Sri Lanka: No trust in ‘no-trusts’

Image result for no trust motion against the PM in Sri Lanka

N Sathiya Moorthy  16 July 2019

So, one more no-trust motion has been moved against the Government, and one more has been defeated. If nothing else, the incumbent Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe may have the dubious distinction of being faced with so many of no-trust motions in Parliament. To its not-so-dubious credit should go their ability to defeat all those no-trust votes, through the past nearly four years of its post-poll existence since August 2015.

The same cannot be said of Team Ranil between January and August, 2015. Leave aside the unconstitutional way President Maithripala Sirisena threw out the previous Government under predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa and the forgotten PM, D M Jayaratne. Any possible comparison with President Rajapaksa bringing in his own PM after taking over from party-boss and predecessor, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga does not hold water.

To begin with for Rajapaksa to nominate his own PM, there was a vacancy. He having been elected President, the PM’s post became vacant. But then, yes, Rajapaksa too should have gone through the motions of having the new man, Ratnasiri Wickremenayake, elected by the party parliamentary group. Not having followed certain democratic norms expected of the President, Rajapaksa lost the locus standi to challenge Sirisena when he swore in Wickremesinghe, PM on the evening of 9 January 2015.

Going by the parliamentary strength of respective parties and/or leaders, it was quite likely that the Rajapaksa group-sponsored no-trust vote against then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake over the ‘Central Bank Scam-I’ should have obtained a House majority. Long after his his pre-poll promise of 100-day deadline to dissolve Parliament and order fresh polls, Sirisena did precisely that, to save not only FM Ravi K but also the Government of PM Wickremesinghe.

If only Sirisena had acted on the trust that the voter had placed on him, and also restored the trust on institutions that had been lost under the predecessor Rajapaksa regime, then you would not have had a ‘CB Scam’, Edition-Two. Today, Sri Lanka holds yet another dubious distinction of having multiple scams of the same Government, same modus operandi, no questions asked.

Sri Lankans also have only to thank Sirisena, for falling out with Wickremesinghe. Had it not been for it, who knows, with every passing fiscal year, the nation might have gone through one new edition of the Central Bank scam. Better or worse still, Arjuna Mahendran, now a fugitive from the nation’s laws, may have continued as Central Bank Governor. Amen!

Sense, non-sense

There is no denying the Opposition’s right, responsibility and accountability, to use every forum, opportunity and occasion to hold the Government of the day accountable. This time, the JVP’s cause was moving the no-trust motion flowed from the ‘Easter Day serial-blasts’. The way the Government is going about the post-blasts probe and the rest, not even a smooth win for the no-trust vote would have adequately address the nation’s needs and concerns just now.

The JVP no-trust vote was lost once again to politics and political equations. On earlier occasions, the JVP itself had stayed away from the Rajapaksa-centric SLPP-JO’s no-trust motions, but this time however, the latter did not return the compliment. Yet, the numbers game was on, and once the TNA’s mind was known, no use for debates, no time needed to be wasted on a vote.

Of course, it was an opportunity for the Opposition members, too, to air their views on the Government’s mishandling of the blasts’ intel, blasts probe and of course the nation’s economy and foreign policy to a greater or lesser extent. Having boycotted the PSC, where they could have made some sense out of the ongoing nonsense through effective participation and efficient use of the opportunity, the no-trust debate was an opportunity to repeat their known positions on all issues, both of which the nation is tired of.

That is because the PSC is running on predictable lines, where politically-sensitive questions are flagged, either to embarrass President Sirisena and aides, or Muslim political leaders, though thankfully not the larger community. At the forefront, therefore, is not necessarily the ruling UNP, but the TNA representative.

M A Sumanthiran seems wanting to ensure that despite whatever problems the Muslim community and polity may have had within, their suspicions of the Tamil returned to the LTTE’s days. Whatever little is on the social media, and whatever is reproduced in print, the way he frames his questions clearly shows that more than the respectable lawyer, it is the once-less-ambitious political leader seems standing out.

The irony of it all is that despite such humiliation of the PSC kind, where sections of their partisan leaderships have suffered enough and more humiliation, all Muslim parties in the country, which anyway, are part of the Government, voted against the motion. The TNA, the life-supplier of this Government, especially after last year’s twin constitutional crises triggered by Sirisena & Co, continued to be so.

The entire proceeding was so very predictable that very few newspapers and media houses seem to have taken the kind of notice that a no-trust motion of the kind should have triggered otherwise. No one expected the TNA to vote otherwise, or even stay away, so even the lil’ drama that was expected was not there – though the party still delayed its decision, or so were we told.

Talking thru the hat?

Then, there are the likes of once-promising Hirunika Premachandra, who confesses one day that everyone, including her UNP, should take the blame for the blasts and the rest, and tells the JVP in Parliament that they should have brought the no-trust vote against Sirisena, not Wickremesinghe. That is to say, in the post-blasts confusion that the country is still steeped in, you can talk one thing one day and another, the very next, without caring whether someone would ask you why the change of kind.

The voter anyway seems to have stopped watching, hearing, reading and least of all, listening, to what the political class has to say, more so post-blasts. Yet, Hirunika’s is an interesting idea for the UNP to weigh before the presidential polls, but then you can only impeach the President of the country with two-thirds majority, etc.

If you can push for a pre-determined failure of a no-trust motion against the PM, why not one against the President, too, calling it by whatever name. If nothing else, it would have put the SLPP and the Rajapaksas in a corner, Mahinda R having repeated recently that the poll-talks with Sirisena-led SLFP is still going smooth.

All this is not to leave out the Muslim Ministers and community leaders, who post-facto tell the nation that they did express their concerns about the blasts’ perpetrators to various people in the Government, top to bottom, but to no avail. They have a point, and not any. If they were convinced that their concerns were not being acted upon, nothing stopped the community leaders to go public on the same. It was the sworn duty of the Ministers and MPs, to flag the issue in Cabinet meetings and Parliament sessions – they did precious little.

Deadlines, not for keeping

In the midst of it all, the nation has completely forgotten Mahinda R’s 2017 New Year vow to rid the nation of the Wickremesinghe Government before the year was out. The year came and went long ago, so with it, there was yet another no-trust motion – again failed.

If anything, Sirisena’s failed effort to get rid of Wickremesinghe and replace him with Rajapaksa, too, boomeranged without fail. Again, it was written into the script, clear and bold. Either you split the UNP, or ensure that the Tamil and Muslim MPs vote against the Government. Neither of it happened, though both had happened under Rajapaksa I & II (though minus TNA).

All of it has meant only one thing. Just as no-trust motions are not for winning, deadlines are also not for keeping. Or, they are to be kept as deadlines, for future dusting and using – with the same consequences.

Guiding force, still?

But there is a difference, still, between the past, present and the future. Whatever the Tamil and Muslim leaderships might have decided, their populations did dictate them, to do as desired. In turn, the populations voted the way they wanted, and the leaderships could claim that they were the ‘guiding force’ still (?)

The fact is that today, both the TNA and Muslim political leaderships and thus their MPs have ensured the continuity of the Wickremesinghe Government. But they may not be as sure as in 2005, 2010 and 2015 presidential polls to shout from roof-tops that they can tell their voters to vote the way they want in the presidential polls, and their appeal will be order.

If there is anything that can unite the two communities around their respective political leaderships, it could well be not the blasts, but the post-blasts BBS ranting and Gnanasara Thero’s declaration for a ‘Sinhala state’ and Government. His declarations militate against the idea of the Sri Lankan nationhood, and it remains to be seen if the Government or the Supreme Court, suo motu, takes cognisance of the same.

In the post-blasts scenario, particularly in the background of the 2018 Batti-Kandy riots against Muslims, the BBS war-cry has the potential to win the poll for those pitted against whom the nation believes they may be backing in the presidential polls. In 2015, they needed to be more demonstrative – and they did it. But then, this time, there is still time left, and the nation cannot afford to fail itself, more so after the blasts.

But the question still remains. Will the Sinhala majority votes be as split as in 2015, or will it consolidate as much as in 2010? At the end of the day, that is what will decide the polls, and the relevance of the Tamils and Muslims, their votes and their leaderships, will depend entirely on what the majority community is up to….

And that is what the poll-game is all about, blasts or no-blasts!

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University