“I’m afraid, based on my own experience, that fascism will come to America in the name of national security.” - Jim Garrison
Two things would have startled the Rajapaksa clan in relation to the Galle Face inaugural rally held by the DNF on October 19 in support of their candidate Sajith Premadasa. First, obviously, was the unprecedented numbers who flocked to the green surpassing anything that any politician or political party has managed, including the glory days of the Rajapaksa dynasty. The Second would have been the revelation or the promise given by Premadasa that Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka would be made, in effect, the Minister of Defence, although he did not use that term.
The promise to entrust Fonseka with the subject of Defence, seems to have filled one glaring gap in the Sajith Campaign: the National Security issue. The imbecilic and unsatisfactory manner in which the intelligence and security establishment was handled, both pre and post April 21 Easter Sunday attacks, has incurred on the UNP-led government the wrath of citizens, specially Christians and Buddhists . Being the Deputy Leader of the main party of the government, it would not have been (and still is not) easy for Premadasa to be a reassuring figure to his constituency, as someone who could guarantee national security to the extent of his main rival Gotabaya. As to what ‘national security’ connotes in the Sri Lankan context, and that it could mean anything to anybody and greatly differ, is an aspect that can be dealt with separately. Yet it was not difficult to see that in relation to the national security issue, Sajith was lagging behind Gotabaya, and a considerable chunk of votes would have been appropriated by the former Secretary of Defence on that basis alone.
Will it pay off?
It is under such a backdrop that the ‘Field Marshall’ promise by Sajith seems to have been devised to win over those voters who place emphasis on the security aspect of the country. It is also clear that a majority of them would be Sinhala Buddhists, although a certain percentage of Muslims, especially businessmen who are perturbed by extremist activities a la NTJ style, want security concerns addressed. It is too early to predict whether the gimmick would reap dividends for Premadasa, other than, and in addition to, fortifying Fonseka’sunstinted support in a backdrop where the latter was openly critical of the former. This was while the battle for candidacy was raging within the UNP and rumours did the rounds that Fonseka was being wooed by the former Secretary of Defence to back him for presidency. To the DNF propaganda apparatus, the promise made in Galle Face gave a much needed and rare opportunity to align the UNF candidate Premadasa with Fonseka, whom many call the real war hero of the civil war. Granted, with a poor record, at least in the public eye, of appreciating the sacrifices of the armed forces during the 30-year civil war as evidenced by the ‘Thoppigala being a jungle’ uttered by the present PM as the then Leader of the Opposition and ‘Kilinochchi- Medawatchchi’ remark by UNP frontliner Ravi Karunanayake. It had been difficult for the UNP to appease those voters who still consider the territorial integrity and security of the state the premier issue, more than a decade after the end of the war with the LTTE. If not that, the sheer sentiment of gratitude broad masses harbour for soldiers who bore the brunt of the brutal civil war had always found the UNP at the wrong end.
That ‘Ranaviru’ soft corner of a strata of the Sinhala Buddhist society has been exploited by the Rajapksas for their support base and electoral gain in consecutive elections with the UNP with no counter measure to confront it successfully, until the exceptional case of Sarath Fonseka running for presidency in 2010. It remains the bulwark of electoral triumphs and popular support for the Rajapaksas. Although the Easter Sunday attacks intensified and lubricated the ascent of Gotabaya, to the coveted candidacy from the Pohottuwa, his prospects for success predate the attacks. It was back in 2017 that Viyath Maga and Eliya fronts had been heralding him as the only saviour of this country. If, with no obvious threat to national security at that time, the call had seemed somewhat far-fetched, then the Easter bombings gave it the validity and mandate to push that project forward with vigour, and win acclaim from many, including the Maha Sangha.
Master Stroke or Bluff
Sajith, who was depending almost exclusively on the poverty alleviation campaign started by his father and former President Ranasinghe Premadasa three decades ago, and appearing hitherto to be lacking in other departments, i.e. his stance on the national question, rule-of-law, foreign policy etc., seems to have jumped on the ‘national security bandwagon’ which undeniably was the main vote magnet of Gotabaya until now. But with the ‘Sarath Fonseka’ sleight of hand, which some call a master stroke, he has evidently pulled a fast one to try and beat Gotabaya at his own game. The ‘Ranaviru gaya’, very recently coined by scholar and civil activist Prof. Chandraguptha Thenuwara, is hardly confined to the fringes of society any more. Whether the term is used derogatively or not and that it is obviously an ailment mostly, afflicting not soldiers in the first place and even if they were, not those thousands of brave men who laid down their life and limb for the country, it highlights an ever increasing tendency in our society to exalt and glorify the military uniform to the extent of even the law of the land stopping short of them. Arresting and prosecuting many armed personnel on crimes such as murder, abduction, ransom-taking and grave violations of human rights, have been depicted as unpatriotic and treacherous, and the Joint Opposition and their mouthpieces have roundly criticized such actions.
As a leading figure of the government, Premadasa too, could not have been immune to it, and it would have been a sore point vis-a-vis a Gotabaya candidacy. That is until the Galle Face rally and Premadasa’s declaration of giving Fonseka the highest responsibility in national security, which is obviously the Ministry of Defence. If Sajith cannot, by himself, cut the picture of the ‘Terminator’, then he has found one to act the part!
His propaganda experts wasted no time in publishing full-page print media advertisements highlighting the promise with photos giving Fonseka as much prominence as the candidate himself. They will be cashing in on the ‘national security’ ailment to deliver goods for Sajith at the election. Whether it was a master stroke or bluff, it is too early to state.
But one thing is clear; Sajith too, does not want to lag behind in terms of the militaristic mentality that could tilt the balance, and at the very outset jumped on the ‘national security bandwagon’.