Now is the time for ‘all good men’ to come to the aid of govt.


by N Sathiya Moorthy

Now that the integrity and sincerity of the two major Sinhala partners to keep the coalition government going have come under greater stress more than at any time in the past three-plus years, they need ‘external players’ to help them sort out their mutual differences. It does not mean foreign powers that were behind this ‘unholy mess’ in 2015 but the domestic underwriters of the government and the larger coalition that made Maithiripala Sirisena the democratically-elected President of the nation and Ranil Wicrkemesinghe, the not-so-democratically selected Prime Minister.

It is not without a reason that the domestic allies of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine should come forward and take the responsibility for creating this mess in the first place. They have no real powers to change this government. Under and after 19-A no one really has. That includes the ‘Executive President’ in the pre-19-A era. It also includes Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who can quit office if he so desires (!) but cannot guarantee that President Sirisena cannot and would not muster a majority then – and only then – and have another government under another prime minister.

The real problem with the nation’s polity in this past week after the local government (LG) polls is that the man who can make a government that works, does not seem too keen to make this government to work, either. If only Mahinda Rajapaksa had sent out clear signals, if not open calls, for forming a new government at the centre, defectors not only from Sirisena’s SLFP-UPFA but even other parties, including Wickremesinghe’s UNP would have begun thronging to his side. But he is not doing it.

The Sirisena camp thought the President had the inherent power still to sack the Prime Minister at will, which he does not have owing to 19-A; he also does not have any powers to deny the seat to Rajapaksa, if the latter is inclined to stake his claim after engineering defections. It could become a messier affair than already, if with a majority of MPs on his side, Rajapaka was to move a no-faith motion against the government in Parliament successfully. Ranil would lose, but that would still not give Sirisena powers to dissolve Parliament, if the latter did not want to work with his former boss of a decade.

The moment the SLFP-UPFA MPs fully understand this constitutional reality, their own preferences could shift from Sirisena to Rajapaksa. It is not about policies, but about politics. They want to win another parliamentary election each, and Rajapaksa not Sirisena is their better bet just now. Even in the parliamentary polls of 2015, Rajapaksa, not Sirisena, won them their individual seats, on his personal charisma even after losing the presidency.

Tall leader...

Today, when Maithiri and Ranil are playing the cat-and-mouse game without learning their lessons from the LG poll; their outside underwriters are sitting where they have become comfortable with over the past three years especially and are issuing statements, urging them to remember the mandate of 2015. Truth be acknowledged, it was not a mandate that Sirisena and/or Ranil secured in January 2015. It was a mandate that the smaller parties, starting with the minorities’ parties, that gave the other two.

The results of the presidential polls very clearly showed that the Tamil votes and the Muslim votes that made the real difference. Yes, the JHU, JVP and much of the Upcountry Tamil votes also gave a more respectable margin to Sirisena than others. It is thus not only their right, but also responsibility, to make the mandate work. The reverse is also true. It is their right as much as responsibility, to make Sirisena and Wickremesinghe behave.

Tall leader, yet...

If there is one leader who could rise to the occasion and play peace-maker between the ‘Big Two’ in Government, it is TNA’s R Sampanthan. He is among the most experienced parliamentarian in the country, who has worked alongside a succession of presidents and prime ministers in the country. He is not a Sinhala, does not belong to either of the Sinhala majors. Nor has he any love for other Sinhala parties, especially the JHU and JVP, the centre-right and centre-left peripheral parties, which have backed the duo in the presidential polls, yet swear by their ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ credentials.

On limited issues of national politics, Sampanthan the leader and TNA the party can hope to carry the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties with them, as long as they do not start talking their North-East re-merger cause in the process. If at the end of it all, Sampanthan grows taller than at present, maybe other parties and leaders from other Tamil-speaking communities may have a cause to hear him more intently than at present – and listen to him with real regard, without pretensions.

Today, sitting in Jaffna yet after the LG polls, Sampanthan has been issuing appeals for Sirisena and Ranil to remember their collective mandate of 2015 and work towards it. JHU Patali Champika Ranawaka, too, has been saying similar things, but the Muslim party leaders are conspicuous by their silence. The JVP, as with the Rajapaksa days, itself has forgotten the 2015 mandate, for which it backed Sirisena in the presidential polls.

It is also their collective strength. Each of these minor parties, drawn against each other on specifics all the time, came together in the ‘larger, common good’, going beyond their narrow, ‘nationalist politics’ of specific ethnic constituency and methodology. The Muslim parties alone had their heart in one place and mind elsewhere until the heart began ruling the mind. Today, again, their studied and stoic silence seems reflecting their continuing dilemma than levels of political maturity. The dilemma includes existential crisis from within their united community and a divided polity.

Reading the ‘riot act’

Continuing this ruling coalition in the same form after all the bickerings of the past years, heightened by the high drama in these days after the LG polls, would be a farce, a Greek tragedy at its worst. Yet there is no alternative to continuing with it unless Sirisena and Wickremesinghe agree to Rajapaksa’s proposition for ordering fresh parliamentary polls, if required through special legislation.

If the ruling duo could do with a 19-A for self-preservation against each other than anything else, the nation could require a 20-A here and now, on the lines mentioned. Already, the President and Prime Minister have become lame-duck authorities, as their writ may not run even outside of their compounds anymore – and possibly not inside, either.

The nation just cannot afford a long period of hibernation, going beyond three years of non-governance and mis-governance. If one includes the last years of the Rajapaksa regime, it is even more. If not corrected early on, it could become a national past-time, a national habit and part of a nation’s character, where already there is a perception that nothing moves, or nothing moves without something else moves somewhere else.

It is time Sampathan and the TNA took the initiative to rein in Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, and read them the ‘riot act’ loud and clear. It is another matter that there is no ‘riot act’ for them or anyone to read to anyone else, but there is no harm in pretending, for the nation’s stake that one does exists and they do persist. Already Sampanthan & Co have acted irresponsibility through the past three-plus years, they lost all moral authority and perfect timing to intervene in the affairs of the coalition government, but again, it is better later than never.

The chances are that any initiative of the kind by Sampanthan could still fail, and fail miserably. It may still not be a loss of face if the participant-parties are able to rise above their narrow ethnic differences as they did in 2015. It could well be a warning bell to the so-called bigger Sinhala parties, namely, the SLPP, UNP and the SLFP (?), that a coalition of minor parties, cutting across majority and minority ethnic sentiments could still be a possibility to check their political misadventures, going beyond the one that they all worked together in 2015.


There may still be a hitch. While not seemingly showing any interest in staking prime ministerial claims, Rajapaksa seems keen on having the Leader of the Opposition tag for him. The ruling duo and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya were even more short-sighted in naming Sampanthan the Leader of the Opposition when the infant JO under Rajapaksa was staking claims to the position. It was a constitutional joke that the JO should still want to be in government and demand the position, but it was worse for Sampanthan to be given the title.

Personally and from the stand-point of Tamil politics, Sampanthan did not earn the position as his mentor Appapillai Amirthalingam had done in 1977, when the losing Sinhala government party in Sirimavo-led SLFP ( 8 seats) came a poor third, after the UNP (140) and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF-18 seats). Now that SLPP is an electoral entity with a proven majority in local government authorities, and the Speaker can delay, not deny, their claims to the post of Leader of the Opposition post, Tamil hard-liners, who have been enthused even more after the LG polls in the North, would misinterpret it all as yet another ‘Sinhala conspiracy’ if Sampanthan were to be stripped of the position. Worse still, they would also charge Sampanthan as becoming a part of the conspiracy – and without batting an eyelid.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...