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Some ‘call-of-nature’, this!



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by N Sathiya Moorthy


Give it to Cabinet spokesman and Health Minister, Rajitha Senaratne, to demean the high office of the nation’s Presidency than already! He could have explained away that President Maithiripala Sirisena was feeling unwell, or had gone to make or attend an urgent personal or overseas call that he had either forgotten or put off. It was enough if the Cabinet spokesman claimed that the ‘call of duty’, the ‘call of the nation’ demanded the President’s presence in an ante room for a private conversation or consultation.


Though questions would have been raised as to what that ‘call of the nation’ could have been, yet, it could have been considered and declared ‘top secret’ and let the matter rest there. But for Minister Rajitha to declare in a televised media conference that the President went only to attend the ‘call of nature’ when Sirisena was known to have actually walked out of a Cabinet meeting that he was supposedly presiding over, should take the cake – and at the same very saddening.


Rajitha’s conduct reflects the kind of contempt that his own senior ministers – this one, among his closest of aides – take the office of the President and the incumbent, so very casually, if not outright contempt. The latter was reserved by and for UNP-coalition parliamentarian, S M Marikkar, whose ‘pickpocket’ reference to Sirisena is ‘defamatory’ to say the least. It is sad that even after the perceived patch-up, which Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe initiated on the spot, to get Sirisena back to the Cabinet meeting his party is talking only about directions to UNP second-line not to talk ill of the President, but not anything about any possible disciplinary action against the errant MP.


You cannot blame the UNP leadership leave aside the likes of Marikkar, who is only the latest in the list to say unsavoury things about the incumbent, which are unacceptable in reference to the Presidency. Reports have it that President Sirisena himself came to the Cabinet meeting armed with a tape-recorder, indicating that he was recording his speech, so that those that did not (want to) listen then and there, could do so later, if they wished.


The President’s Secretariat is not known to have denied the news reports – whether his walking out of the Cabinet, or his carrying a tape-recorder into the meeting. It is sad that it has come to such a pass and passé that the President, or anyone else, should feel compelled to have his statement recorded, obviously apprehending different versions getting out onto the media, starting with the social media. Incidentally, his walk-out from the Cabinet meeting appeared first in the social media, and much later in the traditional media.


The more serious question is about the ‘confidentiality of Cabinet proceedings’, so as to facilitate a free and frank discussion. Here, the Head of State, who also continues to chair Cabinet meetings even under the much-touted 19-A should be flouting such basic norms, despite his long innings as a senior Minister in previous governments should raise uncomfortable questions that are also about issues of propriety and questions of possibilities.


Eating the word


Some of Sirisena’s SLFP ministerial colleagues in the Government have for long been talking about his contesting the presidential polls the next time too. State Minister of Finance, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, is the latest one to repeat it, this time at an official weekly media briefing of the party, which generally should have had the boss’ nod ahead.


In the normal course, this should not have mattered at all, as it is only natural for the incumbent to consider contesting for a second term, if only to ensure the continuity of his policies and the implementation of his programmes, initiated in the first term. In the case of Sirisena, however, by seeking a second term, he would be eating his own pre-poll word from Elections-2015, when he declared that he would most definitely not seek a second term.


At the time, Candidate Sirisena was seeking to distinguish (!) himself from incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who through 18-A had changed the conventional rules of the game, removed the two-term upper-limit and was ‘avariciously’ contesting for a third term, too. If Sirisena’s camp now says that the re-election hints are only aimed at keeping the coalition house in order, if only to ensure that no one around treated his presidency as a ‘lame-duck’, it was the kind of arguments that the Rajapaksas too proffered while piloting 18-A.


If President Sirisena wanted to contest a second term, no problem in it, as long as the party of which he is also the president clears his candidacy – with or without contest. It has also been customary in such cases in the country to let the incumbent decide in the matter, and let him contest a second term, if he so desired and felt even more confident.


TNA’s R Sampanthan was right when he referred to Rajapaksa’s 18-A and the incumbent’s later-day decision to contest for a third term, when he said that whatever the constitutional provision in this regard, amended or as it existed, at the end of the day, the people of Sri Lanka had to vote him, for Mahinda R to continue in office. Sampanthan proved even more prophetic (though hidden when expressed first) as Mahinda Rajapaksa ended up losing the elections, also thanks to the TNA’s ‘Tamil vote-bank’.


‘Mischievous’ move


In context, President Sirisena’s decision to seek the Supreme Court’s opinion about the length of his term after 19-A had curtailed it to five years from original six years, should be deemed ‘mischievous’ an ‘over-ambitious’. The question, obviously motivated, was in the air even when Parliament and also the nation were debating 19-A. It however got a quiet and decent burial then and there.


Now for President Sirisena himself to resurrect the argument could only be deemed as seeking to circumvent the spirit of the Constitution, or 19-A, as if the legislative intent was otherwise, Parliament would have very unequivocally specified the same, and exempted incumbent’s first term at the very least from the ‘five-year rule’ through specified provisos.


It is anybody’s guess what Sirisena was seeking to achieve by wanting to fish in the troubled waters that he and his UNP partner in the coalition government have muddied, possibly beyond redemption and restoration. If nothing else, the Sri Lankan rule has been not to rectify the mistakes of the past and of the predecessor(s), but only to take it as a bench-mark and take if forward – or, is it backward – even more.


Despite their pre-poll promises to the contrary and the aspiration and anticipation of their traditional and not-so-traditional backers, this duo-leadership is nothing more than what others before them had been, including and starting with the Rajapaksa(s) that they dethroned. The promised ‘yahapalanaya’ can now do with some more of the ‘yahapalanaya’ – or, can it?


Jest, not gesture


People do not take campaign promises seriously. It was so even in Elections-2015, when sections that had wanted incumbent Rajapaksa out, voted in Sirisena – whatever their reason and justification. It is doubtful if they would have done otherwise had it been any other candidate in Sirisena’s place. This is not to dispute the ‘shock value’ attending on Sirisena’s candidacy.


Yet, whatever promises that he and his UNP campaigners had given then, their alliance government has kept only as promises through the three-plus years of their rule-less rule. Now, on the campaign trail for the LG polls, watched more inside the country than by the outside, Sirisena has declared that he would quit office after punishing all corrupt persons in politics – a promise much like one to count the sand grains on Colombo’s Galle Face Green.


Sirisena has also promised to walk the streets of the nation, with all those that fight corruption – all those that are not in power and hope not to be in power, which is what politics and corruption are all about, and what containing and curbing them requires, parliamentarians to begin with, power-brokers from among them for starters. Who knows, what next in the course of the current campaign trail, what words of wisdom Sirisena, or Ranil, or Rajapaksa would offer the nation – words that would sound hollow to the point of being taken for jest, not even a gesture anymore!


(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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