Does it remember the time before it was the government, when it was the Joint Opposition facing the might of the Rajapaksa juggernaut? Does it remember how the hopes and the dreams of 6.2 million Lankans carried it to an incredible victory? Does it remember what it was proclaiming and promising, what it was pledging to do and pledging not to do, this time three years ago?
Or has the government forgotten? Has it forgotten its past, our past, the country’s past and the Rajapaksa past? Has it forgotten the struggle which defeated the Rajapaksas and the popular aspirations which animated that struggle? Has it forgotten that ‘good governance’ is not a catchy slogan or a label, but a description of the pledge it gave to the people and of the mandate it received from the people?
In 2015, a majority of Lankans voted to make a clear break with the past. They voted not to replace one government of deplorables with another government of deplorables. They voted not just for a change of faces, not just for change for change’s sake, but for a change for the better. After almost a decade of Rajapaksa misrule, there was a yearning for a different type of politics, and a different kind of politician, for a government which was at least halfway honest, halfway decent, halfway just, a government capable of righting the wrongs of the past rather than adding to them.
The presidential election provided the last best chance to defeat the Rajapaksa familial autocracy, electorally, and to return Sri Lanka to the path of democracy. Had that opportunity been missed, Sri Lanka would have gone where Zimbabwe went. The uniqueness of that moment alone can explain the uniqueness of the outcome. Hitherto unbridgeable divides were bridged. Alliances never before envisaged were forged. And hope was born, in millions of hearts, of a future which was not just different but also better.
But as the third year of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration draws to a close, those hopes are mostly in tatters.
An opposition which had the courage to take on the might of the Rajapaksas (Maithripala Sirisena was not exaggerating when he said that had he lost, he wouldn’t have been allowed to live) has become a government too timorous to stand up to the rich, the powerful and the fanatical. An opposition which won by appealing to what was best in the people has turned into a government that survives by pandering to the worst in politicians. An opposition which understood and addressed the hopes and needs of Lankans in all their diversity has turned into a government that is deaf and blind to the growing plight of those very same people. An opposition which occupied the moral high-ground has turned into a government that wallows in the moral mire.
In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant arachnid; gone is his human form but intact are the memories of the man he was. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is becoming the opposite of what it promised to be, while retaining no memory of what it promised. The government has forgotten why it was elected. It has forgotten the reason it is.
That monumental failure in remembering is the main source of the political crisis that is afflicting the government.
The 2015 election was also a contestation between politics of personality and politics of policies. Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe won not because of who they were but because of what they stood for. Neither of them had Mahinda Rajapaksa’s charisma. That absence didn’t matter because the voters were looking for substance and not for theatrics. In 2015, Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe, in combination, represented the antithesis of Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was why they won. But once in government, once ensconced as president and prime minister, they began to forget this simple truth.
So the backsliding started, on almost every front. Promises were broken without explanation, excuse or apology. More often than not, the reason for breaking a promise was neither insurmountable odds nor unconquerable challenges, but neglect or indifference.
Forget politically complicated tasks such as 13+ or withdrawing the military. The government is yet to build the promised 50,000 houses in the North, because it is wedded to the idea of prefab structures totally unsuited to local conditions and therefore opposed by local people. Had the construction of proper houses commenced in early 2015, it would have been over by now. 50,000 families would have been provided with a home of their own. What a tremendous achievement that would have been. The government deprived itself of this success for no good or acceptable reason.
Instead of ending corruption, the UNP has expended most of its political capital on protecting alleged bond-scammers. Living costs are higher than ever, driven up primarily by an unprecedented increase in the prices of rice and coconut; since the president’s brother is a gargantuan player in the rice market, he cannot avoid the charges of complicity. Not only is the Colombo port city forging ahead; China has been given the Hambantota port as well, plus a huge expanse of land in an environmentally vulnerable province for a special industrial zone. To compensate, India will be given the Mattala airport, placing Sri Lanka in the crosshairs of Sino-Indian rivalry.
And to crown it all, President Sirisena is reportedly phoning Basil Rajapaksa, to seek an electoral alliance with the Rajapaksas. The government doesn’t realise how cringe-worthy its conduct has become because it has locked itself inside an echo chamber, one lined with mirrors, its own audio-visual universe where it sees nothing but its own reflection and hears nothing but its own words.
The government is haemorrhaging support, but the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition is not doing great either. The Rajapaksas are master illusionists. They know how to inflate strengths and conceal weaknesses. But such illusion-mongering is harder to sustain in election times. The first cracks are already visible in the JO/SLPP edifice. Had the government performed better in the last three years, had it not committed so many avoidable mistakes or broken so many implementable promises, it could have pushed the JO to the third place at the upcoming local government election.
The Rajapaksas stand for one thing and one thing only – the Rajapaksas. Restoring the Rajapaksas to power is the sum total of the Joint Opposition’s programme. This family-centrism is not an election winning formula, especially with new voters, most of whom are likely to regard JO/SLPP as an anachronism, amusing, entertaining but essentially irrelevant. Time is thus the enemy of the Rajapaksas. Or it would have been, if the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration had not been so intent on self-mutilation.
If the Rajapaksas seem strong today, it is not because they have become more popular, it is because the government has become less popular. Many of the 6.2 million voters who brought the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to power are likely to stay away at the 2018 local government election. This reduction in voter turnout will limit the UNP’s victories and hit the official SLFP hard. It won’t enable the Rajapaksas to become the biggest vote-getter island-wide, but it will enable them to come second, probably a close second. Such a performance can ignite a political crisis which, if mishandled, will bring down the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.
An elephant murdered
The murder of the iconic Dala-pootuwa, the blind elephant with joined tusks, is symbolic of the government’s failure to live up to its expectations.
During the last few years of Rajapaksa rule, killing elephants became rife. The politically connected new rich regarded the ownership of an elephant as an indispensable status symbol. And the president was liberal in ‘gifting’ elephant calves of questionable origin to kith and kin.
An aborted elephant-abduction in May 2014 shed some light on the methods used by the rich and the powerful to obtain elephant calves. A cavalcade consisting of a tractor, a lorry and two luxury vehicles turned up to abduct an elephant-calf from the Udawalave National Park. Fortunately the people of Dikyaya, an adjacent village, intervened. They called wildlife officials, police and the media. They also caught the criminals and handed them over to the police. The police allowed the would-be elephant abductors go. Once freed, the would-be abductors tried to abduct the Sirasa area correspondent who was covering the incident. The attempt was foiled not by the police but by the villagers.
The police spokesman admitted that the police ignored the protests of the wildlife officials and allowed the criminals to get awayii. According to some media reports, the ring leaders claimed that they were Presidential nephewsiii. A wildlife official said, on conditions of anonymity, “We believe that this calf’s mother was killed. That would have been necessary to get the elephant-calf out of the jungle…. If the mother was shot it would have happened inside the park…. They would have killed the elephant mother about a month and a half ago. Their plan would have been to separate the baby from the herd and take her away.”iv According to some estimates, 50 to 60 elephant calves were stolen from the wild during the period of 2011-2014v.
The elephant issue exacerbated the growing public distaste towards the Rajapaksa regime. On the campaign trail, the then opposition promised to protect elephants and bring the abductors/killers to justice. In January 2016, the government earned national and international praise by publicly and ceremonially destroying the consignment of blood-ivory caught by the customs in 2013. The Rajapaksa regime had planned to gift the blood-ivory to the Dalada Maligawa. President Sirisena cancelled that plan, permitted the destruction of blood-ivory and attended the ceremonyvi.
The Rajapaksa regime protected elephant-killers/abductors. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe didn’t. But it didn’t work to end poaching either. It did nothing. Even where killers were caught, they were freed on bail and no priority was accorded to prosecuting them. The new Animal Welfare Bill got lost in the Bermuda Triangle of the state, another broken promise. The government’s indifference created a permissive climate in which the poachers thrived. Why shouldn’t they when rewards were high and risks minimal. Had the government acted more forcefully against poachers, as it promised to do, Dala-pootuwa would still be alive.
The irony is inescapable, tragic. Had the government implemented the basic promises of 2015, so much good would have been done, and so much harm avoided. Whenever the government did implement its promises, the results were positive, like the restoration of judicial independence, or the 19th Amendment or the Right to Information Bill. The ultimate beneficiaries of such constancy to the pledge of good governance would have been the government itself, the SLFP and the UNP, the President and the Prime Minister. They could have shared victory at the local government election, leaving the Rajapaksas to compete with the JVP for third place.
That, sadly, is alternate history. In the actual one, the government is facing a political crisis which can become an existential one. The wages of not remembering will be high, and perhaps bloody.