Rationality of Sirisena’s irrationality

Saturday, 15 December 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Man becomes a little cog in the machine, and, aware of this, his one preoccupation is to become a bigger cog said Max Weber, the founding father of sociology. Maithripala Sirisena became a small cog after the 19th Amendment. Then he decided to be a bigger cog. Now we are in grave trouble. 

When Maithripala Sirisena the President sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place as Prime Minister on 26 October, he would have had a plan. 

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” said Mike Tyson, the best known heavy weight boxing champion. 

On 13 December – 49 days later – a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered a unanimous punch on Sirisena’s sermonising mouth.

Maithripala Sirisena had a plan. As evidenced by the subsequent conduct of a significant section of mainstream media he had a formidable flock of ‘spin doctors’ or rhetorical strategists ‘relativist in their morality’ totally disinterested in truth and convinced that what really mattered was power and its ruthless, dishonest wielding of it. 

One of those principal spin doctors Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka whom Sirisena positioned as Ambassador in the land of Putin wasted no time in putting priorities in order. 

In an email addressed to Mahinda Rajapaksa through comrade Vasudeva he reiterated: “The initiative should never be allowed to seesaw. The offensive momentum should be seized and maintained by the new government.” He unwittingly recorded for posterity a political scientist’s partisan but precise portrait of a ‘putsch’. If the removal of a prime minister and the appointment of a successor was a purely constitutional process, why should Sirisena’s handpicked envoy to Moscow proffer guidance in such combative putschist patter? 

Large wars can start with small stakes. Sirisena launched his assault quite satisfied that his tactic of surprise coupled with the macho image of Mahinda and Gotabaya’s notoriety to instill fear would subdue the opposition’s collective will to resist. 

The picture of IGP Pujitha Jayasundera saluting Mahinda Rajapaksa – the new Prime Minister – watched by Gotabaya the ‘Gauleiter’ published in all mainstream media served as a directional forecast and a signal of finality of the ‘regime switchover’. 

Perfection of Sirisena’s strategy depended more on the psychological and less on the political. That explains Keheliya Rambukwella’s seizure of State television stations and Lake House on the same night of the cloak and dagger hush-hush swearing-in of the war winner as the possible winner of a purchased parliamentary majority. 

If you listened to Dulles Alahapperuma, G.L. Pieris, Bandula Gunawardene and Wimal Weerawansa you will know why Sirisena had to opt for Mahinda Rajapaksa and no one else. Mahinda alone commanded this fearsome repertoire of total deceit. They had the mastery of a peculiar craft of spin together with their saffron-robed counterparts.

The absence of a moral core was their principal strength. Their competitive demagoguery was matchless, or so it seemed. Elegant Sinhala idiom they used advanced their self-interest. Their tricks of rhetorical language served to make the foolish and the ignorant profoundly wise and knowledgeable.

It is in this context that we should consider the great verdict of the Supreme Court.

Sirisena still represents a terrible peril for our democracy. The Supreme Court verdict is only a reprieve. The barbarians are still camped outside the gates of the democratic city. We are still under siege.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna has indicated that it would initiate an impeachment motion against President Sirisena. The UNP must realise that it reached this point not on its own steam but on the good sense of the JVP and other minority parties. 

The 122 Members of Parliament who defied the capricious conduct of Sirisena must now decide its priorities. The impeachment of Sirisena and the passage of the 20th Amendment is far more pressing than restoring Ranil’s lost premiership. 

The Supreme Court has unanimously held that the executive act of dissolution of Parliament was illegal and the Presidential decree has violated the human rights of the petitioners. 

The JVP has rightly pointed out that there should be an investigation in to the events that led to the attempted constitutional coup the failure of which led to the illegal dissolution of Parliament.

The UNP seems preoccupied with the purely parochial concern of restoring the status quo ante. We don’t need to return to what existed prior to the high crime of purchasing parliamentary allegiance – that of Ranil’s kitchen cabinet or Pasky, Charitha and Malik. That would be an equally obnoxious travesty. 

The impeachment of President Sirisena must be our immediate and only imperative. If that requires a prime minster other than Ranil Wickremesinghe, so be it. 

Maithripala Sirisena is not a mad man. There is a great unassailable rationality in his irrationality. Thomas Schelling – the American Economist – was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2005 for his pioneering work relating to the game theory where he examined human emotions relating to political and economic decision making. 

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences explained that it was a recognition of Schelling’s ideas about ‘uncertain retaliation’. The kind of retaliation that Sirisena made against what he perceived as anti-national, unpatriotic neo liberal Anglo centric polices of Ranil Wickremesinghe. 

Thomas Schelling explained to his students how the rational mind resorted to irrational behaviour for rational selfish objectives. 

Imagine that you are precariously perched on the edge of a cliff, chained by the ankle to someone else. You’ll be released, and one of you will get a large prize, as soon as the other gives in. How do you persuade the other guy to give in, when the only method at your disposal – threatening to push him off the cliff – would doom you both?

You start dancing, closer and closer to the edge. That way, you don’t have to convince the other guy that you would do something totally irrational: plunge him and yourself off the cliff.

That is what Sirisena did when he quietly tried to encourage the no confidence motion against Ranil. That did not work. Even his own plant in the UNP and mouthpiece for Avant-Garde oligarchy that financed the current plot – Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe voted for Ranil. 

Then Sirisena did what Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling predicted as the last resort of desperate opponents. You just move to convince your enemy that you are prepared to take a higher risk than he is, by accidentally falling off the cliff. 

If you can do that, you win. You have done it by using probability to divide a seemingly indivisible threat. And a smaller threat can be more effective than a bigger one. A threat to drag both of you off the cliff is not credible. A threat to take a rough 60% chance of that same risk of jumping off the cliff would be credible.

Very unfortunately for Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa the minority parties and the JVP decided that the Constitution was the final rampart that defended their fundamental human rights. 

Sirisena jumped off the cliff. The 19th Amendment caught him in mid-air and the Supreme Court was the safety net that finally trapped him in the act. Sirisena’s madness is wickedly rational. Over 49 days of prevarication, obstinacy and repulsive hatred he told us that he would jump off the cliff and was ready to drag our nation along with him. 

Thomas Schelling gave another example of game theory. Two trucks loaded with dynamite travel in opposite directions on a narrow road. Who gives way? 

A bank teller who cannot open the vault even at gun point because he does not know the combination is what we want. The 19th Amendment ensured that the combination to open the vault is no longer with the bank’s staff at the counter or the manager in charge. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is right. The 19th Amendment was aimed at the Rajapaksa brothers, their families and their followers. 

Should we pass the 20th Amendment or allow the Rajapaksas to decipher the combination to the vault? Impeachment of this President is an existential necessity. Reinstating Ranil in the premiership is nowhere near that reality.

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