End of a long road
Posted on March 13th, 2017
The election was held on 17 August and four days later I learnt that I had not been put into Parliament. I had been on the UPFA National List, which I gathered had been with the approval of both factions of the SLFP. But it had become clear almost immediately that the polarization that was taking place would leave no room for anyone trying to hold a balance.
I had not been able, before it was submitted, to see the President to check about whether I would be on the list. But I did see him on 14 July along with Faizer Mustapha, who had also resigned as a State Minister early in the year, deeply upset that as the leading Muslim in the SLFP who had supported the President’s campaign he had not been put into the Cabinet. The President told us that he had been responsible for ensuring that we were on the list, and we thanked him, but Faizer was much more worried about the fact that he was low down on the list, and kept questioning the President about his chances of being nominated to Parliament.
Maithripala, with a touch of the gentle irony I had found attractive in my few dealings with him, noted that he had thought we had come to thank him, not to complain. But Faizer was not to be deterred in pressing his case, and proceeded to claim that the Rajapaksa camp was deeply hostile to him because of his devotion to the President. I found this odd, given that Faizer had been one of those who crossed over to support Sirisena only when it became clear that he had a chance of winning, and when it was obvious that the Muslims would vote for him en masse and the Muslims who remained in the Rajapaksa camp had, for the moment, no prospect of political success.
But it was precisely those who crossed over late, in pursuit of their own advantages, who had to convince the President of their undying loyalty. They had nothing else to put forward, since obviously they had no commitment to the principles on which for instance Vasantha Senanayake and I had moved to support Sirisena – having previously, unlike others in government with a few honourable exceptions, raised questions with Mahinda Rajapaksa when we thought his government was going astray.
Faizer was obviously among those determined to polarize, as became clear when he presided over the legal manoeuvres the President used to change party secretaries three days before the election. I met him in Hulftsdorp on 19 August having gone there about another matter, and was told that he was keeping an eye on the place to ensure that the President’s moves were not challenged. He told me then that the President had been told that I was a supporter of Mahinda Rajapaksa and I should try to see him to convince him of my allegiance to him if I wanted to be nominated to Parliament.
I did not think it correct to start taking sides in a battle that seemed to me mutually destructive, particular given the stand I had taken up in the election. My position, unique I think as far as those on UPFA lists were concerned, was that a UPFA victory – for which Mahinda Rajapaksa was essential – was the only way of taking forward the commitments in the President’s manifesto which the UNP had so thoroughly ignored. Though it was increasingly clear that rivalry between the factions would create problems, I had no doubt that, after an election in which the UPFA did best, but without an overall majority (and there was simply no way I could see an absolute majority emerging), there would be a compromise whereby Mahinda Rajapaksa would not be Prime Minister, but would be able to ensure a Prime Minister who was not hostile to him.
Not a mover and shaker
Given the powers of the Presidency, a majority of the party would fall in line behind Sirisena. He in turn would understand that he was not a mover and shaker, but would entrust development in a context of promoting social equity to the senior SLFP leadership that had had their hands tied previously. Individuals such as Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premjayanth and John Seneviratne would not permit the old Rajapaksa sycophants to return to authority, but they also had a healthy respect for Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, given his achievements, and would ensure a more balanced approach to governance than we had seen in the preceding five years, under either government.
But none of this happened. First was the problem caused by the provocations offered by Rajapaksa loyalists who thought their way to favour, in what they dreamed would be a return to the days of the last government, was insulting President Sirisena.
Second there were the more insidious efforts of those who wanted to strengthen their position with the President to not only attack Mahinda Rajapaksa at any opportunity, but also to claim that the President had to guard against the party leadership that would join with Rajapaksa to destroy him.
And so Susil Premjayanth and Anura Priyadharshana Yapa were removed. The latter it is true was still running on old batteries, as I gathered from his response to the suggestion that Vasantha Senanayake should be given SLFP nomination. Whereas more open minds such as S. B. Dissanayake and John Seneviratne saw the benefit of having a scion of the Senanayakes with the SLFP, it seems that the SLFP General Secretary said that, since Vasantha had crossed over, he should not be taken back. It seems he had convinced himself that the UPFA would coast to victory, and did not need to work at it.
Susil Premjayanth however had always been a more balanced individual, and it was foolish of the President not to work with him.
In the long run he would have been an ideal Prime Minister, since he knew how not to alienate others. Had Sirisena not been in thrall to the Chandrika Kumaratunga perspective on the party, which demanded unquestioning loyalty to her, he could have worked out a sensible plan for the future, which would necessarily have involved building up a coalition. But he was dragooned into putting all his eggs into a single basket, which ended up having Ranil Wickremesinghe’s name on it.
Since I was not put into Parliament, it was clear that the strategy the Liberal Party had followed as I had recommended, of an alliance with the UPFA, had failed. There had been some controversy about this, with some members keen on an alliance with the UNP, which struck me as preposterous, given how badly Chanaka Amaratunga had been let down by Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Secretary General of the Party, Kamal Nissanka, had proceeded to have a meeting at which I was expelled, which was what the case I had gone to Hulftdorp was about.
But since my strategy had failed, I thought it only correct to withdraw my case and resign from the party, and allow the alternative strategy room. Needless to say, those in the UNP who had led our more foolish members on, so as to break the link with the UPFA, did not take things further, and massive dissension seems to have dogged the party since. I have however resisted the blandishments of those who suggest I should again play a role.
National List nominations
I had gone to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s on the night after the election results came out, and found much despair. Mahinda also realized that some of those who had supported him would move over, and this proved to be the case, with Susil Premjayanth signing the National List nominations dictated by the President. This was in clear contravention of the legal position the President’s men had taken up, which was that he had been replaced as Secretary of the UPFA. But there was triumphalism now in the President’s camp, so adherence to forms was not considered important so long as the outcome was what they thought their man needed. Sadly they had not realized how gravely the President’s position had been undermined – as became clear when Arjuna Mahendran promptly proceeded to victimize those brave officials of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka who had given evidence about his misdeeds to COPE.
I saw Mahinda again that week, glad that the way my father behaved also came naturally to me. Way back in 1970, those who disliked him had told Sirima Bandaranaike that my father, who was then Secretary General of Parliament, had not gone to see her after her massive electoral victory. Her response had been typical of a woman of great sense and sensibility. ‘Sam’, she had said, ‘will only come to see me when I lose’.
I was sorry not to be in Parliament, since I had by now carved out a niche for myself in working on committees and with parliamentary staff to introduce new legislation. But I also realized that, given the refusal of those in power to introduce the changes needed to make the title of legislator meaningful, and to give more teeth to the oversight powers of Parliament, my efforts would be of limited use.
Meanwhile, there was much to do. Perhaps the most important consequence of my having no commitments was that it allowed me to spend much time with Ena. She was clearly fading, so I went up regularly, and in fact was on my way down from Aluwihare when I heard over the radio that I was not to be in Parliament. And when, a week after her birthday, I was told the end was near, I was the only one able to go up and hold her hand as life ebbed away.
At home, my cousin’s daughter, who owned the front lawn of Lakmahal, but had graciously done nothing with it while my father lived, sold it soon after he died. The new owners began fencing it off in the week before the election, and my staff told me that they had encroached a little, which my sister felt I should have been more careful about. So we had to have the area surveyed again and the fence posts moved. Then I also had to work harder towards selling the estate down at Getamanna, a herculean task given the multiplicity of owners of the larger segment, but that was finally concluded in March the following year.
My main task though was to write, six books in fact over the year that followed, though four were collections of previously published essays, on education and foreign policy and good governance and English poets. The most important though were the two volumes on the Rajapaksa years, as to which I kept hearing, both before and after she died Ena’s constant complaint that we did not keep records in Sri Lanka. Perhaps because we do not remember what happened – and we certainly refrain from review and analysis – we keep reinventing wheels and committing the same mistakes over and over again.
Many years ago, when Chanaka Amaratunga died and I wrote about him for the College Record, the editor told me that I should continue to chronicle the past. Soon after that I began my account of the house in which I lived and my experiences there over the years. I have been fortunate in that the house had been involved, though only on the periphery as it were, in the making of history; and two of its denizens, my uncle Lakshman and my father, had unusually perceptive and socially committed understanding of the tides of history.
How I was diverted to other tasks as well in the year that followed I have recorded in another series of articles. But though history did not, in its public phase, end for me in August 2015 as I had anticipated then, the period of increasing despair which gave this series its title did.