Soon after he took the chair at last Wednesday's cabinet meeting, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was to trigger some laughter amongst his ministerial colleagues.
Earlier that afternoon, at 2 p.m, he said, a meeting had been scheduled with the Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. That was for talks on the impending constitutional changes. A member of the Buddhist clergy had telephoned him to say it was not suitable to his kethi kaley or an inauspicious moment that was bad or malefic. "Mama berannath oney. Vipaksha Nayakathumath beranna oney," (I must save myself. I must also save the Leader of the Opposition). Hence, he had cancelled the meeting. He did not refer to another meeting at a different date and time. That naturally left doubts in the minds of some ministers whether the dialogue had ended due to astrological forebodings.
Ministers exploded in laughter. One of them said somewhat sarcastically "Ow Ow api kohomath viruddha paksha nayakathumawa araksha karaganna oney." (Yes, yes We must somehow protect the Leader of the Opposition). There was more laughter.
|President Rajapaksa greeting UNF crossovers P. Digambaram (Left) and Praba Ganeshan at Temple Trees on Thursday
Here is proof once again that astrologers and astrology are almost a second religion to most politicians in Sri Lanka, be they in the government or the opposition. A successful astrologer could get a politician to perform bizarre acts.
Years ago, when the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister, her foreign-exchange-starved government was yearning for investment. It was good news when a high-powered Japanese delegation led by Japan's Fuji Steel Corporation's head, Shigeo Nagano, was visiting Colombo. However, Premier Bandaranaike could not be on hand. Astrologers had advised her to remain in bed and not to set foot on ground. So it was her then number two, Minister Maithripala Senanayake who received the delegation. Then, there was the influential Minister in the one-time UNF Government who bundled himself into a gunny bag strewn with spices to ward off a bad omen. The list is endless.
Rajapaksa recalled the events in 1977. It was on one such inauspicious occasion that the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike who headed the Samagi Peramuna (United Front) dissolved Parliament to call for general elections. That was on the advice of an Indian astrologer. The party faced a humiliating defeat. The UNP won 145 seats in the 168-seat parliament. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) secured 17 seats. R.P. Wijesiri who contested as an independent candidate and became second MP for Harispattuwa joined the UNP. So did R.G. Samaranayake who won as second MP for Beruwala on the SLFP ticket. Then, both Harispattuwa and Beruwala were multi-member constituencies.
With that over, Rajapaksa took to task a cabinet minister who had made critical remarks at a talk-show sponsored by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), the national radio network. The Minister concerned was absent at the meeting. However, Rajapaksa noted that his cabinet colleague had remarked that the government did not understand the importance of Ayurveda. Such strong remarks violated the principle of collective responsibility and cast aspersions on him and other ministers, he said. If the Minister concerned had anything to say, he should have done so at this meeting, he added.
Rajapaksa referred to last week's debate in Parliament to extend the State of Emergency.
He said some ministers and MPs were not present in the House. Pointing out that there were quite a few among them, he urged SLFP General Secretary and Minister Maithripala Sirisena to take up the matter at the party level. Only 132 had voted in favour as against opposition's 32. The latter count showed that MPs in the opposition were no different. Unhappy about the turnout of his MPs in Parliament, Rajapaksa was to make a remark that was politically significant. "I will have to seriously think of taking others to work with us. There are quite a number," he declared.
He was also to point out that last Wednesday's meeting was perhaps not favourable to his kethi nekatha or on an auspicious note. The issues were not so pleasant.
The significance of Rajapaksa's remarks about getting "others to join" became clear the next day, On Thursday, Prabha Ganeshan (UNF - Colombo District) -MP (formerly of the Democratic People's Front) and Palani Digambaram (UNF Nuwara Eliya District) - MP (formerly of the National Union of Workers) joined the UPFA Government. They turned up at 'Temple Trees' on Thursday morning to be greeted by Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa MP. President Rajapaksa joined them later. If he had only spoken of the need to "protect" himself and Wickremesinghe just the day before, President Rajapaksa ended up giving a shock to the Leader of the Opposition by taking the two opposition MPs to his fold.
His hint to cabinet ministers and the enrolling of two UNF parliamentarians to the UPFA, no doubt, are pregnant with political meaning. It portends an about-turn in the course of events. On the one hand, President Rajapaksa was delivering a strong message to a group within the government perceived as 'dissident' or 'non co-operative' that he could afford to ignore them and win over more MPs from the opposition. That is if they did not fall in line. Some of the Ministers have been complaining, though privately, about the lack of authority to manage their portfolios. They allege that they were not being allowed to have their own nominees to head corporations and statutory bodies. Some even complained of 'outside' interference.
Since Parliament met for its first session on April 22 (after general elections on April 8), it became clear that Prabha Ganeshan was unhappy with the UNP. The issue arose after UNP leader Wickremesinghe did not name his brother Mano Ganeshan, who was defeated in the Kandy District, as an MP on the National List. Digambaram, who signed an accord with Wickremesinghe, also turned a vociferous critic of the UNP.
However, the timing of the 'crossovers' appears to be an important factor. It comes against the backdrop of a dialogue the UPFA initiated with the UNP over impending constitutional reforms. By having two more MPs on board and signaling more could follow, Rajapaksa appears to be delivering a message to his own ranks. That it comes during a weekend when ministers and MPs will attend a two-day workshop at the Eden Hotel in Beruwala is of importance. The workshop that began yesterday will end today. The event not only gives Rajapaksa an opportunity to mingle closely with his parliamentarians but also communicate his current thinking on important issues facing the government.
The move also delivers a message of sorts to the UNP, which has taken on board a staunch SLFPer, Mangala Samaraweera. Though Samaraweera is technically a UNF MP having contested on the UNP ticket in the Matara District, he led the SLFP-Mahajana Wing. It is no secret that Rajapaksa has viewed Samaraweera, since he quit his government, as both an irritant and a political threat to the UPFA.
The Matara District parliamentarian, one of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) frontliners then tasked to destroy the UNP, has declared he would not aspire for any office. However, the situation in the UNP continues to remain fluid and the in-fighting continues.
Thus, the prospects of Samaraweera, who is politically astute, climbing heights in the years to come are certainly a cause for worry not only for some UNPers but also for the UPFA. He is known to maintain a dialogue with some of those in the latter.
"Our party had decided that remaining in the opposition is not going to help us achieve the aspirations of the Tamils of Indian origin," Prabha Ganeshan told the Sunday Times. He said, "Our people have been overlooked in the areas of education, health, job opportunities among others. If we can work along with the government, we can achieve their aspirations."
He claimed that during discussions, they had not placed any conditions and were not expecting any portfolios.
However, Prabha's brother, Mano, the leader of the Democratic People's Front (DPF), was away in India. Soon after news spread that his brother, the only MP in the party had crossed over to the government, Ganeshan made a string of telephone calls to Colombo. That included a few in the UNP too. Mano said neither he nor his party had authorized Prabha to join the UPFA. He confided in one of them that he had also spoken to officials in the Indian High Commission in Colombo to explain the position. Mano also sent SMS messages to journalists in Sri Lanka. He said, "The news about Prabha Ganeshan joining the government is mischievous. He only met the President (Rajapaksa) to hand over our party proposals on the local government election reforms. This is party activity. DPF has no reason whatsoever to join the government. We will continue to perform as a Tamil national party seeking a respectable future to our people within united Sri Lanka." The message showed the clear disconnect between the two brothers. Even if Mano and his party were to sack Prabha, the matter was now a fait accompli.
Uthaiappan Palani Digambaram, a trade union leader, had a different reason. He told the Sunday Times, "during the peak of the war, the international community was voicing concern against the government over humanitarian issues. Today the war is over and the international community is not coming forward to help the Tamil community. We know only the government can look after the people".
He said that issues related to Tamil grievances and those concerning problems faced by persons of Indian origin in Sri Lanka are different. "We are not demanding additional rights. We only expect the government to uplift the living standards of the people of Indian origin, particularly those in the plantation sector," he said.
On Thursday afternoon, both MPs crossed over to the government side in Parliament. However, they had to return to their original seats until a re-allocation is made.
Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, widely acknowledged as the main strategist for the UPFA, is credited with winning over the new MPs to the government side. The addition of two MPs has brought the total number on the government side in the 225-seat parliament to 147 -- just three short of a two-thirds majority. Behind-the-scene talks, the Sunday Times learnt, are under way now for at least two more MPs of the UNP and two from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) to join the UPFA.
The first casualty of the crossover to government ranks of the two MPs seems to be the ongoing UPFA-UNP dialogue over changes to the constitution. An immediate response to the move came from Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Chairman of the UNP. He said the UNP saw no need to continue the dialogue. Speaking during a debate on regulations to cope with the use of pesticides in Parliament, Perera said, "I along with Joseph Michael Perera went to meet the President. Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva who is here is also a witness to it.
"I asked him if he is genuinely interested in abolishing the executive presidency. He said he is because he wants to be close to the people. Last time we signed an MOU with the President, we said we would not disrupt government activities for a year. After that, he took 17 members of the UNP to that side. He promised us this time that he would not take any MPs from the UNP hereafter. But today he has taken two from our side. He has broken his promise. So I say we don't need to have any future discussions with him."
Government members shouted: "We did not take them. If they came, what can we do?"
Perera responded: "Don't tell us that. When the pockets are filled up, they automatically come to that side. You fill the pocket and take them. You will ruin the country."
That remark by Perera is a damning indictment on his party's MPs. He concedes that there were colleagues in his midst whose pockets could be filled and they would go. Here is a very vulnerable area for one of the country's oldest political parties, already plagued by a crisis over leadership. If Perera is to be believed, what goes on now is an MP buying spree. Pathetic enough, his party has chosen, among others, candidates with large pockets to contest the last parliamentary elections. And that is the party crying loud about the need to fight corruption.
However, Opposition UNP Leader Wickremesinghe struck a slightly different note by placing the ball in the government's court. Speaking at a ceremony where twenty SLFP-Mahajana Wing members led by Mangala Samaraweera obtained UNP membership at Siri Kotha, Wickremesinghe said he would act according to "the reply he would receive" from President Rajapakasa. For that reply, he set out a few "assurances," which he wants from the President. Even if Rajapaksa were to resume the dialogue with the UNP, it is extremely unlikely he would meet these "assurances".
Wickremesinghe said, "If the Rajapaksa government is moving towards a dictatorship, consolidate family rule, place further burdens on the people, we are opposed to all those moves. If they distance themselves from going towards a dictatorship, if the people's independence is confirmed, if people friendly solutions are found, we are ready to support them. We have to ask again from the Rajapaksa government whether it will follow the road to dictatorship or opt for independence and people-friendly governance. I like to emphasise that we will act according to the reply we will receive."
Samaraweera, and 20 of his members in the former SLFP-Mahajana Wing were welcomed at Siri Kotha, the UNP headquarters on Friday morning. They offered flowers at the Buddha statue in the premises. Among others, taking part was Wickremesinghe, Chairman Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa.
Wickremesinghe said that Mangala's father, Mahanama, had said in 1965 after the crossover to the UNP, any one who needs freedom has to join this party. He said Mangala Samaraweera was instrumental in getting the SLFP back to power, but he eventually quit the party since it was going against its policies, limiting the independence, and placing untold hardships on the public. Samaraweera said he was entering a new political journey by joining the UNP.
He said, after being appointed as the Matara district Chief SLFP organiser in July 1988 he contributed immensely for the improvement of the party. "But, as a person who has been engaged in politics on principle, remaining in the SLFP or serving it any more would be a betrayal of the people", he said. He was strongly critical of the Rajapaksa policies.
The critical question for Wickremesinghe now is whether Rajapaksa would respond to his call for resumption of UPFA-UNP talks "by distancing" his government "from dictatorship and carry out a people's friendly rule." A high-ranking UPFA source who did not wish to be identified told the Sunday Times, "If he expects President Rajapaksa to give assurances on non-existent issues, he will never get it. Continuing the dialogue is one thing. Asking for assurances on non-existent issues is another. It will be of no use."
Wickremesinghe re-iterated to the Sunday Times that "We will act on President Rajapaksa's response. Let us see what he has to say." That indeed is a big dilemma for him. When Rajapaksa initiated a dialogue with the UNP, through two different intermediaries, Wickremesinghe unhesitatingly seized the opportunity. He strongly believed that would give his party a chance to help abolish the Executive Presidency and instead create an office of Executive Prime Minister. He also believed that he could persuade the government to consider the UNP's suggestions for other constitutional changes. There was also a big bonus for him.
He came on top of the ongoing tussles with party dissidents led by Premadasa. Wickremesinghe was perceived to be the man who had Rajapaksa's blessings. This is despite Premadasa publicly voicing strong sentiments supportive of the government and endorsing Rajapaksa's policies. There are lessons learnt for both of them. A covert or an overt dialogue with the Government is not the sole answer to the UNP's ills. If the party were stronger, there is no doubt it would not end up as a football to be kicked around in the political field.
Some UNPers say for a second time Wickremesinghe had trusted Rajapaksa and entered into a dialogue "only to be played out." On the first occasion, they say, he lost 17 MPs. On the second, he has lost two so far with fears of more to follow. Premadasa, on the other hand, has not relented in his campaign urging Wickremesinghe to step down. He and others backing him have been taking part in meetings in various districts garnering support.
Wickremesinghe has also come under heavy pressure from some of his party stalwarts to call off the dialogue. If he does resume it without winning any 'assurances' he has sought from President Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe runs the risk of angering them. That would be grist to the mill for the dissidents who are already saying that their leader had lost out a second time to Rajapaksa.
Well-informed government sources opined that the UPFA, despite calls from the UNP, is bent on removing provisions relating to the Constitutional Council in the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. It also wants to make other changes to empower the President instead of independent commissions. These sources say there is re-thinking again to go ahead with the constitutional amendments to provide for a candidate to contest the presidency many times. That means the move for an office of Executive Prime Minister will be in limbo. With this, the only outcome of the UPFA-UNP dialogue would be the understanding they have reached on changes to the local government elections.
Indications over which way things are headed will emerge after Rajapaksa's meeting with his Ministers and MPs during the weekend. There is little doubt he is sitting very pretty with his unrivalled charm, with his public relations efforts on overdrive and political shrewdness.