The Sunday Leader

Whose ‘hundred days’ was it anyway?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Even the most imaginative of the incumbent Government’s supporters – or even critics – could have thought of such a ridiculous level to which the intra-alliance debate has descended. From the looks of it, it can only go further down, not regain any modicum of relative respectability and credibility, which alone the combine had while taking on incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Elections-2015, and trouncing him too.

In an impromptu intervention at the 76th anniversary commemoration of the late Sobitha Thera, whose brainchild the anti-Rajapaksas combine was in the first place, President Maithiripala Sirisena said that the combine’s “one-hundred-day programme was one of the silliest things ever undertaken by this Government”. Sirisena, who confessed to attending the Sobitha Thera function uninvited, seemed wanting to distance himself from the ‘Hundred-Day Agenda’, which served as the anti-Rajapaksas camp’s election manifesto.

Sirisena opened up to the way he had been ‘humiliated’ through his years as President, and described it as the worst of its kind in his ‘47-year-long political career’. He also expressed sadness at being taunted by some, as if anyone in his place as the common Opposition candidate could have won Elections-2015. “If so they could have done so. I was used as the common candidate as I was a clean politician and came forward as a lion despite life threats,” Sirisena declared.

Sirisena went on to add that despite it not forming a part of the Hundred-Day Programme, he did go ahead and dissolve Parliament, long before it became due. Alongside, he also defended his taking over as the SLFP President, and implied that but for these two acts of his – one constitutional and the other, political – his present-day UNP partner, Ranil Wickremesinghe would not have been Prime Minister.

Recalling how he made Ranil W Prime Minister immediately after being sworn in President on 9 January 2015, Sirisena implied that no stretch of constitutional imagination could it had been done, but for his personal decision. As he mentioned, the UNP had only 47 MPs in the 225-member Parliament, and by taking over as SLFP President from predecessor Mahinda, he could also ensure parliamentary majority for the new Government – or, rather the new Prime Minister.

In the same breath, Sirisena also went back in time to point out how without him as SLFP chief, then UNP Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake and his group of 47 UNP MPs would not have been able to get his maiden Budget passed. Going by media reports, Sirisena however did not seem to have mentioned as to how his sudden dissolution of Parliament before it had voted on a no-trust motion against Minister Ravi K gave a breather also to the ‘Central Bank bonds scam’, as the same modus got repeated the very next year, too.

Someone’s baby

Through all this talk, Sirisena seemed wanting to do more than dropping hints that he was not associated with the ‘Hundred-Day Manifesto’ and that it was someone else’s baby. Taking off from where he left, the UNP second-line has been taking pot-shots at him over the past days, and on this score. Various UNP leaders have since claimed that the Sirisena camp was involved in the drafting of the manifesto, implying that the President cannot now run away from it, or take responsibility for it.

It is anybody’s guess what Sirisena implied by ‘disowning’ the manifesto, if that was after all the case. For, in his talk at the Sobitha Thero anniversary, the President referred to continuing criticism that his Government had not done enough on ‘accountability issue’ of a different kind, if that were the phrase.

In recent weeks, media analysts have constantly referred to nonagenarian Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad standing by his word and ordering the arrest of very many from the previous regime, including predecessor PM Najib Razak.  As if to disown responsibility of the kind nearer home on his own election, Sirisena listed out a few criminal cases in which former ministers were hauled up for what should have been petty offences, as against big fishes that were allowed to get away with it all.

In saying all this and more, Sirisena seemed to have slipped up, when he sought to implicate his own Prime Minister Ranil W in yet another favour, which he pointed out was extended to Mahinda after he had lost the presidential polls. “Who provided helicopters to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to go to Tangalle unharmed after the presidential election results were announced? Was it me? No! It was so and so,” he declared, without naming names.

The UNP has since joined issue on everything else that Sirisena said on the occasion, starting with the co-authors of the ‘Hundred-Day Programme’, they have shied away from naming names. It could well mean that Sirisena was not personally involved, or that the UNP wants to protect the identity of those who spoke for Sirisena those days, possibly as much in private as in public – whatever the reason and justification.

However, Mahinda was/is not the one to miss out on an opportunity to give a lesson or two political adversaries, especially if they were to cast a net for him and fall in it, themselves. As he pointed out, he was still the President when he vacated the President’s House in Colombo and flew down to native Tangalle in southern Hambantota district.

Rajapaksa said he had conceded the election in the early hours, long before the counting was over and results announced in the evening of 9 January 2015. As such, he did not require anyone’s permission (read: Ranil W’s, among others), to order the SLAF to fly him out to Tangalle in the morning.

Belling the cat

Truth be acknowledged, Sirisena was not the first choice for a common candidate to take on Mahinda R. When announced, his candidacy still surprised the nation, and shocked the Rajapaksa camp, as that of then veteran armed forces commander, Gen Sarath Fonseka, had been in post-war Elections-2010. Fonseka lost, but Sirisena won.

Yet in the run-up to Elections-2015, neither Ranil, nor anyone else from the UNP, was willing to throw the hat into the ring. They were apprehensive about yet another electoral defeat at the hands of an incumbent President from the rival SLFP, straight on from Elections-94, which CBK had won with a massive majority.

This apart, all those who had wanted Mahinda out, and also were working for it, either above or below the radar, or both, were convinced that neither the UNP as a party, nor Ranil as a candidate could do it. If memories could be brushed up, it was the name of Sobitha Thero that was doing the rounds for the first few months, but died its natural death.

Later, it might have become fashionable for the anti-Mahinda camp to claim that the Thero’s name was floated around only as a diversionary tactic, to beguile the Rajapaksa camp. But the fact remained that none from the front-line of the Opposition ranks, collective or selective, was willing to take on Mahinda R – either out of fear of losing, or fear of being ‘hounded out’, post-poll, implying that a Rajapaksa victory was for the asking.

If the choice fell on Sirisena, it was only because it was Sirisena, and not anyone else. The calculation was that anyone who could split Rajapaksa’s ‘hard-line’ Sinhala-Buddhist vote-share, even if not in the middle, alone stood a chance. By implication, it also meant that the candidate would have all of the UNP and Tamil votes – as war-winning army veteran Fonseka had five years earlier.

The BHU having alienated the Muslims and their multiple parties too from the Rajapaksas, it may still have been a relative cake-walk for the candidate concerned, but the psychological shock that the Sirisena candidacy administers would not have been possible without him.  As Mahinda later recalled to media persons, Sirisena ate spring-hoppers with him the previous night, and sprang ‘the’ surprise the very next day!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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