The Political Column

25th March  2001

Caught in crossover crossfire

By our Political Correspondent
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Rringing down a government is no easy task. It needs meticulous planning and commitment. Besides, timing has to be correct. It also takes time to woo and win over government members. Unlike past constitutions, the 1978 constitution has made crossing over a political gamble. If a member crosses over, he loses his seat.

The only time the crossover was made easy was when President J. R. Jayewardene through the second amendment to the Constitution made it possible for an opposition member to cross over to the government if he enjoyed the confidence of more than 80 members in the House. The amendment applied only for the first parliament under the 1978 constitution. 

With the introduction of the powerful Executive Presidency, no member dared to cross over from the government to the opposition. However, crossovers from the government side are possible if those who want to cross over feels the government is crumbling and the opposition will take care of them.

One can learn a lot from the 1964 crossover, the only time crossovers had brought down a government. It was meticulously planned by some political masterminds of the era. Their efforts bore fruit when the Sirima Bandaranaike government was defeated at the vote on the throne speech (government policy statement by the Governor General).

Esmond Wickremesinghe, father of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, was active behind the scenes and number of parliamentarians and ministers led by C.P. de Silva crossed over from the government side in a political drama.

Government MP for Passara Amarananda Ratnayake could not attend parliament on this fateful day to vote with the government because he had a flat tyre as reported by him to the party Whip. Later, there was a disciplinary inquiry against him and his political career came to an end. But J. R. Jayewardene commented that "a flat tyre saved democracy."

Mr. Ratnayake's absence in parliament rendered the government with one short to pull out from a crisis situation. The book, J. R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, Vol. II, speaks about the whole episode in vivid detail. 

Parliament of Sri Lanka published by Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., states: "This decision of Mrs. Bandaranaike to bring in left-wingers to her Cabinet caused apprehension, particularly among sections of the right-wing of the SLFP Ministers and other members of Parliament, but they decided to carry on, nevertheless. The unexpected happened on December 3, 1964 just six months after her coalition with the Trotskyites. The right-wing of the SLFP grew tired of the policies of the LSSP Ministers, and on that fateful day in December, 14 members of the SLFP government defied the Party Whip and voted against the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike on the debate on the Throne Speech. 

"Those who defied the Whip were Messers. C.P. Wickremasuriya (Devinuwara), Wijebahu Wijesinghe (Mirigama), Edmund Wijesuriya (Maskeliya), A.H. de Silva (Polonnaruwa), Indrasena de Zoysa (Ampara), C. Munaweera (Rattota), Albert Silva (Moneragala), Razik Fareed (First Colombo Central), S.B. Lenawa (Kekirawa), Lakshman de Silva (Balapitiya), Mahanama Samaraweera (Matara), D.E. Tillekeratne (Ratgama) and R. Singleton -Salmon (Appointed MP). 

"In a memorable speech he made when he crossed the floor of the House, on December 3, 1964. Mr. C.P. de Silva declared: 'It is my painful duty to state, and I do so in all responsibility, that from what I have known, what I have heard, and what I have seen in the inner councils of the Coalition Government of Mrs. Bandaranaike, our nation is now being inexorably pushed towards unadulterated totalitarianism.'

Mrs. Bandaranaike called it "a stab in the back".

She added: "Mr. C.P. de Silva betrayed the common people of this country and the progressive policies enunciated by the late Mr. Bandaranaike in his march towards democratic socialism".

Shortly after the defeat of Mrs. Bandaranaike's government, a proclamation was issued by the Governor-General dissolving the 5th Parliament, on December 17, 1964. The general election for the 6th Parliament was fixed for March 22, 1965. At this election. The SLFP contested 100 seats and won 41 seats. Dudley Senanayake, whose UNP was first, with 66 seats formed a National Government with the assistance of the Federal Party (14 seats), the SLFSP (5 seats), the Tamil Congress (3 seats), and the MEP, Jatika Vimukti Peramuna and LPP (1 seat each.)

The opposition UNP indulged in a similar attempt recently. UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe entrusted this responsibility to a committee comprising Karu Jayasuriya, Rukman Senanayake, M.H. Mohamed, Gamini Atukorala and Rajitha Senaratne.

But it did not succeed. The government learnt about the impending dangers and fortified its bastions, giving into the demands of its allies. 

This is how the Thondaman solution for the plantation workers came about so swiftly. The government did not want to leave out anything for the UNP to exploit and more than anything it did not want the "flat-tyre democracy" to re-emerge in the Sri Lankan political scenario as in 1964.

A rumour went round in party circles that the government came to know of the UNP's plans to defeat it. through remarks allegedly made by Mr. Rukman Senanayake to Mr. Lakshman Kiriella. On hearing the rumour, Rukman. Senanayake had immediately contacted the UNP leader and requested that the person making the allegation be immediately confronted, as he had not spoken with Mr. Kiriella for over a month.

The plan was to lure as many government MPs as possible to vote against the budget at the end of the second reading. The end result had been 115-106, a close call indeed, but the government claims that it won by a comfortable majority.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, though having a tight schedule in the Western hemisphere, was constantly in touch with Colombo to monitor the developments.

When Rukman Senanayake, came to know about the rumours in the party circles over the alleged leak, he told members of the Committee that no one would be able to topple a government in a week or two. "It needs meticulous planning and strategic moves by the party hierarchy. A committee on the matter would be proved futile if sufficient time is not given," he said.

But some UNP watchers see the whole episode or wish to see it, in a different light. They say the committee comprising the top four UNP members were appointed in a bid to lower their standing in the party, knowing very well they would not succeed. It is also aimed at shielding party leaders from criticism when the UNP's efforts failed, they say. 

However, even the committee was aware that this was only a shot across the bows and not a fight to a finish.

The silver lining in the whole episode is that the UNP saw unity among opposition parties in the vote against the budget.

"Nine more votes," one enthusiastic UNPer exclaimed. "If we move in this direction, the day is not too far away when the UNP would form the government," he told this column. But government members are dismissing the UNP claim as a mere day dream or wishful thinking.

"Nobody can expect a government to fall, especially when it is under the guidance of strong personalities. President Kumaratunga, in this respect, is very strong. There is no match for her in Sri Lanka today," one government member said. 

But the UNP is planning once again to defeat the government at the vote after the committee stage debate. The government is also apprehensive of these moves which may have prompted Minister Mangala Samaraweera to strike a conciliatory note when he said that the country needed either a Bandaranaike or a Senanayake. As both of them are found in the UNP, it would not be difficult for the government to work with the UNP.

Mr. Samaraweera is not unfamiliar with the 1964 crossover drama as his father Mahanama Samaraweera was also among government members who crossed over to the UNP. UNP sources say Mr. Samaraweera's remarks in Parliament during the vote on the President were targeted at opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and aimed at causing division within the party a challenge to Mr. Wickremesinghe's leadership by a Bandaranaike or a Senanayake. They say that as things stand today, neither the Bandaranaikes nor the Senanayakes are a threat to Mr. Wickremesinghe. This does not mean that everything is hunky-dory in the party. The party rank and file is developing a sense of intolerance towards Sudath Chandrasekera, Mr. Wickremesinghe's private secretary, who is increasingly active in party affairs. He has certainly become a bugbear to some. But none of them desire an open confrontation.

They however claim that such an uneasy atmosphere is not good for the party's progress. The party should now mould its image as a powerful opposition and try to win the confidence of minority parties which now support the government. No minority party which depends on the government to protect its members from the LTTE would support a weak opposition. As long as minority parties feel a sense of insecurity, the PA government is likely to continue till its term ends.

Meanwhile, the SLFP held its central committee meeting at the President's House with Senior Vice President Ananda Dassanayake presiding. Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle moved a resolution thanking Party Secretary S. B. Dissanayake for the successful staging of the 13th party convention. The resolution was seconded by Pavithra Wanniarachchi. After this, the central committee unanimously decided to sack four members who allegedly connived with the UNP at a local government election.

The UNP working committee also had to deal with a similar situation when it met last week. A disciplinary committee headed by Rohitha Bogollagama recommended that one-time Mayor Ratnasiri Rajapakse be sacked from the party. Mr. Rajapakse's name was included in the People's Alliance national list at last year's general elections.

The working committee also agreed with the disciplinary committee recommendation that Muditha Peiris, an opposition member of the Kaduwela Pradeshiya Sabha, be put on probation for six months over a clash he had with some senior UNPers in the area. 

In another development, the government members in the Committee on Public Enterprises had refused to accept the chairmanship of UNP's John Amaratunga. 

COPE was a topic of discussion at a party leaders' meeting where Minister S. B. Dissanayake claimed that it had been the parliamentary tradition that the government should head this committee and suggested that Mr. Amaratunga should step down. But UNP Leader Wickremesinghe rejected it.

The UNP leader while acknowledging the parliamentary tradition pointed out that Mr. Amaratunga was elected by COPE members with a majority vote. With no compromise reached over the COPE matter, the two sides agreed to refer the matter to the Speaker for a ruling. Until such time, government members have decided not to cooperate with the COPE chairman. COPE meetings which were scheduled to be held last week were also put off until the Speaker's ruling. 

The UNP-PA clash was also witnessed at the High Post Committee meeting too. The UNP said there were allegations of malpractice against Education Ministry Secretary Dr. Tara de Mel and wanted the committee to summon Sri Lanka Medical Council officials to determine whether the allegations had any substance. Dr. de Mel is a respected educationist who has contributed to the new educational reforms. However, in the past, she had an ongoing battle with Minister Richard Pathirana while she was holding a position in an advisory capacity at the Education Ministry. After last year's PA election victory, Mr. Pathirana moved from the Education Ministry and Dr. de Mel was made the secretary.

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