Recall, President Mahinda Rajapaksa insisted that all government MPs should be present in the chambers at the time the vote was being taken. Mahinda too was expected to be in the chambers and therefore the house was filled to capacity with the government MPs, bar one vacant seat. It was a significant moment. That this was the first budget to be presented after Mahinda took oaths on his second term in office as president.The vacant seat was the one which was occupied by Basil Rajapaksa. This caused speculation amongst some MPs who later found out that Basil had gone to Los Angeles on holiday with his family.
Ministers and MPs wondered whether there was any other reason for Basil to flout the order given by Mahinda. Namal Rajapaksa’s seat was empty when Mahinda presented the budget. Rumour mill was rife that Namal was miffed that MPs in his Nil Balakaya were not accommodated as ministers when the reshuffle took place. However, Namal’s excuse was that he was sitting the finals of his law exams and therefore, unable to attend parliament.
The gossip amongst MPs was that Basil was not present, as he had objected to Sachin Vaas Gunawardene, Duminda Silva and Uditha Lokubandara being appointed to monitor ministries when Mahinda and he, had held discussions on this issue. It is said that he was opposed, especially to Sachin Vaas being appointed as a monitor to the External Affairs Ministry particularly after Mahinda’s failed tour to London for which Sachin was held responsible by many. Previously this column did reveal that Basil was opposed to Mahinda’s tour to London. We also did reveal that Mahinda in a veiled manner tried to absolve Sachin Vaas being responsible for the London fiasco, when he spoke to the ministers during a cabinet meeting. Basil was foremost amongst those ministers who felt Sachin Vaas should be held responsible for the failed trip of Mahinda to London. Therefore, it maybe correct in assuming that he opposed the appointment of Sachin to monitor the External Affairs Ministry. Be that as it may, Sachin Vaas Gunawardene, Duminda Silva and Udith Lokubandara are members of Namal’s Nil Balakaya. Though Namal wished they would be appointed as ministers, that could not be done as a decision was taken not to appoint those who entered parliament for the first time in 2010. Now three of them have been made ‘monitors’. All three are former UNPers. Sachin’s father was the BOI Chairman during a UNP regime. Duminda was a former UNP provincial councillor. Udith is, W.J.M Lokubandara’s son. It is not known how others, including the son of Richard Pathirana considered to be the young blood of the SLFP, would view this.
Though Basil was not in the country he had presented a cabinet paper this week. The proposed cabinet paper sought approval for a single building to be considered for his ministry which covered a vast number of subjects. Presently housed in seven or eight separate buildings, the cabinet paper pointed out that the minister spent a lot of time moving from one office to another. It was costing his ministry Rs. 7.1 million to house the seven floors of the Inland Revenue building staff as a result of the air attack on that premises. It was also costing a further Rs. seven million in rent for the existing buildings that house the rest of his subjects, the cabinet paper stated. Even though Basil’s seat was empty at this cabinet meeting, Mahinda had no hesitation in approving this proposal.
There was something noteworthy that happened at this cabinet meeting. That was when Mahinda chased Mervyn Silva from the cabinet sessions for wearing a short sleeved batik shirt. Mervyn, in fact was late to come in. Mahinda noticing Mervyn’s attire, was livid. “ There is a cabinet decision that short sleeved shirts are not the appropriate dress code to attend cabinet meetings. Go home and come in a long sleeved shirt”, he thundered. Mervyn went down on his knees, begged Mahinda’s pardon and left the meeting. Walking along the corridors after the cabinet meeting, ministers noted amongst themselves that Mahinda seemed restless in recent times.
Mahinda seemed disturbed by the UNP convention and this was evident from the discussion he held with senior SLFP leaders Maithripala Sirisena and Susil Premajayantha, on the provincial councils elections. The budgets of the Rajapaksa strongholds of Beliatta Provincial Council, that of Tangalle, where the Carlton Walauwwa is and of Matara were all defeated. The Mahawa Pradeshiya Sabha budget was defeated, this week. Mahinda noted that if the Provincial Councils Amendment Bill is activated, there would be problems given the present trend. According to the amendments, a few parties could get together and take control of the councils by defeating the budgets. He also felt that holding elections according to the old ‘seat’ system too is not prudent. At an earlier time the SLFP seniors were against the provincial council amendments and even the ‘ward’ system. It was Mahinda’s view at that time that the amendments could be helpful to win back the provincial councils that the UNP won. He also felt that the ward system should result in a resounding win for the government.
It has caused problems for the SLFP seniors now that Mahinda has changed his mind on both. Having already postponed the provincial council elections of last year by a further year, he could do so for another year if he so wishes as the law has such a provision. It is reported that he did discuss this with Maithripala and Susil on the basis that in the midst of a development drive, elections are not necessary.
Mahinda’s newfound fears are due to the UNP convention being a great success and the emergence of a new leader from that party. We did write how party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe tried his best to avoid the reforms being made into the constitution of the UNP through this column on earlier occasions. His final attempt was to seek the help of a former MP from the Galle district, together with the government in petitioning court to prevent the convention from being held. This too failed. He later passed the buck on the government. He called his private secretary Sudath Chandrasekere to launch plan B when the initiative in court failed. That was to issue passes only to those MPs and organisers who were considered to be Ranil supporters to attend the convention. Sudath confirmed that it was handled perfectly. The plan was to reserve the first five rows in the hall to Ranil supporters. They were to cheer Ranil and also oppose vociferously the proposed reforms being adopted. This was Sudath’s task. Sudath used a team on the night before the convention and took over the premises at Sirikotha. Sirikotha was locked up till next morning and only those holding passes issued by Sudath were to be allowed into the convention. This was a task given to Ranil’s security division. However, Sajith entered Sirikotha at 7.35 am. His vehicle was not allowed to enter the premises. “We have been ordered to allow entry only at 9.00am” said Ranil’s security detail posted at the entrance. “I am Sajith Premadasa. Will you open the gates ? Or not?”, he thundered. The security staff did relent through fear and opened the gates. MP’s support of Sajith too followed thereafter. Sajith stood at the entrance and greeted those who came in. Shortly thereafter a sea of people came into the premises and it was impossible to check the passes. Those without passes were prevented from entry into the premises by Ranil’s security. At this stage Ranil was on his way and was informed that there was a massive crowd gathering outside the gates of Sirikotha. He was advised that they were shouting “Sajith ta Jayawewa” and if he goes through the crowd he would not be received well. Sudath advised him to use the entrance of the ‘Jathika Sewaka Sangamaya’ and enter the convention hall through the rear gate. He also said that there was nothing to fear once entering the hall, as those within were all holding passes issued by him. Ranil did however get into the hall through the rear entrance. He would have been surprised that the hall was overflowing with people. Sajith entered the hall when Ravi Karunanayake, considered to be his detractor, was speaking. On seeing Sajith, the hall erupted with shouts of “Our future leader!” Ravi was forced to stop speaking for about ten minutes till the hailing subsided. At this stage those party supporters gathered outside the gates pushed themselves through and stormed into the hall. Ranil’s face said it all. When Ravi resumed his speech there were catcalls from a few corners.
Ranil was escorted under security into a room within Sirikotha after the conclusion of the convention. In a few moments Ravi Karunanayake, Karu Jayasuriya and Mangala Samaraweera too came into this room. “ Those who cheered for Sajith were my people”, said Ranil slumping further into the sofa, looking crest fallen. Ranil was ready to leave but was advised against. The large crowd still present was surrounding Sajith and cheering him. The room was locked and Ranil spent 95 minutes closeted. Another plan was made by this group. It was proposed to hold a press conference the following day to announce a protest against the government by the 26th of January through which any anti Ranil sentiments that would emerge from within the party could be deflected. On a previous occasion, Mangala did promise to bring a million people to the streets in December and that too was to deflect from the discussions of the new constitution of the UNP. No such protest was held in December. Now, to promise such is to deflect once again, when a popular and new leader is on the verge of emerging.
Meanwhile it is revealed, those close to Ranil have conducted a secret survey from within the Executive Committee and the parliamentary group of the UNP. The survey revealed that a contest between Ranil and Sajith is detrimental to Ranil. Therefore, Ranil had called his friend Malik Samarawickreme and requested him to talk to Sajith’s group to reach an agreement to elect/select the leader and the other officials through consensus. Malik had proposed to Sajith’s group that Ranil be appointed to the posts of leader of opposition and of party leader for a period of two years..
However it is not only the Sajith group who are seeking a change in the leadership. That was more than evident at the convention. Immediately after the convention, Mahinda got down the video tape of the proceedings. He was visibly disturbed. He immediately proceeded to tell a friend of Ranil and a UNP MP who was to go on a foreign journey with him recently, to retain Ranil as the leader. He suggested to this MP to rally the seniors within the party and force Sajith to agree to this suggestion. When this senior UNP MP was making this proposal to another senior MP, he slipped, “He also wanted this.” The cat was out of the bag. The other senior MP was annoyed and asked “Is it he who is selecting our party leader?”, in anger.
Those UNP MPs who were faithful to Ranil are now of the opinion that Sajith should be made the leader of the party and Ranil allowed to be the leader of the opposition to give him an honourable exit. However, Mahinda’s priority seems to be in convincing his UNP agents to protect Ranil’s leadership. Whether this would bear results is too premature to hazard a guess.