Independent of what one may think of the UNP and SLFP partners in Government, or their politico-electoral challenge in the Rajapaksas-centric SLPP-JO, one thing is becoming increasingly clear. None of them wants to create a new and untested political space for a new and faceless common opponent to emerge and render one, two or all of them electorally irrelevant, in the short, medium and/or long terms.
With that also goes their considered concern, limited or otherwise, for the nation, though not expressed as legibly and clearly as their mutual suspicion and antagonism, to say the least.
Nothing explains their common predicament, or the ‘fear of the unknown’, than Basil Rajapaksa’s recent observation on the need for an ‘opposition to the Government’ and indication that the SLPP could be the (chosen) one. “We should have a political force to accept them. What will happen to these people if we align with a government group?” media reports quoted him as saying.
Other JO leaders especially have been more open, naming the left-nationalist JVP in particular, but possibly not leaving out right-nationalist JHU. If they have been more circumspect in the case of the latter, they have the breakaway PHU with them, and cannot afford to hurt fellow-traveller in the vociferous and vocal Udaya Gammanpilla, even as the PHU, along with JVP breakaway Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF, is facing from dissidence from within.
Grand it to President Maithiripala Sirisena, who is also heading the official faction of the SLFP partner in the Government. For a quiet operative, he has been able to inspire confidence in dissidents from within the PHU and NFF, to join his party even as the latter continues to be in on-again-off-again reconciliation talks with the Rajapaksa JO.
But that is not saying a lot as continuing to ‘manage’ a parliamentary majority is entirely different from contesting and winning elections, where popular mood and sentiments (alone) count. Yet, President Sirisena and UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe can pat each other in the back for not taking their inherent internal difference to the House floor, and for continuing to ensure two-thirds majority continuously through their three-year term, thus exposing the limitations of the ‘Mahinda charm’.
The current government is a classic example of the dictum that in a coalition, the official Opposition is irrelevant as partners thereof keep fighting all the time. In other democracies and in other circumstances in this country, too, coalition fights have led to the collapse of the government. This is still not impossible, considering that the SLFP and the UNP command two distinctively different and equally diverse constituencies at the voter-level, and the latter would find it hard to come together, as they did in Elections-2015.
The saving grace this time is that no Rajapaksa would be able to contest the presidential polls in January 2018, in presidential polls, which again will precede the ‘internally divisive’ parliamentary election in August that year. It is also a burden on the coalition’s joint captaincy, in which the duo seem to bat together and run together only in the open field, fearing out-bowled, but not in the dressing-room, where alone they need to continue strategising every ball and every movement/moment of the future.
To the extent that they may not have to face a strong presidential candidate possibly could mean that the coalition could hold until after the January 2018 polls. If it could well do so afterward until the parliamentary elections is still a million-dollar question. This owes to yet another travesty in the Sri Lankan constitutional scheme – in the name of making amends, the amendments make for new situations.
If nothing else, 19-A has not taken away the Executive President’s unilateral power to dissolve Parliament one year after the completing of the first year, as originally mandated. He still can do so within six months of the completion of the five-year term. Why so, no one has asked, and none has answered, either. It’s a Damocles’ Sword for not only Ranil’s UNP but also for the coalition Government.
The JO is in no better position, either at the grassroots-level, where it otherwise continues to project relatively better voter-support than the Sirisena SLFP especially and the Ranil-led UNP, otherwise. They too have both Right and Left elements in their wings is one thing, and that neither of them have been able manage their dissidents is another.
If the Returning Officers for some local government bodies are to be believed – and there is no reason to disbelieve them unless proved otherwise – grassroots-level JO leaders cannot even fill up applications for elections. It is not about some rivals sailing the same boat, but the challenger cannot commit the same mistakes as the other, who has the ‘incumbency advantage’ in such matters, as they suffer from ‘incumbency disadvantage’ otherwise.
All of it together and separately adds to the inherent fears attending on the nation’s political, electoral system. If the SLFP, first under Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga and later Mahinda Rajapaksa, could continue to keep the parent-rival UNP from a hoary and historic past at bay for decades since 1994, it also owed to the grassroots-level cadres that the JVP and the JHU supplied to their leaderships, in the absence of many or much of their own.
The post-war Mahinda charisma held on when the JVP quit far ahead of Elections-2010, but it did show up in 2015, especially in the parliamentary polls, when the JHU was also for long, away from the Rajapaksa camp, with the Sirisena-SLFP doing enough damage without anyone wanting to acknowledge it. Today, the chickens are coming home to roost.
It is the fear of the unknown than of the known, one can say, is keeping the rival coalitions together. Ideology apart, it is personal egos that are at the bottom of political divisions in every party, community and region. The national polity is only a sum total of such diversified differences at all levels, travelling from the top rather that to the top.
Yet, the role of ideology-driven public perceptions over the short term cannot be ignored, either. If the SLFP split away from the monolith UNP in the early fifties, only years after Independence, it did not owe exclusively to S W R D Bandaranaike’s personal hurt and ambitions. There was a left-of-centre constituency that was being wasted from within the umbrella UNP with the ‘traditional Left’ not being able to attract them, too, to their swell-ranks of the times. The rest, as they say, is history.
Later, when the very same constituency was disillusioned with the Left-centric moderate politics of the Bandaranaike kind was born the Left militant JVP. If a Rohana Wijeweera was not born already, one would have been invented at the time he exploded on the nation’s political space. That was when the traditional left had failed the constituency.
It happened when UNP’s JRJ all but wiped out the residual SLFP under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and also sought to dis-enfranchise the leader, for sins, more not committed than committed. It is this fear of JRJ when he was still in the driver’s seat all by himself that provided the political space for the JVP to revive itself again, after the disastrous, ‘first uprising’ of 1971, to follow up with a bloodier, ‘second uprising’ in 1987-89, and pay for it with all the blood of all the Sinhala youth of that generation.
Today, that political vacuum has appeared again, but there is no JVP worth the name, nor a centre-right JHU to call its own. Both played out themselves, especially the latter by running with Sirisena after hunting with Rajapaksa, until the very eve of Elections-2015. Credibility is thus the issue not only before the existing leaderships, but also intended challengers/usurpers, whether in the open or still hiding and thus unknown.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: email@example.com)