“The gift of a good liar is making people believe you lack a talent for lying” – ‘House of Cards’ tele play
In reviewing progress or the absence of it, in two years of ‘Yahapalanaya’, we must draw comfort from Trotsky’s dictum that history is the natural selection of accidents. It explains the 2015 election victory of President Sirisena and the ham-fisted, floundering governance that followed. It was an accident. It was unexpected. That we yearned for it, is another matter.
Political leaders fall in to two categories. Some are signposts. Others are weathercocks. Signpost leaders show the way. Buffeted by events, weathercock leaders are in a constant battle to find direction. At this midway point in the ‘Yahapalana’ experiment, I leave the readers free to decide the category that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe fall in to.
This Government came to power on a promise to revitalise the economy any accusing Mahinda Rajapaksa of financial profligacy. Unfolding evidence suggests that his successors stand before a bewildered public accused of shielding, defending and justifying grand larceny or virtual rape of the nation’s exchequer.
The President deserves praise for appointing the commission. He also deserves censure for taking so long to probe the scandal.
President Sirisena must heed the advice Hugh Gaitskell gave the labour party that was in turmoil after the death of Clement Atlee. He told the warring left and right wings of the party “ Let us not forget that we can never go farther than we can persuade at least half of the people to go” It is not consensus but numbers that finally matter.
8 January 2015
As I said, his success on 8 January 2015 was an accident. The group responsible for his nomination led by former President Chandrika expected that the announcement at the New Town Hall on 21 November 2014 would trigger a substantial number of defection from the SLFP ranks. It did not happen. Why?
The SLFP parliamentarians and many representing ethnic minorities then aligned with the Government knew how Mahinda would respond to the challenge. If he won, he would do another JR and hold a referendum and extend the docile Parliament by another six years. The possible jumpers decided to wait and watch. Even after 8 January only a handful did.
Apart from Mahinda’s demonstrated political machismo, there was another vital factor. They knew that the Leader of the Opposition would only offer a token protest. He would either walk out as the UNP did on the 18th Amendment or discover some abstract constitutional gibberish that would help confuse the issue, as he did in the case of the impeachment of the Chief Justice.
Mahinda Rajapaksa held the presidential election in the belief that Ranil Wickremesinghe would be his opponent. Ranil is a narcissistic personality that has little empathy for contrary views. He was convinced that he could win the Presidency as he nearly did in 2005. He was clever enough to shelve the notion in 2010 given the ‘Ranaviru’ syndrome that overwhelmed the Sinhala psyche.
While Tamils and Muslims would not have voted for Rajapaksa, they would not have rushed to vote for Wickremesinghe in the same phenomenal proportions as they did for the common candidate Sirisena.
Closer to the watershed event, UNP ranks were motivated and energised. It was not due to any Ranil magic. The selfless decision of young Harin Fernando to resign his seat in Parliament to take on the Rajapaksa monolith in the Uva provincial elections, uplifted the morale of a party. Though Harin failed to win outright, UNP ranks saw the promise of a new alternative leadership. There was life after Ranil, the leader with a fragile self-esteem and a distorted sense of his own destiny.
Very soon, we will know what happened and who did what in the bond issue in February 2015 and the repeat of it in 2016.
The bond controversy emboldened the Mahinda faction. There were no major defections to the Maithri camp. The UNP failed to obtain a decisive mandate. The new President appointed defeated candidates through the national list and cobbled up a two-thirds majority and for two years we have lived with the chimera of a national coalition.
Had Mahinda won, resolving the debt conundrum would have been his burden. He would have had to deal with the same illiquidity and the same worries of insolvency. He too would have adopted drastic measures. He would have relied on brother Gota to manage social order and handled parliament with a more than a tame leader of the opposition.
Pieter Keuneman , commenting on the undemocratic features of the 1978 Constitution, wrote that the “the task of bringing Parliament back to the people and of making it a real instrument of the people’s will be settled “not in the edifice designed by Jeffrey Bawa in the Diyawanna lake. It was more likely, to be settled elsewhere.”
As Hannah Arendt points out, regimes that are corrupt and without authority, lacking the confidence of the people can be of extraordinary longevity. What we see today is an extension of the Rajapaksa regime with Rajapaksa himself in hibernation.
What the bond controversy did was to put information that was previously held by a few into the hands of almost everybody curious about how we manage or mismanage our public debt.
Ranil Wickremesinghe never wanted a commission of inquiry. He made sure that Parliament was dissolved preventing the first COPE committee seeing the light of day. The next COPE committee had a general idea that there was indeed an iceberg but as we know now, it too missed the tip but was guided by the tap of surmise and common sense.
The problem is not Ravi’s penthouse. The problem is the house of cards that Prime Minister has built in the last two years. It is a fragile structure sustained by declarations of good intentions, orchestrated deceptions and brazen political horse-trading.
A silver lining
There is a silver lining. When the Commission of Inquiry publishes its findings, we will have an opportunity for a genuine revolution. To begin something anew. It will open up space for the President to form a truly representative national government for the remainder of his presidency. We must dismantle the petrified structure and rediscover the spirit of the movement for a just society that started it all.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe stands indicted for his sordid attempt to cover-up the bond scam. He cannot sit next to the Governor of the Central Bank and promise economic reforms or announce economic strategy. He never wanted him in that position. He wanted Arjun Mahendran reappointed. Failing that, he wanted Charitha Ratwatte.
The country needs a credible Prime Minister who can communicate with people. A leader tainted with scandal cannot lead.
It is much easier to lose credibility than to gain it back. The nation expects action not words.