“My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me”...
“Bring back, bring back
Oh, Bring back my Bonnie to me, to me
Bring back, bring back
Oh, Bring back my Bonnie to me”
- Traditional Scottish Folk Song
“My Bonnie lies over the Ocean” was a Scottish folk song quite popular in Sri Lanka in those days. No sing- song at a party was complete without spirited revellers exuberantly chorusing “Bring back, bring back, Oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me”. Interestingly enough, these lines have been regularly buzzing in my head ever since the “Bring back Mahinda” movement began gathering momentum. It seemed as if I was hearing the cheerleaders of the Bring back Mahinda movement - Udaya, Wimal, Dinesh and Vasu in their Alto, Soprano, Bass and Tenor voices - singing lustily “Oh bring back “Apey” Mahinda to Temple Trees!
"Maithripala Sirisena had failed to win the numerical majority of the ethnic majority. It was estimated that 55% of votes cast by members of the Sinhala community had been in favour of Mahinda Rajapaksa. On the other hand estimates said 81% of voters from the three ethnic minorities namely the Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Indian Tamils had polled for Maithripala Sirisena. This had helped offset the disadvantage suffered by Sirisena in the Sinhala constituency and entitled him to overall victory. Though the final result had favoured Sirisena , he was unable to win over the majority of the Sinhalese. Since the Sinhalese comprise 74 % of the total population and Rajapaksa had won over half of the “Sinhala” votes"
There is another “political” dimension to my imagined link between this Scottish folk song and the Bring back Mahinda movement. The folk song has a political history. It is widely believed that the origin of this popular song is tied up with the fate of Charles Edward Louis Philip Casimir Stuart whose loyalists called him “Bonnie Prince Charlie”. The “Bonnie” in the song apparently refers to Bonnie Prince Charlie whose loyalists were yearning for his return from political exile abroad.
Charles Edward Stuart’s grandfather King James the second of England and Seventh of Scotland had been deposed.James fled to Europe from where he laid claim to the English and Scottish thrones. After his death his son also named James followed suit and was dubbed the “The Pretender”. Thereafter his son prince Charles popularly known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie” also claimed both thrones and earned the nickname “young pretender”. Charles too wanted the throne to be restored to the Stuart dynasty.
Bonnie Prince Charlie
Charles raised an army and crossed over from France to Scotland where he revolted against King George the first.Bonnie Prince Charlie gained the support of many Scottish clans who wanted the throne to go to him. He won some battles initially. However Bonnie prince Charlie was conclusively defeated by the Duke of Cumberland at the battle of Culloden in 1746.”Bonnie” was forced to flee to Europe from where he plotted and planned to launch another invasion and re- claim the Scottish throne.
His supporters also longed for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty. It was then a treasonable offence to profess support to Bonnie Prince Charlie. So many resorted to subterfuge in expressing support. One such example was the popularity of this folk song. Overtly it appeared to be a romantic song with the lover hoping for a return of his Bonnie who was across the ocean and sea. The term Bonnie also refers to a Scottish lass. So the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie pretended that they were singing a song of a lovelorn lad about his bonnie lass while secretly they yearned for their own “ Bonnie” Prince to return. And so they sang openly “Bring back, bring back Oh Bring back my Bonnie to me to me”.
"Mahinda Rajapaksa erred grievously in calling for premature Presidential elections and suffered bitter defeat. “Goliath” Mahinda was slain through the ballot by “David” Maithripala.The circumstances leading to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat have been related and analysed ad nauseam by numerous political pundits"
Sadly for the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie their hero and idol never ascended the throne of Scotland. Despite all the singing about bringing back Bonnie, the young pretender could never cross the channel again. He spent many years in Europe planning and plotting to raise an army again and invade the British isles. These plans did not succeed and Charles finally died on foreign soil without realising his cherished ambition of claiming the throne for the Stuart dynasty. His supporters in Scotland kept singing their bring back Bonnie song to no avail like unrequited lovers. The only good thing that came of it all was a welcome addition to the repertoire of popular folk songs.
In contemporary Sri Lanka the situation is one where a cabal of Rajapaksa acolytes are clamouring for a return of Mahinda Percy Rajapaksa to power. The Mahinda lobby feels that unlike the fate that befell Bonnie Prince Charlie who never came back to Scotland, the future decreed by fate for their hero is bright. The “Bring Back Mahinda” movement seems very optimistic that the people are with them and that the outcome of their efforts would indeed be rosy. If the first political journey of Mahinda Rajapaksa brought him to “Janadhipathi Mandiraya” the second “Mahindagamana” too is expected to reach its destination namely “Temple Trees”. The “Mahinda movement” now out of power hopes to taste power again by rising up with Mahinda.
“Machiavelli of Medamulana”
The political strategists and ideologues of raising the “Bring Back Mahinda” demand would have us believe that theirs is but an echo of what the masses are crying out for. It is being projected that there is a gigantic groundswell of support for the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa to power and that the Mahinda movement is only a spontaneous expression of that yearning. The truth however is somewhat different. It is indeed a fact that a sizable section of the Sri Lankan population wants Mahinda Rajapaksa at the helm again. The Bring back Mahinda movement however is a well organized entity. It is the cutting edge of a carefully planned and co-ordinated strategy to enthrone Mahinda Rajapaksa. The orchestrated movement is but an important component of a grand strategy to re-capture power. The supreme architect of this strategy aiming to regain the lost paradise of political power seems to be none other than the “Machiavelli of Medamulana” himself.
Mahinda Rajapaksa erred grievously in calling for premature Presidential elections and suffered bitter defeat. “Goliath” Mahinda was slain through the ballot by “David” Maithripala.The circumstances leading to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat have been related and analysed ad nauseam by numerous political pundits . They need no repetition here at this juncture. What is interesting even more than the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa is the on going attempt by the ex-president to rise up from that defeat and transform the prevailing political equation. The political fightback of Mahinda Rajapaksa after electoral defeat provides a fascinating study for political observers as well students of politics.
The forces that tasted victory in the Jan 8 elections refer to that success as a democratic “revolution”. By the same yardstick any attempt to roll back the gains achieved by such election results can be construed as a “counter revolution”. Those victors who claim the Jan 8 election was a revolution decry efforts by those seeking a Rajapaksa resurgence as attempts to stage a counter revolution. This revolution terminology helps to focus attention on the qualitative nature of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political fightback. In a sense Mahinda Rajapaksa’s overall political strategy to return to power seems to be influenced to some extent by the basic principles of revolutionary warfare. One is able to see the core guidelines of protracted guerilla warfare being reflected to a certain extent in the political mission of regaining power.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was in a beleaguered state after facing defeat on the night of January 8th 2015. Bleak prospects were in store for him in a post–defeat situation. These ranged from legal action for alleged offences in domestic tribunals to punitive censure in International fora. There were however silver linings in the dark cloud of defeat that was threatening to envelope him.
"The president reverting back to the party he had deserted to contest as common presidential candidate irked the UNP. Sirisena’s political godmother Chandrika Kumaratunga was also annoyed. The cracks began to appear"
Firstly the victorious Maithripala Sirisena had failed to win the numerical majority of the ethnic majority. It was estimated that 55% of votes cast by members of the Sinhala community had been in favour of Mahinda Rajapaksa. On the other hand estimates said 81% of voters from the three ethnic minorities namely the Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Indian Tamils had polled for Maithripala Sirisena. This had helped offset the disadvantage suffered by Sirisena in the Sinhala constituency and entitled him to overall victory. Though the final result had favoured Sirisena , he was unable to win over the majority of the Sinhalese. Since the Sinhalese comprise 74 % of the total population and Rajapaksa had won over half of the “Sinhala” votes, Medamulana Mahinda could not be easily written off politically.Even though some sneeringly apply a racist veneer to this support the fact remains that it is indeed a strong point in Mahinda’s favour and grants him considerable political clout.
Secondly the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and its premier constituent the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had been firmly opposed to the ultimate victor Maithripala Sirisena. Individuals and parties from the SLFP and UPFA may have thrown in their lot with Sirisena at the hustings but the SLFP and the SLFP led UPFA were organizationally intact and firmly behind Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was anticipated earlier that the “Vaasi Pattata Hoiya” syndrome would prevail after the Sirisena victory and that Parliamentarians would desert the SLFP/UPFA in large numbers. Several MP’s did cross, but the bulk of MP’s did not. Even some of the “crossers over” were fifth columnists bent on sabotage.
The expected large scale desertion did not happen mainly because the election result had demonstrated that the majority of Sinhala voter support was still with Mahinda. Thus most MP’s opted to stay put with Mahinda rather than hitch their wagon to the Maithripala star. Besides there was sub-terranean hostility towards Maithripala within the rank and file. Sirisena may be hailed as a saviour of democracy by the likes of British premier David Cameron and US secretary of state John Kerry but to the local SLFP stalwart Maithripala is a hated politician who betrayed his party by crossing over and then forming a government dominated by the UNP. As former US Congress speaker “Tip” O’Neill famously observed “All politics is local.”
Thirdly and perhaps most importantly the results of the Presidential election were not accurately reflected in Parliament. It was a minority government that was in power under Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The chief opposition United National Party (UNP) was ensconced in power as the government while the SLFP which still retained the bulk of seats in Parliament was in the Opposition. Parliament was entitled to continue till 2016 April.This was a unique situation that could be put right only after early dissolution of Parliament and fresh elections. Even then a hung Parliament could not be ruled out. The situation was one where a numerically larger opposition could call the shots in Parliament. Despite the trappings of office the ruling regime was in actuality a lame duck government. An unelected minority government installed in power by a quirk of fate is prone to disaster in the long run.
“Trading Space for Time”
These silver linings therefore provided Mahinda Rajapaksa with the “space” to manouevre politically. Basic tenets of guerilla warfare emphasise the need to “trade space for time” when required. In Mahinda’s case too he needed to trade off space to acquire more time. This time was essential to delay or ward off an anticipated political offensive by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe-Kumaratungas triumvirate and also to launch the counter offensive to regain lost political ground. So Mahinda Rajapaksa began trading off the political space he had.
A chain is as strong as its weakest link. As far as the Maithri-Ranil-Chandrika trio was concerned the weakest link was perceived as President Sirisena. During the election campaign Mahinda had stated that the fight was really between Chandrika and himself. He also identified Ranil and the UNP as arch-rivals. Maithripala however was a different kettle of fish. The man whom Mahinda accused of eating egg hoppers with him at night and committing political treachery in the morning was a sturdy son of the Rajarata soil with old fashioned values. Apart from a brief flirtation with Rohana Wijeweera’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in his youth, Maithripala Sirisena had been a loyal SLFPer throughout. Sirisena was not an aristocrat but true “blue” blood ran in his veins.
In Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, the character Cecil Graham queries “What is a cynic?”, to which Lord Darlington replies “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
Cecil Graham then interjects “And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and does’nt know the market price of any single thing.” In a Sri Lankan political scenario, Mahinda Rajapaksa is a cynical realist who “knows the price of everything” and Maithripala Sirisena a sentimentalist who saw “an absurd value in everything”. Thus sentimental Maithripala was a virtual sitting duck when cynical Mahinda trained his guns on him.
Mahinda Rajapaksa realised that Maithripala Sirisena was in a state of denial about the true state of the SLFP and himself. During the campaign Maithripala had insisted that he was still the secretary of the party and would remain so.
Sirisena was also sensitively vulnerable to charges of having betrayed and broken the party, He was very keen that the SLFP should not fragment because of him. What Sirisena failed to realise was that the SLFP had fractured as soon as he crossed over with a handful of loyalists. Much water had flown under the bridge thereafter. Yet Maithripala continued to labour under the sentiment driven illusion that the SLFP egg could be made whole again after cracking it and making an omelette out of the yolks.
Assessing Maithripala’s mindset correctly, Mahinda made the president an offer that he could not refuse. The leadership of the SLFP and by extension the chairmanship of the UPFA was offered to him on a platter. The icing on the cake was presenting Maithripala a potential opportunity to prevent the break-up of the SLFP. Here was a man whom the nation had elected democratically as head of the country to genuinely unify it. This was a noble responsibility Yet the president laid greater value at that juncture in being head of a political party and preserve its unity.
Had Mahinda not ceded that “space” to Maithripala there may have been a political tussle leading to a legal wrangle. While the party constitution enabled the elected president to be leader of the party there was also a condition that the person be elected from the party or a party led alliance. If there was open confrontation over party leadership the SLFP would certainly have been torn apart with the greater part opting to support Rajapaksa. Hence President Sirisena grasped the rose plant offered with all its nestles. Some of Sirisena’s acolytes doubling up as political commentators while holding “patronage posts” described this SLFP takeover by Sirisena as a rout of Rajapaksa. This was not what had happened but Sirisena was lulled into triumphant mode by the sycophantic “Jayawewa kattiya”.
Wrapped in a sentimental haze, President Sirisena failed to take note of a basic truth. Maithripala had gone against the SLFP and won with the support of other parties. His victory was made possible by the UNP while his own party had worked against him. The elementary truth was that the SLFP as a party was inherently hostile to him. It was still under the control of Mahinda Rajapaksa.The party hierarchy was now seemingly co-operating with Sirisena only because Mahinda Rajapaksa had wanted so. Mahinda could pull the carpet from under Maithripala’s feet at any time he desired. The dice was loaded against Maithripala. Still he chose to roll the dice thinking he could assert his authority gradually over the SLFP.
Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena’s ill advised decision to take over the reins of the SLFP was the first success notched up by Mahinda Rajapaksa in his political counter offensive. Ironically it was well disguised as a defeat for Rajapaksa and victory for Sirisena. The President reverting to the party he had deserted to contest as common presidential candidate irked the UNP. Sirisena’s political godmother Chandrika Kumaratunga was also annoyed. The cracks began to appear. Still the President’s “hurrah boys” egged him on as Maithripala Sirisena embarked upon this colossal exercise in futility.
Having neutralised President Maithripala to some extent and also driven a wedge into the ranks of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government through the act of conceding SLFP leadership, Mahinda Rajapaksa began opening another front. In military parlance Mahinda withdrew from the SLFP front and re-opened the UPFA front. It was a dazzling political drama of pretension often enacted by political leaders. They pretend to be ready to forego power by declaring their intention to resign or quit office. This is followed up by orchestrated demonstrations by supporters demanding that their leader should not resign or quit. The demonstrations have the appearance of being spontaneous. Finally with feigned reluctance the great leader bows down to the wishes of the people and revises his earlier stance.
Mahinda Rajapaksa too followed this time tested path but with his own type of spin. He had quit Presidential office even before the full result was announced. He had now given up his claim to party leadership. The image he sought to project was that of Mahinda Rajapaksa not being a power hungry person. Mahinda now retired to his residences in Medamulana and Tangalle and began entertaining daily visitors arriving in bus loads. Mahinda also went around the country paying homage at Buddhist places of worship. He interacted with the media briefly on such occasions. The image portrayed was that of a king going into hermitage. Having given up his party leadership willingly Rajapaksa was now seeking a quiet life of retirement and religious contemplation.
Bring Back Mahinda Movement
This appearance of withdrawal from active politics was a deceptive facade. As stated before, the UPFA political front had been opened. Four trusted captains from constituent parties in the UPFA were entrusted the task of launching and promoting a “Bring Back Mahinda” movement. They were Dinesh Gunewardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila. This famous four of three parliamentarians and one provincial councillor were the prime movers and shakers who organized the first “Bring Back Mahinda” rally at Nugegoda. It was a roaring success. Romesh Thapar who edited the Indian journal “Seminar”once quipped that India’s contribution to modern democracy was the phenomenon of “contrived crowds”. There was no doubt that a significant portion of the crowds at Nugegoda was transported to the venue. At the same time there is no denying that very large numbers had attended the rally voluntarily. What Rajapaksa’s detractors fail to realise is that notwithstanding all his defects and faults, Mahinda from Medamulana is the single most popular mass figure in Sri Lankan politics today.
Like evangelical rallies where there is whipped up devotional fervour, there was much orchestrated frenzy at the Mahinda movement rally too. Mahinda himself did not make an appearance but his message was read out to the nation by academic cum ex-diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka in an emotional performance before which the Mark Antony oration in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” paled into insignificance.
The Nugegoda rally succeeded in “shocking and awing” the nation. By a well executed demonstration at Nugegoda, Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to prove that he was not a spent force and that he was a force to be reckoned with yet. The Nugegoda rally was followed by a series of “Bring Back Mahinda” demonstrations in different parts of the country. The intention was to show that the people were clamouring for a return of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the political helm.”Bringing back Mahinda to “Temple Trees” was the new manthra.
TO BE CONTINUED
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org