- The UNP-SLFP merger and the Mahinda-Ranil choice
“Ranil Wickremesinghe’s…attempt at dragging a third world country, albeit ‘kicking and protesting’ into the 21st century with a neoliberal paradigm of economic and political structural reform has been found wanting and rejected. Cohabitation…has proved unworkable” – Bradman Weerakoon, ‘Rendering unto Caesar’, Epilogue, p 386, 2004
Just one more Avurudu to go. Only one more Avurudu to hold on for. Next year is national election year. The Supreme Court has clearly and irreversibly decreed that elections at the apex of the political system mandatorily have to be held in the last quarter of next year, 2019. So there’s only one more Avurudu before the people liberate themselves before next Christmas, from this nightmare of incompetence, soft anarchy, decline and hardship.
In the view of Pohottuwa strategists, the SLFP has died and already been reborn as the SLPP-Pohottuwa. They think that ‘Maroon is the New Blue’. Meanwhile some ‘true blue’ SLFPers – most conspicuously the Rebel Sixteen—think the SLFP still survives, even after the Pohottuwa breakaway and recent election victory. They think there is a space for the more moderate SLFP, within the larger oppositional space, alongside the JO-SLPP and as an ally of it. They think that the Maroon and Blue are natural allies and the two banners can flutter together as did the two “satakayas” (shawls) in 1956.
By contrast, some pale blue SLFPers think the SLFP can either survive while remaining with the UNP in Government or as a subset of the UNP. They think that that the blue banner should flutter alongside the green or the blue should find itself a shade of aquamarine. So, is the SLFP blue to be dark blue (the Rebel 16), pale blue (MS) or aquamarine (CBK)?
From its first Government, the SLFP had a Right, Left and Centre—with C.P. de Silva being the leader of the SLFP Right until he defected to the UNP. Who will be the C.P. de Silva or Mahanama Samaraweera of 2018-2019, reviled or forgotten in the SLFP’s and broader patriotic political history?
If the so-called Unity Government lives, and the SLFP lives within it, the SLFP dies. If the ‘Unity’ Government dies, the SLFP lives. It is quite as simple a choice as that. The SLFP Right or ‘puppet faction’ that will merge with the UNP is politically doomed for many reasons, of which one is obvious: they are, for the most part, electorally marginal to the point of insignificance.
But there are far more important reasons for their inevitable fate of electoral extinction. Firstly, the SLFP rightwing puppets will have to opt for Ranil Wickremesinghe over Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is a choice in which no section of SLFP voters will accompany it. Those voters didn’t do so either in January or August 2015, and merely stayed home on the latter occasion. Secondly, the SLFP puppet faction that merges with the UNP will also be asking its voters to make another choice—that of Ranil Wickremesinghe over Mahinda’s nominee as Presidential candidate in 2019. The SLFP voters will ferociously reject that notion too.
Ranil vs. Mahinda
Why will the SLFP voter, and indeed the overwhelming majority of Sinhala voters (including Sinhala Catholics), refuse to choose Ranil Wickremesinghe over Mahinda Rajapaksa’s choice? Every generation has a defining experience. That experience is usually sourced in what the country concerned and the world at large were going through during their lifetime. For my generation and the one just before and after mine, it was the Thirty Years War. We cannot but judge public personalities by the stands they took and the role they played during that great historical experience.
In our society today, the dividing line is that between those who prefer Ranil to Mahinda and others who prefer Mahinda to Ranil. It’s a split between “What’s Not to Like?” as concerns one’s favourite personality, versus “How can you possibly support that guy?” as concerns one’s pet peeve. My choice and critique of Ranil is not personal—I supported and worked with him from 1993 to early 1997, up until he (a) signed the Liam Fox agreement and (b) double-crossed his ally, partner and quasi-patron Sirisena Cooray (and the Premadasa Centre) when the latter was arbitrarily detained on the accusation of attempted assassination, by President Kumaratunga.
When we look at Ranil and Mahinda, what do those of my generation see and remember? How did they conduct themselves at the height of their political achievement, against the backdrop of the greatest test our country and its leadership faced in our lifetime and possibly several hundred years, if not a much longer stretch, of this island’s history?
I can point to the opinions of credentialed others, non–Sri Lankans, as evidence of the correctness of my own choice as one who openly supported Mahinda Rajapaksa at the three presidential elections he ran in—2005, 2010 and 2015.
This is how Prime Minister Wickremesinghe comes across in the account of an expert British analyst. Prof Paul Moorcraft is a former senior instructor at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (perhaps the world’s most famous and prestigious military academy), and the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College. He writes:
“…On 20th December 2001 a Special Forces team was in place in the Vanni jungle. For once it knew for certain where the elusive Tiger leader was. The assassination team was due to strike on Christmas Eve. The team leaders were just ready to press the start button when they were countermanded, despite fierce intelligence arguments that Prabhakaran’s death would end the war…The Special Forces operatives were stood down temporarily in a safe house in Colombo. In one of the biggest intelligence own goals of the war, the house was raided by Special Branch police from Kandy. The highly secret operation was exposed. It was not a case of overzealous detectives…The heads of military and national intelligence were overridden when the police arrested the operatives and jailed them in Kandy. They were released after two weeks and, as a scapegoat, a middle-ranking police officer was suspended, temporarily. It didn’t end there: the intelligence leadership was accused of using the safe house as a base to assassinate the Prime Minister. Once again, the Tiger leader was unscathed.”(Paul Moorcraft, ‘Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War’, Pen & Sword Military, UK, 2012, pp. 38-39.)
By stark contrast, here is how Mahinda Rajapaksa is seen in retrospect by a top South Asian scholar, Prof MD Nalapat, Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India:
“…He or she [a leader] needs to be tough on certain issues, the way former President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa was when faced in 2009 with calls from the US and the EU to give LTTE leader Prabhakaran a safe exit from the trap that the Sri Lankan military had laid for him under the guidance of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Because of the Sri Lankan leader’s refusal to obey powerful countries used to deferential behaviour from others, Mahinda Rajapaksa (with help from a few friendly countries) defeated the LTTE and ensured the end of terrorism in the island. As a consequence, the Sri Lankan economy started to improve and these days, the nightmare of violence and terror attacks that was the norm in the past is becoming a distant memory.” (https://pakobserver.net/lankan-pm-ranil-too-nice-for-his-job/)
And here is how Prof. MD Nalapat sees the Yahapalana leadership in contrast to Mahinda Rajapaksa:
“However, current President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are seen by many as too eager to please the “international community” (CNN and BBC-speak for the US and the EU) by giving unprecedented concessions on sovereignty and self-respect to the US-EU combination who interfere in the guise of “ protecting human rights”. The concessions given by Sirisena and Ranil to Washington and its European allies will not save the Sri Lankan Government from harsh demands to punish the Sri Lankan military for shaming NATO by defeating the LTTE in a way that NATO failed to do with the Taliban in Afghanistan and with Al Qaeda and Daesh in the Middle East, despite killing several tens of times more civilians than the Sri Lankan military did in its war with the LTTE.” (Ibid)
Contd. on page 25
This reconfirms what Lord Meghnad Desai wrote about Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was re-elected in 2010. Meghnad Desai, who initially earned his reputation as an authority on Marxian economics but is much better known as a renowned economic theorist, Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics and member of the House of Lords, likened the role of Mahinda Rajapaksa to that of Abraham Lincoln. In a piece entitled Unity in Diversity: Sri Lanka @62, Lord Desai wrote:
“Was Abraham Lincoln a war criminal? He took the US or at least its northern states to a war with the South, which resulted in the largest loss of lives in that nation’s history. The South was ruined and did not recover economically for at least 50 years.
“The Black slaves were freed, but their condition remained miserable for another 100 years. Lincoln fought in the name of the Union, not for the abolition of slavery, which did not happen till halfway through the War, while the Southern Confederacy fought in the name of States’ Rights. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, remained a hero in the South as did General Robert E Lee. Lincoln remains a hero not just for the Americans but the world over.
“I write this because within India’s neighbourhood we have had a civil war, which has just ended. The man who led the nation to a victory has just been re-elected President. Yet he is widely reviled internationally and even within Sri Lanka. Except that a majority of his people re-elected him, Mahinda Rajapaksa has few friends in high places...
“By some device or other, Rajapaksa, whom many underestimated, took the decision that he would end the war regardless of the loss of life involved. The carnage was incredible but in the end, Prabhakaran was defeated and killed. The LTTE’s gamble had failed.
“It may sound callous to say this, but Rajapaksa would be regarded as the saviour of his nation. Modern nations, especially post-colonial ones, value the integrity of their territory and do not entertain violent sub-nationalisms. India has had its share in Khalistan and in the many struggles in the north-east and continues to have problems in Kashmir. Yet, Indian citizens have allowed their government to ride roughshod over human rights as long as national integrity has been preserved...”
No one comes close
There is no single political personality in today’s Sri Lanka who can come close to the popularity of Mahinda Rajapaksa. There is no combination of personalities that cannot benefit from being partnered with him. With the right choice of presidential candidate, it could be the most popular political and electoral combination that Sri Lanka has ever seen—the previous peak being JR Jayewardene and R. Premadasa in 1977.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa is no more, he will be elevated from folk hero to folk deity, for centuries to come, if not millennia. Yahapalana spokespersons may counter that Mahinda was defeated in January 2015, but his legend has grown and his iconic status elevated after that defeat—when the people realised just how much they missed him; just how much they had lost.
In 2019 the people will vote against a Government that has been the most wretchedly unsuccessful ever in our post-independence history (with the runner-up being 2001-2003, the humiliating CFA years, when Ranil was Prime Minister earlier). The only ‘common program’ the SLFP has to negotiate with Ranil’s UNP is their shared electoral funeral arrangements late next year. To think otherwise is not tragic; it is pathetically delusional.