Though the choice the nation has to make on January 8th is a very serious one, there has certainly been a lot of entertainment to be had during the last few days. This is not all on one side, since it is odd to find many individuals who had little time for each other in the past now working together. My friend Dayan Jayatilleka first decided that the JHU provided the saving graces to the campaign of the common candidate, but then threw in his lot with the President. I assume he thinks there is hope of reform, which is ironic given his deep distrust of the Secretary of Defence. However I can but hope that he will be given control of the Foreign Ministry, given his incisive dissection of its disastrous workings in the last few years. He will certainly put an end to what he diagnosed some time back, that the Foreign Ministry was territory occupied by the Defence Ministry, and the Defence Ministry was territory occupied by Israel. His return to the Rajapaksa fold suggests that the President has begun to see sanity – though, as Dayan has noted, the President is generally sane when you talk to him, it is his capacity to implement his own decisions and follow his instincts that has been in doubt over the last few years.
Dayan’s decision may have also been dictated by his dislike of both Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is another irony that these two have now discovered each other’s virtues. But politics has always brought together people who were on different sides earlier, and this is understandable since we all need to look for good qualities in politicians and hope that these lead to productive synergy. Chandrika reminded me, when we met on the day of the first Press Conference, that I had once told her I wanted to bring her and Mahinda together. I certainly regret that both did not try harder, because had they at least talked to each other, and tried to reach consensus on issues both had been positive about earlier, such as the 13th amendment, Mahinda would not so easily have become the prisoner of the rent seekers and extremists who now dominate him.
People forging new alliances then, or going back to old ones, is not preposterous. What is preposterous is the excess the government has indulged in, in coping with the surprise it got when Maithripala Sirisena became the common candidate. First it had, as the President indicated, to make sure that no one else crossed over. To do this it employed both carrots and sticks, giving full publicity to the latter effort. This came in the form of the President’s declaration that he had files on everyone.
Under ordinary circumstances this would have seemed a dead giveaway, and indeed it has roused questions as to why he has been so tolerant of abuse thus far. It seems self-destructive to make it clear that even now he will do nothing about deplorable conduct if he is not crossed. But in one sense this is understandable, for everyone knows how upset several members of the SLFP were – and indeed other parties in the government, always excluding Mr Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front – and there had to be good reason for the disgruntled to continue with the government. To have adverted to the real reason, which is the vast sums of money that have been offered, would have been shameful.
Then the President certainly could not go directly public on the acknowledgment of fault, such as he made to Vasantha Senanayake, and the need for reform. These now seem top of the Presidential agenda, though perhaps not very convincingly, since we have been there before, with regard to domestic war crimes inquiries etc. Indeed characters like Mahinda Samarasinghe still seem stuck in the previous time warp in attacking the opposition for pledging an internal inquiry, even while the President tries to convince the nation and the world that he will have one. With Dayan now on his side he will not find it easy to wriggle out of that commitment, but naturally the President does not want to highlight this, nor want it known that he had to beg to keep people in. Characteristically he prefers to be seen as the strong man who used threats rather than blandishments, hence the claims about the files.
With regard to the blandishments, the sums being bandied about are astronomical. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the Rs 100 million Navin Dissanayake mentioned, or the 150 million offered to Mr Gunawardena, but these are serious and respected individuals and they are unlikely to make such matters up. Duminda Dissanayake did not mention money, but said he had been offered any Ministry he wanted. In the midst of all this Vasantha Senanayake was quite upset that he had not been offered anything, but had only been summoned before the three brothers.
He told me beforehand that he hoped they would try to bully him, which he felt he could resist, but was worried about pleading, since he confessed to still having a soft spot for the President and the Secretary of Defence, and was worried he might succumb. Fortunately Basil was also present, and scolded him for attacking the Minister of External Affairs in public, which is ironic since Basil has been, at least in private, one of the strongest critics of that worthy. The President had however granted that there were problems in that Ministry, but then Basil had gone on to accuse Vasantha of having secret meetings with Maithripala Sirisena.
This seemed an odd accusation, since Vasantha thought there was nothing wrong in seeing the Secretary of the Party to which he belonged. But Basil had a list of dates and times, which makes a nonsense of his claim that, though he distrusted Maithripala, he had not brought this to the attention of the President. If the secret services had been instructed to keep such close tabs on Maithripala, and record all his visitors, this could not have been by Basil acting on his own. And it would be sad if Basil had shared his suspicions with Gotabhaya, and the latter had kept tabs on a Cabinet Minister without keeping the President informed. Even more odd though is that, though Basil cited all Vasantha’s meetings and seemed very annoyed, the brothers had had no idea of what was to come.
Vasantha left without making any commitments and finally made his decision three days later. It was only after that that he was offered Rs 400 million, through a Bandaranaike, though not one close to the former President. I scoffed at this since I had heard of someone in the UNP having been offered even more, but Vasantha said the intermediary had been authorized to offer 500; typical of the sort of individual used for such exercises, he had wanted to keep 100 for himself. Later, after Vasantha had refused, he had asked someone who worked for the family to persuade him, in which case they could split the other 100 between them.
I would like to pride myself then on being the only person who has been offered nothing, but I suspect this is because I have no electoral use whatsoever. This however has not stopped the former journalist who did much to destroy our relations with India way back in 2012, by publicly repudiating what the President had agreed, tweeting that I must now be a very rich man.
I know he cannot believe this himself, but I find it strange that he can think he could convince others. Similarly Basil has been running about Gampaha claiming that Vasantha is involved in a criminal case, which is true, except that it is Vasantha who has brought a case against a politician, on the government side, who does not have a savoury reputation. But I suppose those no longer in touch with reality can convince themselves that outrageous propaganda might sway a few people. Sadly they have an uphill struggle where people like Maithripala Sirisena and Vasantha and I are concerned, whereas this is not the case with at least a few of those who have expressed disillusionment with the government but decided to stay on.
Meanwhile money is being flung about for other purposes too. Posters have been printed in abundance, and are being used with little understanding of the fact that not many people will be swayed by public adulation. Rather, given the pervasive impression of corruption, the evidence of the enormous sums politicians in the ruling party have at their disposal will serve to sway at least some votes in the other direction.
Also worrying for the government is that they had prepared propaganda in the belief that Ranil Wickremesinghe would be the candidate to beat, and had therefore selected what might be termed an LTTE pitch, with references too to the role of the UNP in suppressing the JVP in the eighties. This explains the posters that have come up with pictures of Richard de Zoysa. But with Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate, they have to work overtime to move the battle to the only ground in which they will have an advantage.
So the President, forgetting his promises of a better future, forgetting even the present, is doing his best to get back to the past. When he does focus on what concerns people now, he reacts hastily, as with cuts in the prices of fuel and gas. But, if he were rational, he would realize these serve no purpose except to remind everyone of how excessive the prices were before they were lowered – and how unreasonable it was to have kept them at that level.
I may however be wrong in thinking that the electorate is more sophisticated now. Mahinda Rajapaksa, as he has often reminded me when I have urged him to fulfil the commitments he made, is a politician who knows how to win elections, quite unlike me. But my incursions into psephology have not been entirely unsuccessful, as with Uva this year when Dayan thought I was talking nonsense when I said the UNP would do comparatively well. And, sadly for the President, I think he has ceased to think seriously about such matters, and not to care when he does think.
Thus, though he – and the Secretary of Defence, he had told Dayan – had wanted to hold the Northern Province Election earlier, Basil had wanted it postponed on the grounds that his blockbuster development programme would win hearts and minds. By the time the election was held however, the people had been alienated, and Gota was by then of the view that the election should not be held at all, and said so. Despite Basil’s assurances the President knew that government would not do well, though even he did not think it would do quite as badly as it did. But even after that disaster, he followed Basil’s advice as to the remaining Provincial Council elections, and allowed Uva to unleash new hope in the opposition.
But instead of sitting down then to think carefully, ignoring the senior members of the SLFP who were not consulted at all, as Nimal Siripala de Silva told me mournfully a couple of days before the election was announced, the President rushed headlong into a poll he now realizes he may well lose. With the advent of Maithripala Sirisena, government has begun to panic, and the effort of watching all flanks – including Nimal, who is a nice man, and may well decide that, for the sake of the SLFP, he should cross over sooner rather than later – will take its toll. But even now, obsessed by wasteful carrots and oppressive sticks, government will not move on the reforms to which it is pledged.