Sri Lanka: Pandemic and Parliament Polls

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N Sathiya Moorthy 16 March 2020

It may not be the appropriate occasion to say so, but then the corona virus spread and threat may be the best thing that the divided UNP Opposition could have asked for, just now. President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has since declared that the elections would not be postponed.

That is the kind of reassurance on the virus front that the nation needs from their elected leader now. Yet, it may be too early to take a call. Even if the elections are not postponed, the pandemic may become the poll issue, with the voter keeping a close watch on how the Government handles the situation. That could well be an issue that parties like the UNP, the breakaway SJB and the JVP, et al, can hope to use for diverting public attention from the twin, stability-security card on which they voted in the presidential polls in November.

Even without the UNP’s continuing travails, which commenced ahead of the presidential polls that the party lost in November, the Rajapakas-led SLPP-led combine was expected to win the parliamentary polls, scheduled for 25 April. The question was if they could make the two-thirds mark in the 225-member House, as President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa wishes, or not.

Before the presidential polls and almost since the end of the previous parliamentary polls in August 2015, the people had wanted change. The honeymoon within the cohabitation government of SLFP President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had soured. So did the honeymoon between the voter and his elected master(s).

As if the duo’s politics of politics was not enough, there was economic calamity on the one hand and scam of the Central Bank bonds kind on the other. The public mood was reflected in the February 2018 local government polls across the nation. Last year’s Easter Sunday serial blasts sealed the fate of both sides to the same ruling coin. People needed change, and voted back the Rajapaksas to power.

Between the presidential polls in November and the parliamentary elections that is otherwise round the corner, the Government did not slip up much – not that the Opposition caught them unawares on that score. Not only the UNP as a party but even their allies were divided at all angles and angularities that the Government did not have any worry of being challenged inside or outside Parliament.

Alive to possibilities

That may not be the case anymore, now that corona virus is all across the world. It has not spared Sri Lanka, either. Maybe, after neighbouring Maldives, Sri Lanka was one nation in the region that became alive to the realities of COVID-19 and the possibilities.

It is thus that the Archbishop of Colombo, Rt Rev Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, has advised against Sunday sermons in Catholic churches. The All-Ceylon Jaiyyathul Umma (ACJU) too has asked Muslim brethren not to gather together for saying their prayers, five times a day and more importantly for the weekly Friday noon prayers.

Already, voices of dissent are being heard from within the Muslim community, questioning the ACJU’s authority to be With the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramzan commencing on 23 April – just two days ahead of the scheduled polling day, and two days after the first anniversary of the dreaded ‘Easter blasts’ on 21 April, it was saying a lot.

Anyway, when the Saudi authorities have banned the world’s largest annual pilgrimage of Haj – and St Peter’s Square in Vatican too is empty – this is not an issue on which intra-community affairs should be made a subject of public discourse and debate. The demand is also for consulting Muslim ‘intellectuals’ in the matter, going beyond the ulema, which, by admission, is a collection of Islamic scholars.

These are non-governmental initiatives of the kind that acknowledges the reality of the situation. Election rallies and cadre-meetings being occasions for mass-gathering, political parties can, should — and will – take note and can be expected to act accordingly. Polling being an occasion where voters cannot but gather at one place, there is no way, physical contact of the kind that people are advised against, cannot be avoided, for sure.

What is heartening in this background is the fact that the election is close to six weeks away, and much for the better can happen between now and then. UN-affiliate WHO that has declared corona virus a pandemic can revise its position and bring down the flag.

Yet, it will take time for public anxieties to die down and normalcy restored. To hold elections without the return of normalcy as was being felt even when the President dissolved Parliament is the ideal situation. It is unlike even the ‘Easter blasts’ or the LTTE’s urban-attacks. As much as fear and rumour, the virus too seems spreading – with no external help, or hope of containment and destruction.

Pro-active, but…

After not wanting to panic the population without preparing them or understanding the problem on hand, the Government has since become pro-active. From closing public places like parks and zoos, to s’t get petting up screening camps and increasing their numbers, a lot of effort has gone into the process.

However, given the topography, distances and travel time, one, two or three screening and isolation camps may not be enough, even if only to generate confidence in the population. Government hospitals, especially in all district headquarters, should have such facilities. It should be done in a way that the neighbourhood population doesn’t become panicky about their misunderstood imminence of the epidemic in their neighbourhood.

This is not the time to play politics with the pandemic. Already, some social media rumours about the choice of the isolation camps has had a political impact on election-eve. If there are specific reasons for making those special choices, then the neighbourhood community should be taken into confidence. So should the nation as a whole, as residents in those localities have their dear and near ones living across the country – and they should not feel jittery.

Carrying the nation…

The leadership of this Government has personal experience and consequent expertise of sorts in carrying the nation with them even while fighting the LTTE through the climaxing in three-plus years since Mahinda Rajapaksa became President in November 2005 and the war’s conclusion in May 2009. That is the kind of imaginative public out-reach that the Government should initiative, to carry the people with it.

A literary population may have certain disadvantages for the rulers. But they also have greater advantages in understanding and acknowledging the truth when told. That is an asset that the Government should hope to build its corona campaign around.

The Government also did well to induct the armed forces in the mission. It has not stopped with directing the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) to make sure that those arriving abord foreign-owned ships do not land on Sri Lankan territory or come in contact with locals at bars and shopping malls.

To the extent the armed forces are involved, it is another war, this time not against a visible LTTE, whose tactics the armed forces had mastered even if only over years. In the company of the armed forces, the nation’s uniformed services also came on the top of the ‘Easter blasts’ perpetrators, once roped in.

All of it left the political leadership of the time to cook in its incompetence and infighting. The voter thus could not have made a better choice than they did in November last. They chose a cohesive, not a divided leadership. It is the leadership that also trusted, not mis-trusted, the uniformed services, the single-largest committed and dedicated work force in the country.

The voter did not wish coronavirus on the country and himself. As Providence would have it – even if it is again may not be a wholly appropriate term – the nation now has a combination leadership that understands one another’s minds and methods, too. It is a fail-safe option that the voter made in November. It is a fail-safe team, they would now have to prove, they still are.

The article appeared in the Colombo Gazette on 16 March 2020

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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