The anticipated double cross

In the absence of anything newsworthy being done by the mainline UNP, the UNP(D) group was in the headlines of the fringe press this weekend with the ‘Heladiva’ published by the Wimal Weerawansa group and edited by Dharmashri Kariyawasam. It said that 13 members of the group of 17 UNP defectors who joined the government, would be rejoining the UNP and would cross over at the budget in the hope of defeating it. The report further added that the mainline JVP had also agreed to support the UNP’s move. This headline can be seen to be motivated by the need of the Weerawansa group to assert their own importance to the UPFA. It was the UNP(D) group that gave the Rajapakse the required majority in parliament. When the JVP split and Weerawansa took 12 parliamentarians with him, this bolstered the majority of the government, but it was not absolutely essential to help keep the government in power. Now with the budget coming up, this is probably Weerawansa’s way of reminding the Rajapakse government how important their votes are going to be. Be that as it may, rumours have been circulating for the past few weeks about the possibility of some members of the UNP(D) group crossing over.

Western diplomats hopeful

Some members of the western diplomatic community in Colombo, is full of hope that Karu Jayasuriya will return to the UNP to become deputy leader. Some in fact have been saying to those who would care to listen, that Jayasuriya will definitely rejoin the UNP before the end of this year. Within the UNP, the hope is that he will re-appear on the UNP stage at the party convention in December. For Jayasuriya, it is indeed a singular victory that he is still wanted by the UNP so long after he joined the government. When he was in the UNP, he was subject to relentless attacks from within. This was so even before he led the rebellion within the UNP after the defeat at the 2005 presidential elections. When the tug of war was on between the two factions in the UNP towards the end of 2006, one Wickremesinghe loyalist in fact had been telling everyone that Jayasuriya’s pants should be pulled down if he came to Cambridge Place. Now, in the wake of the latest moves to bring him back, those who wanted to pull down his trousers appear to have fallen silent.

Nobody is optimistic enough to believe that the entire UNP(D) group will come back to the UNP. It seems only too plain that certain individuals like Rajitha Senaratne, Mahinda Wijesekera, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, Hemakumara Nanayakkara and C. Sooriyarachchi of Polonnaruwa, have found comfortable berths in the government party. Rajitha Senaratne is a key spokesman for the government in many fora, and there’s hardly anyone in the government who can do a better job than he does. Furthermore, he has been a longstanding friend of the president. Hemakumara’s place in the Galle district is assured because both Richard Pathirana and Amarasiri Dodangoda are out of the running and the district needs an SLFP leader. Mahinda Wijesekera is tipped to be the next UPFA group leader for the Matara district, with Dulles Alahapperuma who is also from the Matara district, coming in through the national list. Deputy Minister Suriyarachchi of Polonnaruwa is already said to be very thick with SLFP general secretary Maithripala Sirisena. Suriyarachchi’s private secretary, one Atukorale, contested the recent NCP provincial council elections on the UPFA list as a nominee of the UNP(D) group and polled 16,000 preference votes and was elected on the bonus seat. So Sooriyarachchi’s future in the SLFP seems to be assured and it appears that the Medirigiriya electorate has already been earmarked for him.

It’s a group like Karu Jayasuriya, Milinda Moragoda, Navin Dissanayake, Gamini Lokuge, P.Dayaratne, Dharmadasa Banda and Mano Wijeratne, who are said to be open to the suggestion of coming back. But the question on their minds is, what is the assurance that they will be treated equally if they come back? One UNP dissident said that if Karu J goes back to become the deputy leader of the UNP, he will be given a rousing welcome at the party convention, and then later the Wickremesinghe loyalists will be back snapping at his heels as they did before he left the party; and this time they will have more grist for their mill as well. In any event, one of the prerequisites to get the UNP dissidents back will be to make conciliatory gestures such as calling off the disciplinary inquiries initiated against them. Some of the individuals appointed to these disciplinary committees are newcomers to the party and veterans like M.H.Mohamed, Dharmadasa Banda and Gamini Lokuge, will have to appear before these political nonentities to explain themselves.

Ranil should not go

There are of course many rank and file UNP members who would welcome the return of Jayasuriya and others to the UNP. When Jayasuriya’s mother expired some weeks ago, many UNPers came to pay their last respects. And in the condolence book one such UNPer had written, "We know that the demise of your mother has caused you great pain of mind. In similar vein, your absence in the United National Party has caused us great pain of mind". R.A.D.Sirisena says that when a suggestion was brought in the UNP working committee by MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara, that the 17 defectors be taken back, nobody had opposed it. This was a far cry from the mood in the working committee soon after the defections. When S.B.Dissanyake who had been in the dissident group but had not joined the government arrived for the first working committee meeting after the crossover, some members had derisively told SB that the only reason why he too did not go was because he couldn’t negotiate a suitable package for himself!

Interestingly, in this context, R.A.D.Sirisena, the general secretary of the UNP(D) group, expressing his personal views, told this columnist that what was needed in the UNP was a change in the party constitution and not a change of faces because there is no generally accepted successor to Wickremesinghe. He holds that if the party constitution is changed and things are run by a leadership committee, then there will be no problem. He further stated that if the UNP(D) group was to become active once again in the UNP, the UNP had to take the initiative to get them back by halting hostilities. The first step is to call off the disciplinary inquiries against them. Then the UNP leader has to tell the others in the party to stop criticizing the dissidents. Sirisena says that the UNP(D) group was vilified even at the demonstration demanding a salary hike held by the UNP in front of the Fort railway station last week. This was not conducive to unity. If the UNP is to be reformed, then the dictatorial powers of the party leader should be done away with and the deputy leader of the party should have powers vested in him by the constitution says Sirisena.

He asserts that this post of deputy leader has always been used in the UNP to sidestep things. When Gamini Atukorale created a problem for the leader, the way he a got around it was by appointing Karu Jayasuriya as the deputy leader and Atukorale as the assistant leader. He says that S.B.Dissanayake has been given a post called national organizer and deceived. It has no power. The UNP cannot move forward with this kind of deception and half-measures. The UNP should now try to build up trust. The problem that some of our people have is that the UNP can be trusted but Ranil cannot, he said. On the one hand, the UNP(D) group seems to have softened their stand by being willing to work under Ranil as the leader. But this is conditional on the party constitution being made more democratic.

Sirisena blew hot and cold last week. While acknowledging that there is no acceptable successor to Wickremesinghe, he was also full of criticism of the way things were being done. He said that even though the UNP general secretary was challenging the government to hold an election, last week, they had the opportunity to defeat the southern provincial council where the UNP and the JVP together have more seats than the government. An election that the opposition precipitates rather than waiting for the government to take the initiative, is always favourable to the opposition. Sirisena lamented that even that opportunity was not seized by the UNP.

When the UNP spokesman Gayantha Karunatilleke was asked by the Lakbima why they did not topple the southern provincial government, his answer was that the individual PC members had been given the discretion to vote as they thought fit. The question posed by Sirisena is what is going to happen if the same kind of freedom of action is granted at the parliamentary level? Can a party run like this, asks Sirisena who asserts that the UNP says that they cannot trust the JVP vis a vis the southern PC vote. But even at the parliamentary level, the JVP’s help will have to be forthcoming if the budget is to be defeated.

Sidelined UNP strongman S.B.Dissanayake, who has been maintaining a very low profile, took steps last week to set up a voluntary organization to assist victims of political violence and war. The secretary of his voluntary organization which has been named ‘Paramita’ is his wife Tamara Dissanayake. Among the Vice Presidents is long term SB associate Keerthi Mawellage, a former parliamentarian and sitting provincial councillor from the south. He was also private secretary to Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike for many years. The first act of charity the new organization will perform will be the provision of 300 prosthetic limbs to soldiers who have been victims of anti-personnel mines and other civilian amputees.

Like Sajith Premadasa’s Jana Suwaya programme, this will be Dissanayake’s excuse to run around the country, winning friends and influencing people in order to win the grand prize some day. Paramita refers to the doing of meritorious deeds, in order to reach a certain goal. In this case, the goal is not enlightenment but the presidency.

Basil’s coup

The most significant political event last week, was the laying to rest of the Indian issue. The month of October saw relations between India and Sri Lanka strained as never before since 1987. Tamil Nadu was in ferment with political parties of various persuasions asserting that the central government should intervene in the conflict in Sri Lanka to stop the war and Tamil ministers and parliamentarians were threatening to resign from the central government if no action was taken. Several Indian parliamentarians from Tamil Nadu in fact submitted post-dated letters of resignation and it appeared that the central government would succumb to the pressures emanating from Tamil Nadu. Many people were even expecting a 1987 style ‘parippu drop’. But by last Sunday, the situation had been completely diffused after presidential advisor Basil Rajapakse’s visit to India.

By the first week of October M.Karunanadhi, the Tamil Nadu chief minister was urging the Indian central government to intervene to stop the ‘genocide’ in Sri Lanka, and the Indian central government was summoning the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner in New Delhi to express its unhappiness at the ‘growing casualties of unarmed Tamil civilians as a result of military action’ and its concern over the ‘escalating hostilities in the north’. Even as late as two weeks ago, on the 16th of October, the Indian external affairs ministry put out a strongly worded press release which expressed ‘grave concern’ about the rights of civilians in the conflict and asserting that ‘normalcy cannot be brought about by military means or battlefield victories’. But after Basil Rajapakse’s visit to New Delhi, the press release emanating from the Indian External Affairs ministry struck a completely different tone, speaking of the ‘positive and constructive’ discussions where among other things, Rajapakse had briefed the Indians of the efforts taken by the Sri Lankan government to ensure the safety and welfare of the civilian population in the north. The joint statement also said that both sides had agreed that ‘terrorism should be countered with resolve’.

And after Rajapakse’s visit the Tamil Nadu chief minister withdrew his letters of resignation from the central government and without those letters hanging over its head, the whole Indian issue seems to have died down except for food being collected in Tamil Nadu to be sent to the Tamils of the north. Some believed that India’s offer of 800 tonnes of food would be interpreted by ‘jathiwadi’ elements in Sri Lanka as an affront to national sovereignty. But in today’s dicey global economic situation no attention at all has been focused on the free food. For all practical purposes it seems as if the government will be able to take all the food donated by both the Indian central government and the Tamil Nadu government without any hindrance at the local level. Some Indian officials were wondering whether the offer of food would be misunderstood by the majority community, but this columnist expressed the opinion that nobody would be concerned and it has turned out to be so.

Basil Rajapakse’s daughter is married to an Indian national and he had struck up a friendship with India’s National Security Advisor M.K.Narayanan. Basil did his homework before going to India. He summoned the District Secretaries of the Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya districts and obtained briefings about the distribution of relief supplies in those districts and he held consultations with Minister Rishard Badurdeen who is in charge of distributing relief. There is no doubt that Rajapakse scored by defusing the build up beyond the Palk Straits – not just at the centre, but in Tamil Nadu as well. If there was any doubt that President Rajapakse’s two most able lieutenants are his two brothers Gotabhaya and Basil, this latest episode puts that to rest. It now seems almost inevitable that any successor to President Mahinda Rajapakse, will be from within the Rajapakse family itself.

The UNP for its part, welcomed this major political coup like a jealous child. Some members of the UNP went on TV, demanding to know what kind of a ‘hora givisuma’ Basil entered into with India. The disappointment that the Indian issue did not result in the government’s march forward being stalled, was patently visible with some of that resentment being directed at India as well. Indian officialdom seems to be taking the UNP’s very JVP-like posturing stoically, as something that any opposition party will engage in.

JVP slogans hijacked

The JVP, as could be expected, was adamant that what has happened with Basil Rajapakse’s visit was that the government has knelt before India. However, even though this was mentioned at last week’s JVP politburo meeting, it was not specified exactly how the government had ‘knelt’ before India and what concessions the government had granted to India. The JVP was inferring things by the fact that Karunanidhi had backed down, the reasoning being that for Karunanidhi to back down, something very significant may have been conceded. The JVP did not have the time to talk of a ‘hora givisuma’ because the UNP seized their slogan before they could get into the act.

The JVP conducted a strike in the education sector last week and despite conflicting claims as to its success, one thing that can be said is that it was disruptive. Education is one sector in which the JVP has remained strong. The JVP’ education trade unions boasts 47,000 members, and this is no exaggeration because they won the education cooperatives elections earlier this year defeating the government trade unions. Despite the fact that the JVP is faring worse than they ever did at elections, their trade union base still remains strong mainly because of the union members’ expectation that it is only the JVP that can give the government a fight to win their demands.

When the Wimal Weerawansa group broke away from the JVP, none of the JVP’s trade unions joined them even though mass organizations like the Patriotic National Movement and the JVP’s foreign branches (such as that in Japan) joined them en masse. The JVP’s trade unions in the education sector and the health sector (with a membership of 24,000 at all levels of the heath service) were unaffected. The only JVP trade union to defect with the Weerawansa group was the administrative service union which organizes officers of the Sri Lanka administrative service below SLAS rank, but above the government clerical service.

We reported some weeks ago that the JVP had initiated a move to prepare national policy frameworks for education, health and agriculture sectors. The committee appointed to formulate national policies in education has already commenced their sittings, but the other two have not yet got off the ground. All three sectors are areas where the JVP has some clout, and perhaps would like to control. What do they expect to achieve by preparing a national plan for these three sectors? Many years ago, the former UNP strongman Sirisena Cooray prepared a national plan and nobody took the slightest notice. It was ignored by both the government of the day and the opposition. One wonders whether the JVP’s efforts are also an exercise in futility like Sirisena Cooray’s or whether they expect something more concrete from their efforts. If last week’s events are any indication, it could be that the JVP expects to use their clout in the health and education sectors to bargain with the government at a later date. Their ability to conduct countrywide strikes may be limited if non-existent, but they can be a nuisance to the government and the public because of their trade union presence in the health and education sectors.

In the context where there are signs that even the UNP (D) group is thinking of returning to the UNP’s fold, it is not far fetched to wonder whether the JVP is planning to go back to the UPFA. In 2001 they formed the probationary government with Chandrika Kumaratunga and then contested separately at the 2001 parliamentary election. They joined her again to contest the 2004 parliamentary election and then left her, only to join Mahinda Rajapakse at the 2005 presidential election. Later they left Rajapakse but last week, when the JVP party secretary Tilvin Silva was asked by a newspaper whether regretted having supported Rajapakse in 2005, Silva’s reply had been in the negative. If they hadn’t done that, the country would have been divided, he said. This statement clearly shows that the JVP considers the UPFA to be the lesser of the evils compared with the UNP. Last week, it was not just in the anti-Indian posturing that the UNP seemed to have hijacked the JVP’s role. The UNP held a pre-budget protest in front of the Fort railway station where they demanded a Rs.7,500 salary hike, in a situation where the JVP was asking only Rs.5,000! One JVP member wryly commented that this must be because they are capitalists. The average UNPer needs more money than the average JVPer.

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