Deciding that I would make it clear that I was no longer part of the government, made it easier for me to deal more firmly with the manoeuvers Ranil was engaged in with regard to the promised constitutional reform. Jayampathy Wickramaratne had produced a draft that affirmed that the President should always act on the advice of the Prime Minister. I believe he had initially worked on his own, but later some party leaders had been consulted. I had not been asked and I complained to the President about this, so on Sunday March 15th I was duly invited to a discussion chaired by the President at his Secretariat.
I was blunt in my criticism of the underhand manner in which Ranil was trying to take full powers with no respect for the electoral process. I was backed by not only the SLFP representatives but also the JHU, which later commented on how forceful I had been. Ranil plaintively claimed that he had been promised this change, and that he would complain to Chandrika, but the President did not give in. The final decision was that Jayampathy would amend his draft, a task in which he was supposed to consult G L Pieris.
G L I fear did not check on what was going on, and the amended draft we received had changed the principal instrument of transferring power to the Prime Minister, but little else. We protested at the meeting to discuss the changes that was held in Parliament, but later we found that the gazetted version confirmed the primacy of the Prime Minister. Jayampathy claimed that this had been the decision of the Cabinet.
What had transpired in the interim was a sordid effort to in effect bribe those assumed to be the more malleable members of the SLFP. A week after the meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, it was announced that the Cabinet had been expanded with the addition of several members of the SLFP. But it transpired that the leadership of the party had not been consulted, and it looked as though individuals had been selected principally by Chandrika. Having bitterly resented the fact that the senior leadership of the party had gravitated to Mahinda Rajapaksa after he had been made the Presidential candidate in 2005, she ignored them completely, which had dire consequences for the President.
Ironically one of those appointed to the cabinet was S B Dissanayake, who had fallen out with her dramatically after initially having been a favourite. S B was obviously someone who knew on which side his bread was buttered, but he was also an intelligent man, and indeed the only one in the 2001 UNP cabinet of those I met together with a German consultant trying to promote educational reform who was able to conceptualize. I asked him then why he had allowed Jayampathy to get away with a draft that stripped the President of his powers, but it turned out that he had not been at the crucial Cabinet meeting. So what Jayampathy tried to make out was an all party consensus was in fact the result of the second rank of the SLFP having been hurriedly elevated to unwarranted authority, quite in contravention of the promise on which the President had been elected.
Still, the Parliamentary group stood firm, and even those who had initially acquiesced in what Jayampathy had had gazette insisted on the President retaining his primacy. There was indeed strong resistance to supporting the constitutional amendment, but the President came to the group meeting in Parliament, and promised to address their concerns. In particular he granted that it was a pity the proposed 19th amendment did not introduce the electoral reforms he had pledged, and he solemnly promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until a 20th amendment that introduced a mixed system of election had also been passed.
We spent much time in those two weeks discussing electoral reform, but it looked like Ranil was implacably opposed to any change. He kept throwing up objections, which led to the Elections Commissioner noting that a compromise formula would be easy to find but that Ranil would not permit this. It was at this time that I was told that Ranil could nurse grudges intensively, like the elephant who kept a piece of coconut in his cheek until he had had his revenge. I did not know the story, so it was explained to me that a mahout had got his elephant to break a coconut for him, and had then taken the coconut to eat himself, giving the elephant only a tiny piece. A few days later, when he was bathing the elephant, the elephant had toppled him and stamped on him and then, when he was dead, had opened his mouth and deposited on the body the piece of coconut that he had nursed all this while in his mouth.
At the time I thought this was only a story of revenge, but later it occurred to me that perhaps there was also a warning for Maithripala Sirisena in the story. By this stage several of those around Ranil had convinced him that he had been foolish in not running for President himself, and that Sirisena owed him undying gratitude for having stood down. If as time went on Ranil thought the prize he got for allowing Sirisena to become President was worthless, he would certainly have his revenge.
Towards the end of March though it still seemed possible that both principal pledges would be fulfilled. There was no room for complaisance, but I did not yet feel despair, when I set off for an Aide et Action Board meeting in Delhi. I went early so that I could explore more of Rajasthan, having much enjoyed my brief visits way back in 1970 to Udaipur and Jaipur. I had taken the extremely cheap Tourism Development Authority tours then, or rather I had done this in Udaipur, which ran the tour for just two of us. I had spent the previous night at the Youth Hostel, having got there after a day in Ahmedabad, and my fellow tourist was a beautiful young lady who was staying at the grand Lake Palace Hotel. The dashing young guide we had was obviously more interested in striking up a longer relationship with her, but he did a good job, and also ensured that I too was taken along to see the hotel when we dropped her off.
In Jaipur the Authority would not run the tour for just three people, but the couple from Tamilnadu who had also hoped to take it decided to take a taxi. I agreed to share the cost, but at the end of the tour, registering I think my penurious state, they waived my share. I suspect it was such instances of kindness that have made me a devotee of India and Indians in general, and I have rarely been disappointed.
In 2014, I flew to Jodhpur where AeA had arranged a car and a driver who it seemed was the best available. He was happy to follow whatever itinerary I wanted, so we took off that very afternoon to Mount Abu, which I had decided to add to the three principal places I wanted to see, Jaisalmer and Bikaner and Jodhpur.
I was lucky to find a lovely hotel overlooking the lake at Mount Abu, and next morning I visited the Jain temples at Dilwara with their exquisite marble carvings. During the long drive after that to Jaisalmer, Durga Singh persuaded me that I should also spend a night in the desert beyond Jaisalmer, and see the sunset from the back of a camel.
That was a magical stay, both in the evening and at dawn, for which we drove out to the dunes. In between we had had a lively cultural show in the enclosed courtyard of what proved to be a very comfortable hotel. I had found the one Durga Singh recommended too expensive, but the other, nearer the dunes, was perfectly adequate.
Something similar happened in Jaisalmer, where he wanted me to stay in a modern hotel in the lower town. I was determined though to stay in the hillside fort, so he dropped me in the square beyond which he could not drive, and I took an autorickshaw up the steep path through the impressive gateways and found the most fantastic hotel set in the walls of the Fort. The staff there were wonderful, and pampered me no end, while the manager, who had turned off the wifi on the roof because it was being abused, allowed me unlimited usage in his office.
The temples in the Fort, Hindu and Jain, were beautiful, with fantastic ceilings, and wonderful too were the haveli, the houses of rich merchants, down in the town. In the evening I had beer on the roof while the sun set, and then dinner, an experience repeated at dawn the next day with coffee and breakfast.
The next couple of days were at Bikaner and Jodhpur, with several forts and palaces and temples en route too. After the splendidly preserved main palace at Jodhpur, I was also privileged to be allowed in to the Umaid Bhawan Palace, which is now a very expensive hotel. Fortunately my hosts in Delhi, of princely lineage too, had called up the Maharaja’s secretary who arranged for me to be shown the place and given tea in the beautiful wood paneled bar.
I added another site to my itinerary after Jodhpur despite Durga Singh’s worries about time, leaving early on March 31st to Chittorgarh, a palace and fort less thoroughly restored. I had always wanted to see the place because of memories of a Kipling description of its decayed grandeur, and the place certainly lived up to expectations. Apart from the palace, or rather palaces, Chittorgarh had two incredibly elegant towers, the 15th century Tower of Victory and the 12th century Tower of Fame.
I had to leave Chittorgarh by 4 the next morning to make my flight from Jodhpur to Delhi, but we managed it with time to spare. There was much to do in Delhi in addition to the Aea Meeting and the discussion on migrant workers that they had organized. I saw a couple of old friends, the Joint Secretary at the South Block and also Mani Shankar Aiyer, who had been a good friend of Lakshman Kadirgamar. In addition our High Commissioner, the erudite and able Sudharshan Seneviratne, had arranged for me to meet both the former political officer in Colombo, Anurag Srivastava, and also Nirupan Sen who had considerable experience of Sri Lanka, first as Deputy High Commissioner under J N Dixit when the Indo Lankan Accord was signed, and later as High Commissioner during the period of uneasy co-existence between Chandrika Kumaratunga as President and Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister.
Sen was in an expansive mood, and made clear the fact that he and Dixit had not got on at all. Though he had a reputation for arrogance, not undeserved in a Bengali who had risen high in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Sen also evinced a fondness for Sri Lanka that I had not expected. He was also eloquent about Ranil’s pig-headedness in not reaching a compromise with Chandrika after she had taken over three Ministries while he was Prime Minister. I remember being told at the time that she would have been willing to return two, though she felt she had to hold on to Defence, not only because of the Supreme Court ruling in that regard, but also because between them Ranil and Tilak Marapana had allowed the Tigers a field day. I recalled too that the moderates in the UNP had advocated compromise, but Ranil had been intransigent, backed by those such as Ravi Karunanayake who insisted that Chandrika would not dare to dissolve.
His argument was that the people would not support the SLFP if they were in open alliance with the JVP. He had no answer to my assertion that the people were far more wary of a UNP in clear alliance with the LTTE, given that at that stage the TNA was totally in thrall to Prabhakaran.
Ceylon Today 24 Jan 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=13717