Rajan Philips, in The Island, 26 May 2018, where the title is “The Shangri La tamasha: Neither presidential nor parliamentary, it’s Port City politics now
After a week in Cuba, I am late in gate-crashing the Shangri La party, the onset of the newest political tamasha in town. Calling it a tamasha is not to belittle the political potency of the event, but to highlight its ideational bankruptcy. No one took Donald Trump seriously when he slid down his gilded Trump Tower escalator, in January 2016, and announced his candidacy to become President of the United States of America. Look where he landed before the year was over and where he is dragging by its nose the world’s so called sole superpower. The Sri Lankan contrast is glaring.
Everyone in Sri Lanka takes Gotabhaya Rajapaksa seriously. The President and the Prime Minister are seriously scared of him. They will not let anyone, especially the forces of the law, touch him. And he is the only Sri Lankan to have publicly declared that Sri Lanka needs a Trump-like leader to liberate the country from the clutches of traditional politicians. The same way, or maybe not, the Tamils were liberated from the claws of the LTTE. He even said in November 2016, that he was making a study of Trump’s path to power. On May 13, 2018, the ides of May and not March, Shangri La marked the graduation ceremony for Mr. Rajapaksa’s self-teaching labour.
Serious politics is usually born when those in intellectual ivory towers take to city streets and village homes to marry their ideas with the energies of ordinary people which are suppressed under their efforts to barely survive. Fascist politics invariably takes the reverse route – when disgruntled and misguided middle classes throng the political towers to capture total power and put in place the animal farm under military uniform. Therein is the difference between Sri Lankan politics of earlier times that cut its teeth and had its baptismal fires at Galle Face, in Hyde Park, and even earlier in the village huts among shivering malaria patients and on the plantations among the toiling tea pickers – and what now passes for politics at the Shangri La. In one fell swoop, the grand debate between presidential and parliamentary forms of politics has been overtaken by what can appropriately be called Port City politics.
Talking about Port City, a passing swipe at our Prime Minister will not be out of order. In what will go down as the great betrayal in his small footnote to history, Ranil Wickremesinghe after making the grandest of promises in January 2015 to cancel the Port City project made the most ungallantly somersault to keep the project going under a different name called Western Megapolis. The significance of this broken promise is that it was never meant to be kept. Therein is the heart of the country’s political culture that has now spurned Ranil Wickremesinghe and found a new tribune in Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
On the economic front, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s beef with the Rajapaksas was not any major disagreement with what they were doing but only how they were doing it. He was annoyed that the hoi polloi from Hambantota were stealing his pet urban projects and making a mess of them. They needed a city sleek like himself, a fourth generation bourgeois – a rarity in the upstart Sri Lankan society, and his Royal College classmates to turn things around for the good of everyone including, yes, the masses. To silence the Sinhala Buddhist clamour, he assigned his pet projects to Champika Ranawake with strong credentials on the urumaya front.
The Prime Minister waved the magic band of free trade hoping to create in Sri Lanka in what remains of his lifetime, that Lee Kuan Yew took all of his life’s prime time to achieve in Singapore. The dream was a non-starter for two reasons. One, an omission, a grave one at that, and one that ignored the entire agricultural sector and its ten million dependents and left them helpless victims to the wild vagaries of weather. Two, an act of commission, and one that directly and indirectly fostered state corruption the utter lack of which was LKY’s principal ingredient for the regulated success of Singapore. So the economic goose was cooked even before Ravi Karunanayake and Mangala Samarweera began their untutored apprenticeship in the hallowed halls of the Ministry of Finance. The upshot is that the new-rich classes of Sri Lanka have lost all patience for yahapalanaya, more so when they have a dressed up Messiah at the Shangri La who can take them to the promised land of development – much faster and much richer.
Politically, RanilWickremesinghe had an unpredictable partner in power in Maithripala Sirisena. Together, they broke the other great promise of their common platform – to bring to book the corrupt miscreants of the Rajapaksa regime. Instead, they broke ranks and in their own ways protected the Rajapaksas from the forces of the law. Ranil Wickremesinghe tried to undermine Sirisena by keeping the Rajapaksas as a political counterweight. Maithripala Sirisena was more specific in protecting Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to spite the other Rajapaksa brothers whom he did not like. Between them, they have succeeded in keeping the Rajapaksas legally safe and politically relevant and in creating out of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa a viable presidential candidate.
A candidate without a party
For all the hype, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is not a unifying figure even within the (joint) opposition forces. His ‘arrival’ at the Shangri La was not organized by any political party. As of now, he is a candidate looking for a party ticket. The old Left comrades in the JO know that supporting Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would be worse than voting for the 18th Amendment – as a matter of principle, so to Vasu-speak. They may still end up supporting him. For now, their preferred choice for candidate is Chamal Rajapaksa. There is also much blame going on about the 19th Amendment that closed the door on a third term or unlimited tenure for Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is only because Mahinda Rajapaksa is constitutionally barred from running again for president by 19A, the blaming argument goes, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is being enabled to put himself forward as a presidential candidate. Put another way, we should blame 19A if the former army officer becomes the next Sri Lankan President.
The Shangri La event might be causing unease even within the family. The younger Rajapaksa may seem to have jumped the gun on his two older brothers, and the still younger brother, Basil Rajapaksa, may not be too pleased to see his army brother vying for the highest political office after all the political legwork he (Basil) has been doing. Mahinda Rajapaksa knows a thing or two about the fate of parachuted candidates from Colombo, no matter what the initial euphoria is. He handily defeated one of them, Sarath Fonseka – whose military bubble burst no sooner than the war hero entered the electoral fray. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa know that the UNP and Ranil Wickremasinghe are hoping that the 2010 history will repeat itself in 2020, albeit in their favour this time. For all its fancy fluff, the Shangri La shindig may turn out to be a political albatross in a national election.
That Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is an aspiring candidate looking for a party ticket is only one side of our current political story. By the way, the name abbreviation GR has a nice ring to it, and may rhyme well or ill, depending on where you stand, with the more famous initials – JR. That JR was also known as “Yankee Dick” is not relevant here, but it won’t take long before the wags come up with a “Yankee Goat” bumper sticker for the Rajapaksa bandwagon.
GR’s emergence only shows how political parties have been made irrelevant by the cumulative effects of the presidential system, proportional representation, the abolition of electoral candidates in favour party list of candidates, and the virtual elimination of by-elections to fill member vacancies between general elections. Historically, Sri Lanka is not the first country where a political party has its members divided between the government and opposition in the national legislature. It happened in the mother of parliaments, in Britain, at the very beginning of political parties, and it has happened elsewhere since. But nowhere has political opportunism and not principled differences have resulted in the fragmentation of parties without anyone actually leaving, let alone being expelled from, a political party.
In the run up to the last presidential election the Secretaries of the two major parties, the SLFP and the UNP, left their respective parties without resigning from them. One of them went on to become President of the country and then the President of the Party he had left. Neither of them was challenged or faced expulsion. If they were, they would have taken refuge under the principles of Natural Justice – to give the leaving party member a fair hearing, inasmuch as the maxim “Audi Alteram Partem” has become the basis for Sri Lankan case law on political party expulsions. However laudable the courts’ enshrinement of the old maxim may be in defence of the rights of individual members, no one seems to have assessed its disruptive effects on the functioning of parliament (and cabinet government), where much of the nation’s sovereignty is supposed to reside.
Political fragmentation has also given the license for fake loyalties and informal alliances. A cabinet minister may have much more in common, including the sharing of cabinet secrets, with opposition members than his own cabinet colleagues. The current President took it to the highest level in reaching out to the opposition to get rid of his own ‘national government’ partner, the Prime Minister. If the presidential system has contributed to the disarraying of political parties, the disarrayed parties are now influencing, rather, not influencing, the selection of presidential candidates. The Shangri La event was not a political party convention to select a presidential candidate, but a gathering of political busybodies to exert pressure on the SLPP to nominate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as its presidential candidate. Donald Trump did it himself, but GR has a whole entourage to do it for him.
Rescuing politics from the Shangri La tamasha
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is not an egotistical phenomenon, unlike Trump whose ego is his politics and whose politics is all about his ego. In any event, GR cannot afford to show much ego in the shadow of his older brother and former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Nor can he afford to say that Sri Lankan history has been all “carnage” until now and he has arrived to stop it as the next President, the way Trump declared in his ‘fire and fury’ inaugural address with three former presidents seated behind him. Trump’s slogans were: “Make America Great Again”; and “Drain the Washington swamp.” GR cannot plagiarise either of them, because, unlike Trump, he is not a newcomer to the state and government establishments and the Colombo swamp. He was very much a part of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency and the Colombo swamp and that is in fact his only claim to fame and his only qualification to be President. The essence of the Shangri La political tamasha is the rush to restore undivided control over the Colombo swamp after its mismanagement under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe diarchy.
Again, it is not GR who is spiriting away the business classes from the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe. The political appropriation of the business classes was already much accomplished under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Demographic and political changes have created a new generation of Sinhalese business classes who are more at home with the Rajapaksas than they are with anybody in the UNP. Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe is neither unaware nor unmindful of this shift in class allegiance and loyalty. In fact, during the 2014-15 presidential election campaign, Mr. Wickremesinghe pointedly warned the new rich that they do not have to worry about anything if they have not broken any law while making money. That moral high road has since vanished under the clouds of the Central Bank bond scandal and everything else.
The Prime Minister’s new warning is to the journalists that they do not know what they are bargaining for in giving excessive coverage to the political emergence of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Really? The only people who bargained with the devil and who are now about to reap what they sowed are Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena. Strangely, if not stupidly, the two men still entertain hopes that they have a fair to good chance of making another run in the next presidential race. Mr. Wickremesinghe is trying to counter the GR phenomenon by promising a UNP of ‘new faces’ as opposed to the SLPP of the same old faces and military retirees. Mr. Sirisena, on the other hand, seems to be relying on his own ‘charisma’, which he apparently thinks won him the presidency in 2015, and amateurish machinations to disrupt the SLPP. To wit, the SLFP-16 is supposed to be a Trojan horse in the opposition benches. But everybody knows it, so there is nothing Trojan about the 16 SLFPers. If at all, they sheep in wolves’ clothing.
Like addicted political gamblers, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe seem set on playing for broke by running again in a presidential election. They have an alternative way to save their political bacon and derail the GR bandwagon. And that is to seriously and jointly support the 20th Amendment proposals that the JVP has now formally submitted to parliament for review by the Attorney General before being gazetted as a bill. There is no other way for the two men. They may get still direct or indirect support from even within the Rajapaksa family who may not be too pleased with the showmanship at Shangri La.