Winners Who, Losers Who?


N Sathiya Moorthy

Looks as if President Maithiripala Sirisena may have succeeded in purchasing time till end-December for the coalition Government running in his name, with his SLFP’s traditional UNP rival Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. The success of his enterprise will depend entirely depend on the willingness of various stake-holders in this Government to address basic concerns of the people at large than stop promoting personal, political and party-wise self-interests at the cost of those of others in the coalition – and the nation, even more.

It was not difficult for the Maithiri-Ranil duo to understand and appreciate the dynamics – and not the dynamism – of this unlikely coalition. It was/is even more unlikely that the CBK-Ranil ‘cohabitation’, where the two leaders went on undermining each other in what for all effective purposes was a ‘national government.’ As President, CBK had the powers to dismiss the elected parliamentary part of the Government at will.  Not that kind of luxury for Sirisena now.

Instead, after 19-A that he promised before his election in the history presidential polls of January 2015, Sirisena will have to wait until after his own term is over. It is six months before the five-year term of Parliament, elected in mid-August 2015 – or, mid-February 2020.

This in effect has left President Sirisena more toothless than is feared to be. Past-masters in understanding the political and constitutional nuances of the kind and effectively using or abusing them to their benefit, PM Ranil’s UNP has thus nothing at all to fear from the President. Sirisena-led faction of the SLFP also knows it, but they do not want to acknowledge it in public and act or behave accordingly.

Almost from the day they endorsed Sirisena as the presidential nominee of a ‘clueless’ combined Opposition with the sole aim of replacing incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, the UNP was clear about the way it was headed. As with the preceding decades of post-Independence history, especially under the presidential scheme, they wanted all of Sri Lanka to be theirs until a new generation of voters came in and anti-incumbency bit them.


Sirisena and the SLFP split was their way of doing it, and their only hope in the matter. The prevailing conditions post-LTTE especially were as good as any other that could have favoured a shrewd political leadership in the Opposition ranks for too long. To the UNP, it should be acknowledged at least at this late hour, getting rid of Rajapaksas), and with them, the ‘near-hegemony’ of the SLFP rival for two full decades was more immediate and real.

The UNP tried it out with Sarath Fonseka in 2010 and failed, and later with Sirisena, and won. Truth be told, neither of these parties, whoever was the leader in the hoary post-Independence history of the nation, has thought of the nation. Where they were not selfish, they were/are selfish enough to ensure that there is no political space for ‘third parties’, especially of the ‘Sinhala kind’ to emerge and end their ‘shared hegemony’.

To them, using and throwing minority parties of the Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamils was easier than suffering even a ‘moderate’ JVP or a purportedly moralistic JHU from among their majority Sinhala-Buddhist community. The scales could really be tilted only if a ‘national alternative’ of dispersed ‘third party’ groups come together and form a coalition of sorts.

If this has not happened, it owes to ethnic, political and personality clashes (read: super-egos) among these minority communities and their parties. The Tamils especially would like to blame the ‘competitive Sinhala mainstream polity’ for their own failures.

The Sampanthan-Wigneswaran spat in the North has every potential of assuming the proportions of a constitutional crisis of some kind, if not let to ease out. If anything, this could become a test-case for the Constitution Assembly too to debate. In the interim, and over the long term alike, the Sinhala polity and community could hang the ‘Tamil aspirations’ from this peg, which has taken different names in the past, too.

Keeping flock together

Despite all the professionally belated noises he has been making about the conduct of the Government and the behaviour of some of its Ministers (read: only from the UNP), President Sirisena is well aware of his own political and constitutional limitations.

On the face of it, successive leaders of the SLFP have proved to be greater strategists, and the UNP leaders, master tacticians. The average Sri Lankan belief is otherwise. In real terms, the UNP work with their brains, in environs similar to theirs. The SLFP leaders work with their hearts and on the hearts on the larger populace. They are at the grassroots.

The SLFP lost its core cadre-strength and future generations to the militant JVP, when founded in the Sixties. The UNP could not build upon the Independence era voter-base, but have managed to retain much of it, after losing some to the inevitability of generational erosion.

In the company of alliance partners, the SLFP looked stronger. The UNP has to look outside the majority Sinhala community, to the nation’s minority communities, to build a larger coalition of ideas, not solutions. They are cosmopolitan in outlook, but not in action. The SLFP leadership does not suffer from such pretentions, more often than not. As SLFP leader, CBK was an exception. In the UNP, Ranil is the rule.

As a strategy-driven party, if it could be called so in simple and simplistic terms, the SLFP leaders have the UNP to win elections – whoever was in office or in the Opposition. The UNP set stores by the ethnic coalition it claims to be comfortable with. Theirs is a top-down approach. The SLFP cannot but be a bottom-up party.

It does not mean that the reverse is wholly untrue. The SLFP was popular with the otherwise ‘myopic’ (?) Tamils when Sirimavo’s farm policy helped them. They helped to make CBK the nation’s ‘most popular President-elect’ in the Nineties, even over later-day SLFP compatriot/competitor in war-winning Mahinda R.

The SLFP farm/rural development policy was people-centric, or voter-centric. There was no partisan approach to application of the policy, so the Tamils (too) benefited. When CBK rejoined the SLFP and became its presidential candidate, the party was in tatters, she needed to go to the people above the head of what was not there. She needed the grassroots JVP allies, and needed to expand the party’s voting-base.

Barring S. W. R. D.’s ‘Sinhala Only’, the Bandaranaikes’ approach to policies served a larger purpose. The narrowing down of their policies and programmes flowed from their impatience for results. This includes CBK as President turning over her policy of ‘appeasement’ or accommodation of the Tamils into one of military-centric approach. Between them, the Tamil voters and the LTTE ensured as much. Having voted CBK in, in a big way, the former would not tell the LTTE what the latter did not want to hear.

Hidden ambitions

Between the two, Sirisena is a strategist, Ranil remains a tactician. Likewise, within the present-day SLFP, Sirisena is a strategist and Mahinda a tactician. Both hid their presidential ambitions, captured the imagination of the voter (Sinhala or Tamil), and mastered their immediate circumstances, to reach where they went.

Mahinda had to wait until the political environment suited him enough in 2005, but his presidential ambitions were all well known. Sirisena’s was known to some by the summer of 2013, if not earlier, one and half years before his incumbent Mahinda ‘master’ advanced the date, to January 2015. If Mahinda had waited, it is possible that Sirisena might have stood exposed, and dealt with, accordingly. It was even more possible that Mahinda popularity might have suffered even more, given the inability and possibly unwillingness of the Rajapaksas to correct their post-war course even in their core Sinhala constituency.

Today, when such minds clash over leadership chances, they are playing their natural games. Mahinda is a pro-active leader and wants to be seen as doing it. Sirisena wants Mahinda – and, possibly the UNP/Ranil – to commit more mistakes for him to strike at a time of his choice. The UNP, as always, is waiting for the other two to widen their rift for it to make electoral gains.

Insincere, all

The problem with the present polity is that every leader and party is insincere to the coalition that they are identified with. They are thinking and acting more in terms of the self, or at best the party – as they need to keep the party, or faction, under their own command, for the people to take them seriously.

From day one, the UNP partner in the Government of National Unity (GNU) wants the Sirisena-SLFP out of the combine and vote-less, by Elections-2020. They want the presidency and prime minister’s job, all provincial councils and all of the local councils, at least across the ‘Sinhala world’. Sirisena seems to have concluded that by making feeble noises too late in the day, and yet have his way on Government’s policy-making he could make the UNP partner more unpopular than they are capable of becoming. This is happening, yes, but it has not added votes to Sirisena’s kitty. He continues to be where he was at elections – a giant-killer yet nothing else.

Mahinda has his ranks, his votes, but he seems to be waiting for the right time for him to strike. It is as personal as that then wanting to carry the more loyal ‘Joint Opposition’ (JO) with him. In their case, for ideological reasons, the other partners in the JO cannot go elsewhere. They can add leaders and platform speakers, but not voters.

In all this, Sirisena is trying make an opportunity in the absence of choice. He has no option but to wait out his term. Mahinda understand Sirisena’s real predicament more than possibly the other, hence his impatience at having to go to the people, over the head of the present Government, but after breaking the coalition.

Other SLFP leaders are not unaware of the situation. They want a party president and party-led government and prime minister. For fear of upsetting the apple-cart, they want Sirisena and Mahinda to make up and patch up. Unless that message goes to the MPs, no one is going to cross over anywhere. That is also Mahinda’s problem.

The UNP thus sits pretty, for the time being. They are not afraid of Sirisena’s constitutional authority, but of Mahinda’s popularity. They can look for other presidential nominees, including a Tamil leader, if it would help build their global image over the head of the party second-line, this leadership might attempt it, but only after transferring all constitutional powers to the prime minister and Parliament.

Such an overall approach seems to be behind the UNP’s urge to get Mahinda out of the presidential contest, by having him made more unpopular than at the time of Elections-2015, and possibly ‘disqualified’. Mahinda understands this even more. Hence, Mahinda is impatient to have this Government out of his way, well before the 2020 presidential polls.

However, Mahinda also seems to have been convinced that even if he enticed MPs to cross over and topple the Government, President Sirisena may not make him prime minister. This is possibly why a JO B-Team is preparing for a lone battle already with G L Peiris floating the SLPP, rhyming closely with Mahinda’s SLFP.

Popular still as he may be, Mahinda knows he cannot contest the 2020 presidency ahead of the parliamentary polls eight months later, where alone he can hope to be prime minister. A new Constitution, with powers vested in a prime minister, thus suits him fine.

Mahinda’s problems are different. He does not have a presidential candidate, to provide the victory-margin that he himself missed out twice in 2015. He also does not have a presidential candidate to whom he can ‘transfer’ his own strong vote-base, without his voters asking questions.

Who then said, the polity is worried about the people, and their problems and with that the problems of the nation? If nothing else, Ranil can sleep in peace as long as Sirisena and Mahinda stay apart. He has to worry about the numbers if and only if the other two patch-up and fast.

Mahinda hopes to reach there through the local government polls. It’s not going to impact on the UNP beyond a point unless the results, and also those in the upcoming rounds of provincial council polls display an anti-incumbency mood! But Sirisena cannot afford to lose either of these polls, if he has to keep Mahinda away. Yet the irony is that even if he loses either or both the polls badly, Sirisena can continue to remain in office but whatever political base he thinks he has would have evaporated. Ranil can lose his job if the UNP does badly in either or both the polls – very, very badly. His numerical advantage in Parliament even in times of a split with Sirisena may not help.

For Mahinda there is nothing much to gain other than the immediate gains, if President Sirisena does not play along. He has the most to lose, as his stakes are high, so are also his expectations. In comparison, Sirisena’s expectations are low, and so are the expectations from him. For Ranil and the UNP, it can be worse if he loses, but better if the other two lose, and who knows Sirisena MPs not wanting Mahinda back may troop to the UNP.

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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