The SLFP core
Posted on April 4th, 2017
Rajiva Wijesinha Courtesy Ceylon Today
Dayan Jayatilleka’s current forceful advocacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the best possible future leader of this country has raised many hackles, but I believe he has answered the criticisms raised effectively. What he has not explored is the irony of there being two contradictory approaches adopted, one accusing him of inconsistency in that he was critical of Gotabaya in the past, the other accusing him of having failed to be so critical.
What is even more strange is that it is somehow assumed that those critical of the current government cannot be allowed to change their minds, whereas those in the UNP who engaged in abject racism and authoritarianism in the past are allowed to begin with a clean slate as it were, with no examination of their past records. So Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appalling racism in 1983 is forgotten, his claiming that the attacks on Tamils were a mere bagatelle compared with what the Bandaranaikes had done to Sinhalese businessmen while privileging the minorities. Forgotten too is his claim, when he was last Prime Minister, that, as had happened in Korea and Taiwan, democracy could be delayed and what was important was development, even if it came through dictatorship.
This does not necessarily mean that Ranil cannot change, though the inductive evidence suggests increasing doubts about this, and one should therefore take care. I myself have twice assumed he would change, and indeed told my aunt Ena de Silva when I voted for the UNP in 2001 that I believed Ranil and Chari had become better. She being wiser was not so sure. And though what happened then should have taught me a lesson, I did not think it a mistake to support a slate in the 2015 election in which Ranil would be Prime Minister.
Of course I did not realize then that President Sirisena would abdicate all authority at the start. Dayan did warn me, but I do not think I was foolish to assume that a man strong enough to take a stand against the excesses of the last government would be able to assert his authority over his own government after he had won election as President. But he seemed overwhelmed initially and gave in excessively to both Ranil and Chandrika. Though he has since tried to assert his own vision, he has done too little too late – a bit like President Rajapaksa in addressing accountability issues as he pledged in 2009.
Had the latter immediately appointed the LLRC, had he implemented its recommendations when they were made, we would not now be in this mess. But he relied for advice on the Peiris twins, who were assiduous in cultivating those they thought were the decision-makers then. Both of them thought that Gotabaya was unremittingly hard-line, so they made assertions on his behalf which were unreasonable – whereas he has always been prepared to listen, and to accept advice up to a point.
In this he resembles Mahinda, as I proved when, after we had reached consensus with the TNA during discussion, both Nimal and GL wanted me to get Mahinda to agree. And so he did, having first refused outright, not to all we proposed but to enough to take matters forward. But then GL refused to act, claiming that it would be his neck if things went wrong – which meant he just assumed that Mahinda would change his mind or else that Gotabaya would object. I was reminded then, of C. R. de Silva not following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s instructions to indict those responsible for the killing of five students in Trincomalee, on the grounds that the President might change his mind!
Scandal first broke
So now, on similar lines to his predecessor delaying to do what was necessary, so too President Sirisena failed to get rid of Arjuna Mahendran when the scandal first broke; he broke – admittedly under excessive pressure – his solemn promise not to dissolve Parliament until electoral reform had been introduced; and instead of asserting himself on UPFA platforms during the election, he followed insidious advice and tried to take charge surreptitiously after others had campaigned so effectively that he foolishly feared, or was driven to fear, that they might get an outright majority. And so he is now in a mess, from which he must boldly extricate himself if he is not to be excoriated by both his party and his country for taking them down the road to disaster.
For, he must realize that he is now without anyone who can build up the SLFP in the future. I make no criticism of the senior leadership which is with him now, for I realize that that generation joined the government because they had no alternative, given their age. And to give them their due, they have tried as possible to assert SLFP values.
But when it comes to the younger generation, I do not think there is anyone under 60 (except possibly Mahinda Amaraweera) of intelligence and integrity and experience who is on the government side. I was reminded of this again when reading Shehan Semasinghe’s recent interview. I have to admit I have a soft spot for him, ever since he and Uditha Lokubandara came to save me when they thought I was under threat of violence from those loyalists who had heard me say I would not vote for the impeachment of Shirani Bandaranayake. But, apart from that, he has been a voice of moderation and, along with other bright youngsters like Ramesh Pathirana and Kanaka Herath, sophisticated offspring of a more earthen generation of SLFP loyalists, he represents the future.
One has of course to hope that that future begins now. Though I can understand Dayan’s concentration on Gotabaya, given the excessive concern with the man at the top which has dogged Sri Lankan politics ever since 1977, it is important that any new dispensation allows authority to be widespread. The last government suffered from the fact that, as John Seneviratne put it, Basil was usurping the power of all ministries. Now we have a situation where Ranil runs everything.
Two of the brighter youngsters in the UNP ruefully registered, way back in 2015, that he thought he knew everything. Indeed with no sense of irony he told me, back in 2003, that one reason he was opposed to English medium was that he could not do it himself at the time. He had to concentrate on the economy, and there was no one else who could handle it. The fact that it had started successfully before he became Prime Minister meant nothing to him.
But given the structure of the executive, he has to have ministers who are supposedly in charge of at least some areas. Learning from Basil, he has allocated economic policy for himself which allows him to interfere widely. But some portfolios have to be given out, and for these he has chosen those he can rely on to do his bidding, Malik and Sagala and Akila being the most obvious examples.
One area of importance he could not hog was industries, because Rishad Bathiudeen made it a condition of supporting the common candidate at the election that he retains that portfolio. So for seven long lean years now we have had a Minister of Industries who cannot even conceive of developing the industrial policy we so urgently need. But for that we cannot blame Ranil, since it was because he had served Basil unquestioningly in the first Rajapaksa cabinet that Rishad was elevated to a portfolio well beyond his grasp. Given however that Rishad obviously does not see himself as Ranil’s creature, we have the farce of Ranil therefore encouraging everyone else to get in on the act, and promote industries that do not exist, as happened recently with regard to Volkswagen in Kuliyapitiya and the Horana fiasco.
That perhaps sums up the difference between Basil and Ranil. I have never had a high regard for Basil, and indeed I told John Rankin, the last British High Commissioner, that he and his ilk were spoiling Basil in their eagerness to do down Gotabaya. When Basil chased Mahinda Samarasinghe away from the aid process and took full control of all development programmes in the North, he commanded massive resources, and for a while it seemed that no one said him nay. But it must be acknowledged that Basil did deliver in areas he concentrated on. His problem was that he did not allow anyone else to do anything. Ranil however not only stops others from functioning effectively, he has now made a mess of areas he considers his specialities, from economic development to investment promotion to educational reform.
Except for Rishad, whom he privileged beyond measure, Basil did not work through politicians, but through some civil servants.
He also had a group of backroom boys who served him well though none of them could or would take decisions on their own. Ranil’s acolytes are different, and are given authority even though they work only to his agendas. But though we have now moved beyond the Suranimala Rajapaksas of his youth, these characters are still not what might be termed cutting edge, hence the series of blunders we have seen.
I suppose there is no solution to this problem, which dates back to the days when Caligula made his horse a consul. Ironically, when Sri Lanka became the first nation in the third world to have universal franchise, we did have a system that avoided this sort of lottery with regard to the exercise of authority in any field. The Committee system under the Donoughmore Constitution ensured that executive power was exercised by individuals selected not by one person but by a peer group, and that power was exercised through consultation. Unfortunately the present exercise in constitution making is beyond looking at such practical measures and is concerned more with dogma than the interests of the nation.