Friday, February 13, 2015

Balancing the Equation

Maithripala Sirisena is President. Ranil Wickremesinghe is Prime Minister. The SLFP has the Parliament. The UNP has the Cabinet. For now, everything looks smooth, indeed smoother than it was from 2001 to 2003. The centre doesn't always hold, true, and things can fall apart. But for the sake of stability and the 100-day program, everyone's toeing party line and maintaining status quo. What doesn't get mentioned, however, is that inasmuch as coalitions can be formed, they can also break apart. That this "breaking apart" gets scripted into MOUs, we know. That MOUs can be breached, we know. We can't predict everything, though.

Political equations don't always hold. The SLFP and the UNP are now both sides of the same "coin", though they appear to be at each other's throats (metaphorically speaking) every now and then. The SLFP is chaired by a man who entered into a broad alliance with the UNP. Those who head it are with him. It doesn't take a political scientist to conclude that they are cornered in a fragile coalition. Both parties clearly are holding onto each other.

Which is why, all things considered, Mahinda Rajapaksa's reentry will be interesting to watch. The man himself has neither denied nor confirmed rumours. The "when" and "how" of his comeback will be unknown for some time. Until then, we can only guess. And extrapolate. But one thing's clear: while it's easy to dismiss him, it's not so easy to add him to the current political equation.

He theoretically has 5.7 million voters behind him. While I don't agree that these all translate into "MR votes" (I know quite a number of SLFP'ers, for instance, who'd rather stick with Sirisena than him), he still has backing. Whether this is enough for him to reenter politics and that through the SLFP is another story. He may get in. He may not. That's not important just now.

Let's get some facts straight. Rajapaksa is backed by four UPFA firebrands: Dinesh Gunawardena (the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna), Vasudeva Nanayakkara (the LSSP), Wimal Weerawansa (the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna), and Udaya Gammanpila (the Pivithura Hela Urumaya). There's a long shot between Gunawardena and Gammanpila, and not just in terms of age and experience. They obviously don't see eye to eye all the time (Weerawansa, for instance, would hardly bake bread with Nanayakkara over the 13th Amendment).

All these people, moreover, lead one-man parties. Being a firebrand and being a (strong) party-man are two different things. There's a world of difference. Just as much I do concede that they are "honest" and "clean" (except Weerawansa, who has a case pending against his wife), this still isn't enough to give Rajapaksa the edge. Inevitably, they'll start looking for that edge. But where?

The likes of Duminda Silva and ("Dr") Mervyn Silva are not with him. They are with Maithripala Sirisena. Duminda was interrogated yesterday. He still isn't in prison. As for Mervyn, not only has he been out in the streets, he also has vocally lent his support to the government come April. Hardly the sort of "yahapalanaya" we expected, you must admit. Sad.

A Duminda-less, Mervyn-less Mahinda Rajapaksa is not necessarily cleaner than the present government. Past records can be brought up and compared. If he intends to make a comeback regardless of this that's his problem. But if he wants to appear as "Mr Clean" and encourage those would-be stalwarts of the SLFP (yes, there still is a Mahinda faction there) to join him, he'll need to do more. Much more.

For starters, he needs to be honest. He needs to acknowledge misdeeds and address grievances. Though he can't be President (not yet and not ever), he can be Prime Minister or Member of Parliament (he's popular in Hambantota, let's not forget). There's a long road to cross, but the way I see it, not only can he cross it but it is absolutely essential that he must. Why?

I certainly don't absolve him. He has a past. We all do. He sanctioned abuse and misuse of power. His government (including certain key spokespersons for Sirisena's government) made a mockery of the judiciary. Under him, the Parliament became a mere rubber-stamp for the Executive, headed of course by him. Cronyism proliferated. The war (and victory thereof) became his trump card. All these are faults. Unforgivable and unforgettable.

But times have changed. Swiftly. What we have today is a SLFP that rubber-stamps anything and everything the UNP proposes. The no-confidence motion passed against John Amaratunga was merely an attempt by a feeble Opposition to acknowledge strength. It does have the numbers, yes. But numbers aren't enough if it acknowledges primacy of the Cabinet headed by the ruling party. It does. The political equation is out of balance, clearly.

To top all this, the same people who were hounded and vilified by Sirisena's camp are now with him. Hirunika Premachandra spoke for all those unhappy with this when she threatened to take to the streets if they were not arrested. She is right. If Tissa Attanayake and Sudarman Radaliyagoda could be taken in, why not Duminda and Mervyn? There's enough and more evidence to apprehend them. Why not do it now? Isn't that why we voted for "change"?

Mahinda Rajapaksa can claim that these are early days. If he's humble enough, he can also claim that the "bad guys" are in the government for the sake of expediency, and time will tell whether they'll be brought to justice. If he does that, he'll establish enough credibility to go far. On the other hand, if he starts with that arrogance he so uncharacteristically displayed during his campaign (it was all "Me, Myself, and I" then), there'll be everything to lose and nothing to gain.

If he wants victory, he needs to take note of this. I don't think he won't. He may be a Machiavellian politician but he's certainly no idiot. Politicians don't play it clean, after all. They play it smart. He still has that spark in him. Notwithstanding the black mark against him, he has enough and more power to make way for a resurrection.

Before doing so, however, it is vital that he acknowledges and addresses grievances. He must walk with the crowd. Apologies should be made. The real test of whether or not he will prevail, hence, will not rest with those who campaign for him. The likes of Dinesh Gunawardena and Udaya Gammanpila won't factor in no matter how honest they are. At the end of the day, it is he and he alone who must take the mantle. If he does it the way I hope he will, there will be that necessary reconfiguration of political realities. If not, it will be the end of the road for him. Meanwhile, political imbalances will continue. Sadly.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at