Sri Lanka: That cannot be cricket


Sathiya Moorthy       23 May 2018

Whether or not veteran cricketer Kumar Sangakkara ends up becoming the United National Party’s (UNP’s) presidential candidate in the 2020 election, current media reports in this regard have the potential to take away the seriousness of the party’s campaign for the nation’s highest elected constitutional authority.

If he is actually offered the post and he accepts the same, electoral rivals could well shout, “That’s not cricket,” from every rooftop. Otherwise, they would say either the party or the player or both had developed cold feet already, and was looking around for another Sarath Fonseka of post-war presidential polls fame.
Fonseka was the war-time Army Commander and had face-recognition across the country as Sangakkara may now have, but not necessarily to the same levels. Fonseka led the armed forces in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which was awe-inspiring for the rest of the world too. Fonseka was estranged from his war-time political master, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was portrayed as wanting to claim all the credit of the war victory for the Rajapaksa clan.

Sangakkara is no match for Fonseka in that department, not to President Maithripala Sirisena in the political department. Comparing him with the UNP’s very own Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is out of the question.

However, given the mess that Sri Lankan politics and political administration is at the moment, Sangakkara’s freshman approach to election campaigns and public affairs (as hoped) could still make the added numbers of young voters to sit up and take notice, or at least hear him before deciding which way to swing their vote. Yet, the leadership of Ranil could not escape explaining the hunt outside the ‘party’ for the presidency, for a third time in a row, after 2010 and 2015.

The party last contested a Presidential Election in 2005, and Ranil lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, when media reports and social media rumours/campaigns have begun flagging Mahinda’s brother and war-time Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP’s) presidential candidate, a non-serious first-step, even by UNP backbenchers can cost the party’s presidential election campaign.

Vision and mission

There is no denying the positivity among ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ and greater negativity among Tamils, if Gota were to contest the presidential polls for the Rajapaksas. There is also truth in possible calculations that if Mahinda himself could not win the 2015 Presidential Election, war victory may not be an election issue now, another five years down the line.

But Gota has also left behind an image of a ‘doer,’ both during the war and afterwards. Yes, his contribution to the military part of the war victory has been projected more than that of the likes of Fonseka, if any. Gota’s coordination of war efforts with the political leadership of his sibling (former President Mahinda Rajapaksa) was a factor which no other government before their time could achieve, or even attempt.

Post war, there were raised eyebrows when the Urban Development Ministry too was brought under Gota’s purview. It is this, that the people of Colombo remember him for, not for war victory and allegations of ‘war crimes.’ The Urban Development role also gave Gota the image of a doer and a tough administrator who would bulldoze his way to reach the goal that he had set for himself, and for the Government and the nation!
Efforts are on to project him as a visionary with a missionary zeal. He has also departed from his traditional talk of war victory and war crimes probes and started talking about the economy and development. The way the hardcore political class with a self-proclaimed ‘performance’ on the economic front has handled it all, the voter may not mind trying out a fresher, be it Gota or Sangakkara or any other, as long as he or she does not have a hardcore political past!

‘Non-nationalist’ voters

The question is which section of the ‘non-nationalist’ voters on either side of the ethnic-divide would vote for a tough boss like Gota, or vote against him for all the ‘white van disappearances’ attributed to his leadership, but none of which have been proved in any Court of Law at any time over the past three-plus years. Ditto even with all the corruption cases thrown at the three Rajapaksa brothers, including former Economic Development Minister, Basil Rajapaksa.

The irony of the UNP’s present situation is that when their Government has not proved any of the corruption or criminal charges against any of the Rajapaksas, their own selected investigators have found their elected leaders guilty of big-time corruption of the ‘bond scam’ variety.

If anything, the Rajapaksas only helped the UNP by throwing up the No-Confidence Motion against the Ranil Government as that alone silenced the UNP critics of the party, and united them too in Parliament, at least on that one occasion in a long time to come, and a longer time to follow.

Truth be told, the UNP did not require the Rajapaksas to be in power or out of office, to expose them. They also did not require a ‘dependable’ President like Maithripala Sirisena, who depended on them for his election victory, to harass them. It was all there in black and white, in the authenticated records of the Central Bank, which is one national institution that still commands some credibility, despite the scam.

Stability card

It is not on either of these issues that a candidate like Sangakkara can command some hope (though not necessarily respect at this stage) than any other traditional UNP leader seeking to contest the presidential election. His inherent disadvantage could well be the issue of ‘political stability,’ especially after 10 long years of Rajapaksa rule, followed by the ever-tottering presidency and Government of President Sirisena.

It is also here that a candidate like Gota may have an added, unsought advantage. It could well be more so, if the voter by then had concluded that all politicians are corrupt and lawless, and some politicians are more corrupt and lawless than others, but only a few among them could well be both, and more! If that were to become the voters’ yardstick, then fielding Sangakkara against Gota could well not be cricket!

The article appeared in Ceylon Today Colombo 23 May 2018

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