of support he had at the 2015 Presidential poll. Still he would remain a political force to be reckoned with even if the number of votes he polled on January 8th are halved in this election. Even if the UPFA gets about 25% to 30 % of the votes on August 17th that would entitle it to about one-fourth to one- third of the Parliamentary seats. If on the other hand the UPFA does ride the crest of a winning eave as the Mahinda movement hopes for and garners a majority of seats, then it would be very difficult for President Sirisena to refuse to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. If Rajapaksa gets a two-thirds majority then he could bring about another Constitutional amendment reversing the 19th amendment. Thereafter he could get President Sirisena impeached and become President again. This scenario is highly unlikely as most political observers predict a hung parliament.
The “Bring Back Mahinda “movement has accomplished the first part of its mission. It has succeeded in ensuring the candidacy of Mahinda Rajapaksa and bestowing the election campaign leadership upon him. The Machiavelli of Medamulana who masterminded the Mahinda movement has embarked upon his second great political journey. Two questions arise at this juncture.
Firstly if the country has indeed undergone a progressive transformation after the political downfall of Mahendra Percy Rajapaksa on January 8th 2015 will the Sri Lankan people opt to regress politically by voting for the ex – president and his disreputable cohorts again?
Secondly if there was indeed an international conspiracy to oust the Rajapaksa regime as alleged by Mahinda and his minions, then would those powerful forces lose the great game being played out in Sri Lanka by letting Rajapaksa and his acolytes re-capture political power again?
We do live in interesting times! (ENDS)
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org