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A US “Kaputa”, a Lankan “Nariya” and a Presidential “Feast”

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  • Sajith Premadasa and the SJB are likely to perform better in an early parliament election. The Tamil and Muslim parties as well as other MPs who are likely to  cross over to Ranil if and when a Presidential election is announced would not do so.
  • Despite all his endeavours, there was nothing for  Basil to crow about as foxy Ranil stayed put. Wickremesinghe’s critics especially Tamil politicians and journalists often describe him as a man with “Narithanthiram”(foxy cunning).
  • The legal position therefore is one of  Ranil Wickremesinghe being backed and supported  as President by the SLPP. Most members of his Govt both Cabinet and state ministers  are from the SLPP

The encounter between the fox and crow is an ancient tale heard by most Sri Lankans in their childhood days. The crow has a vadai or kavun or piece of cheese in its beak. The crafty fox wants it and flatters the crow into thinking it is a harmonious singer with a sweet voice. The fox entreats the crow to sing. The foolishly vain crow opens its mouth to sing and drops the titbit it has in its beak. The smart fox runs off with it, leaving behind a dejected crow. This story has been made famous by singers like CT Fernando and AE Manoharan  in their songs too. 
A modern version of this fable  is currently unfolding in Sri Lanka. In a  reversal of the old  story, the crow tries to deceive the fox now. A “Kaputa” (Crow) from the US meets with a “Nariya”(Fox) in Sri Lanka. The fox is planning to devour a feast, fit for a king sorry President. The crow wants to prevent it. So it resorts to many stratagems including a ‘blow hot blow cold” approach to compel the fox from partaking of the presidential feast. This crow is regarded  by its followers as a brilliant bird with seven brains.
Despite the US crow’s persistent efforts, the Lankan fox does not budge. The wily animal knows that the prospective presidential feast is the best meal it can have in a long, long life of political disappointments. Reynard also knows that the crow is only a tactical ally and a strategic enemy. Hence the Fox gives the crow a patient hearing and then proceeds with preparations to devour the Presidential feast. In spite of racking its seven brains, the flummoxed crow does not know what to do except to get its minions “caw caw” in the media.


Basil’s Return


Basil Rajapaksa returned amid much political excitement  a few weeks ago to Sri Lanka  after a lengthy stay in Los Angeles. The politically astute Medamulana sibling has a fan club that hailed him once as a seven-brained wonder. Much of that sheen has worn off after the “Aragalaya”(Struggle) protests but there are still some “Basilistas” who  think of him as a political genius capable of performing wonderful miracles.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is the political party founded by Basil Rajapaksa. He nurtured the party to success  as the SLPP National organizer. The SLPP within a few years of its existence won the majority of councils in the local authority elections of 2018. The SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the 2019 presidential election polling 69 Lakhs of votes. 
In 2020 the SLPP and its allies won 146 of the 225 seats in Parliament/ Basil was the master strategist who planned and coordinated the campaign. Basil also used the “carrot and stick” method to entice eight Opposition MPs to enable the SLPP Govt to command a two-thirds majority in the House.
A chain is as strong as its weakest link. The seemingly all-powerful SLPP regime was headed by autocratic strongman Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Appearances can be deceptive. Instead of being a strongman as projected by his party, Gotabaya proved to  be a weak- coward  when faced with a crisis of his own making. He went down in history as the first Sri Lankan president to flee from the country and submit his resignation from foreign soil.
The decline and downfall of the Rajapaksa regime is a well-known matter  that need not be repeated here. Basil  was forced to resign as finance minister. Subsequently he quit as a national list MP too. 
The 21st Constitutional Amendment which debars dual citizens from contesting political positions, has effectively killed Basil’s chances of gaining a powerful De-jure Govt position again. Yet he retains de -facto political power as the livewire of the SLPP which is still the majority party in Parliament... Mahinda Rajapaksa is the leader of the SLPP but it is Basil who runs the party. Whether this state of affairs will change after Namal Rajapaksa replaced  Basil as SLPP National organizer remains to be seen.


Ranil Wickremesinghe


The SLPP was floundering in churning waters when the Aragalaya storm raged. The party got a lifeline when Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister and then President. In De Jure terms it was  President Gotabaya who appointed  Ranil as Premier and as acting president. It was the SLPP which voted in large numbers for Wickremesinghe to be elected as President in a Parliamentary vote. It is also the support provided by MPs of the  SLPP that enables President Wickremesinghe to pass the Budget and other legislation in Parliament.
The legal position therefore is one of  Ranil Wickremesinghe being backed and supported  as President by the SLPP. Most members of his Govt both Cabinet and state ministers  are from the SLPP. After all, Wickremesinghe has only a single MP from the UNP in Parliament. This situation has provided ammunition to Ranil’s detractors in the Opposition and the media who attack him as a puppet of the Rajapaksa-led SLPP.
This accusation however  appears incorrect in factual terms. Though compelled at times by practical politics to engage in minor compromises with the Rajapaksa-led SLPP, Wickremesinghe has demonstrated through his presidential conduct that he is no lackey or stooge of the Rajapaksas. Ranil has proved time and again that he is an Independent person who cannot be cowed by the Rajapaksas or the SLPP.  Wickremesinghe does not adopt a confrontational attitude with the Rajapaksas as he needs SLPP cooperation to run the Government but runs things in his own way. This is the DE-facto position.
Ranil has resisted repeated demands to appoint certain SLPP Parliamentarians as ministers. These disgruntled MPs and Basil’s mouthpiece Sagara Kariyawasam often boast pompously that Wickremesinghe was appointed by the SLPP and that he is their creature but the silent majority of SLPP members of the Government have only a healthy respect for Ranil. Having worked closely with him, they are impressed by his knowledge, ability, efficiency and long-term vision.
It is only Ranil Wickremesinghe who has a working plan to uplift Sri Lanka from the deep economic morass it has sunk into and lead Lanka on the road to economic recovery. He has been doing this effectively from the time he took over the reins of power. The country got breathing space. Today it is slowly and surely progressing  though it will require at least five more years of Ranil  steering the ship of state for Lanka to reach a satisfactory state of affairs economically.
Hence the reality is one where  the SLPP has got a reprieve due to Wickremesinghe being at the helm. SLPP MPs who were cowering in fear are now moving about without trepidation. They are organizing public meetings where people like Namal Rajapaksa and “Ratharang” Rohitha can  talk tough. All this would not have been possible but for  Ranil. The SLPP owes a political debt to Wickremesinghe. A sizable number of SLPP ministers, state ministers, Government MPs and MPs in the  Opposition realise this.


Presidential Election


A new Presidential election is due this year and the incumbent president intends contesting. While the bulk of SLPP parliamentarians are supportive of Ranil, there are others in the “Pohottuwa” camp who are not. It is against this backdrop that SLPP master-brain  Basil  Rajapaksa returned to Lanka. Thereafter he has engaged in a series of discussions with President Wickremesinghe. This process has been supplemented by several inspired leaks appearing in different sections of the media.
It appears that Basil Rajapaksa has tried in many ways to make Wickremesinghe alter his plans for the Presidential election. Basil  and his acolytes within the SLPP want the Parliamentary election to be held first. 


First Reason


There are two broad reasons. The first is that the SLPP is not in a position to contest and win the presidential poll. The Rajapaksas would always prefer one of the clan to contest. In this case, Namal seems to be the obvious choice. Fielding Namal is dicey. If the “rising son” fares miserably in the poll, that may affect his political future. 
The other option is to field a non -Rajapaksa “outsider”. But the problem here for the Rajapaksas is tricky. If that candidate does badly it will dampen SLPP’s future electoral prospects. On the other hand, if the non -Rajapaksa candidate does well, the Rajapaksas would feel threatened. A SLPP Presidential candidate who garners a large number of votes will gain political strength and legitimacy and  could become a potential aspirant for SLPP leadership. This could prove to be a challenge to Rajapaksa domination in the future.  It may be recalled that when  SLPP dissident MP Dullas Alahapperuma vied for the presidency,  the jittery Rajapaksas opted for Ranil instead of the man from Matara.


Second Reason


The second broad reason is about the future president. With the prospect of an SLPP president being ruled out, the Rajapaksas are concerned about who the next President would be. If the JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake is elected, doomsday bells will start tolling for the Rajapaksas and the SLPP. In such a scenario the best bet is for the SLPP to back Wickremesinghe as the second best choice. However, the cussedness of the Rajapaksas  and their penchant for “Karapincha” treatment stand in the way.
The  Rajapaksa clan is  split over Ranil’s presidential prospects. Some are neutral, some are for Ranil and some are against Ranil. There is apprehension that if Ranil contests and wins the presidency, his hand will be strengthened politically.  The pro-Wickremesinghe alliance that elected him to office could contest Parliamentary elections and do well.  This would diminish the SLPP  and by extension the Rajapaksa clout.
Therefore,  Basil wanted Ranil to conduct the Parliament poll first. He gave out some sanctimonious reasons for the request. Ranil may have been too polite not to howl with laughter at the sight of Basil’s philosophy about  acquisition of too much power and its negative consequences. 


Basil’s Calculation


Basil’s calculation is that the SLPP could  win a bloc of  seats if a Parliament poll is held first. It could also compel many  SLPP  MPs who are pro-Wickremesinghe  to return to party folds. Above all, Wickremesinghe and his alliance are not likely  to fare  as well as  they would in a Presidential election.
An early Parliamentary election could also reduce the JVP’s  seat tally. If Anura Kumara polls a huge amount of votes at the presidential hustings, that could result in the party doing similarly well in the parliamentary poll. But if the Parliament elections are held first, the JVP could increase their MP tally but not to a very great extent.   Sajith Premadasa and the SJB are likely to perform better in an early parliament election. The Tamil and Muslim parties as well as other MPs who are likely to  cross over to Ranil if and when a Presidential election is announced would not do so.


Weaken Wickremesinghe


Thus a Parliamentary election being held first would weaken Wickremesinghe considerably. He would no longer hold the whip hand as he contests the presidential election. Meanwhile the SLPP may be able to strengthen their position by engineering break-aways and cross-overs from other parties. The SLPP could even sideline Wickremesinghe and finish him off politically. The party hierarchy has been helplessly tolerating Ranil’s impudent independence and would love to bring him down notwithstanding the fact that he earned the SLPP a reprieve.  The Rajapaksa hallmark “Use and throw” can apply to Ranil too.


Foxy Cunning


Under these circumstances the SLPP’s master strategist Basil Rajapaksa  tried to coax, cajole or coerce Ranil Wickremesinghe into  opting  for a Parliamentary election first. Despite all his endeavours, there was nothing for  Basil to crow about as foxy Ranil stayed put. Wickremesinghe’s critics especially Tamil politicians and journalists often describe him as a man with “Narithanthiram”(foxy cunning). 
So Wickremesinghe did not fall victim to Basil’s wily stratagems. He would not conduct Parliamentary elections first. Ranil knows that the best thing for him is to conduct the Presidential election first because he has a very good chance of winning it. He will go ahead with the presidential poll despite the SLPP’s antics.
Given Ranil Wickremesinghe’s firm stance, there is very little that Basil Rajapaksa could do. The party itself is confused about its future course of action. Should the SLPP field a presidential candidate of its own or should it lend support to Wickremesinghe’s candidacy? This is the party’s dilemma. 


Pragmatic Mahinda


The responsibility of arriving at a decision has been given to party leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is believed that the pragmatic Mahinda would reach a decision that would benefit his party as well as Namal  his eldest son and political heir.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj  can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com