Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Patali Champika's 'claim'

Some 5.7 million people voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa. Another 6.2 million elected Maithripala Sirisena to power. The gap is clear. Rajapaksa lost by 500,000 votes. He won in 10 electoral districts, with Sirisena winning 12.

That Sirisena won by a slim percentage-margin (and this with a coalition that had no less than four "major" parties, including the Jathika Hela Urumaya) is true. But that this means Rajapaksa faced a tougher battle than ever before isn't. And it's obvious why.

Anyway, what's done and dusted is done and dusted. Sirisena is President. No reason to complain. We are still seeing early days, so the inevitable power struggle between victor and loser will begin. For now, though, Sirisena has the edge. It's difficult to imagine Rajapaksa as a Prime Ministerial candidate, but the point is that in Sri Lanka's political arena anything and everything is possible.

All this is peripheral to what I'm writing about, of course.

Patali Champika Ranawaka is clearly adept at number-crunching. He knows arithmetic and applies it well. In contrast to the more fiery nationalists who spewed rhetoric in Mahinda Rajapaksa's camp, his was a voice of reason, which calmly yet determinedly revealed the previous regime's corruption-record. While some of his revelations were not verified (or verifiable), it's obvious that he was one of the key determinants in Rajapaksa's defeat.

Which is where I come to another issue: Mahinda Rajapaksa's comeback.

In the first place, the man himself has shrugged off rumours that he's making a comeback. Until the last moment, we don't know what will happen. For now, those campaigning for him - Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, and Dinesh Gunawardena - have focused on a magic number: 5.7. That's the 5.7 million people who voted for MR.

What they claim is interesting. If 5.7 million people voted for Rajapaksa, that means they voted for the SLFP. If a vote for him was a vote against his opponent, then it stands to reason that these SLFP'ers were cheated the minute that same opponent, upon his victory, took control of the party. So if 5.7 million SLFP supporters tried to get Sirisena out, those who want Rajapaksa back argue, then it would be a gross injustice to them if Sirisena continues as that party's chairman.

The argument is flawed for reasons that are all too obvious. But what caught my attention was how ruling parliamentarians reacted to it. There was M. K. D. S. Gunawardena (a political nobody as far as the SLFP is concerned), who talked self-righteously about keeping losers out of the party. There was Ravi Karunanayake, who eloquently said that the Old Left was leading itself to ruin by their latest campaign (which begs the question: when was the Old Left not in ruin?).

And then there was Ranawaka, who made just about the wildest observation yet. He claimed that while those campaigning for Rajapaksa talk about the 5.7 million voters marginalised by Sirisena's presidency, billions were spent by MR on his campaign. Which is true enough. But then he added an (unnecessary) observation: that Rajapaksa is spearheading a sympathy campaign among those who support him.

People still visit him at his Medamulana residence. They fall within that 5.7 million. Ranawaka hinted that they all were "bought over" (for money or toffees, he does not specify) to create sympathy for him. I don't deny that's possible. But Ranawaka, contrary to what he usually does, has not supported his thesis. He has not shown any irrefutable evidence of what he said. Which is where his argument begins to lose ground.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is President no more. Being a former President is not the same as being an incumbent. There's a world between the two. A President theoretically has the entire treasury at his disposal. A former President does not. So when Ranawaka says that Rajapaksa is "buying" all those people who continue to visit (and cry over) him, I tend to lose faith in his core argument. Which is strange, considering that Ranawaka is not the kind of politician who claims without facts. Yes, statistics are all fine and well. But adding frenzy to even more frenzy (and hysteria) by dabbling in these sorts of claims is not going to help either him or the government.

First of all, it seems difficult to imagine that Rajapaksa would woo all those who come by the dozen to meet him with his bank account. Ranawaka's argument collapses the moment you take this into account. It's not logically possible. No former President, it must also be noted, had this sort of reception when they returned to their hometowns. Mahinda Rajapaksa, clearly, is miles away from his predecessors. No, I am not supporting him, but it doesn't take a virulent anti-MR critic to figure out that two plus two equals four.

I don't think he has a chance. The present system does not favour a defeated candidate, even someone like him. To make things worse he is facing a tricky situation here: not only is he the defeated overall candidate, he is also the defeated SLFP candidate. In no other election here was the defeated candidate elbowed out of his own party. While I disagree with the way they kicked him out, I must admit that his time (for retirement) has come.

Still, I don't buy Ranawaka's claim. He's extrapolating here. Wildly. It's hard to believe that a former President would use his savings to bring sympathisers into his own house. After all, most of those who visit him are people from his own community: the Southerners.

Here's the ultimatum to all this, then: if Alexander the Great lost Macedonia in a hypothetical election and he returned to his birthplace Pella, people would still have rallied around him: not because he was loved by the country, but because he was loved by his people. His hometown. That's why Rajapaksa is still loved, and not for the reasons Ranawaka gives.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.