Political Column  

One last stand by the political establishment?
By Our Political Editor
The President is playing her cards very close to her chest, you could say, after her party the SLFP signed a pact with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna last week. She confounded almost everybody by launching an attack on "racist elements'' within her party, and just the day before the signing of the MoU she let it be known that she will not tolerate any racially inflammatory speeches being made by her MPs on any political platform.

Then, she confounded all political watchers further, by attending the first Cabinet meeting since she took over three Ministries from the UNF government last November. Not one note of discord was struck at this Cabinet meeting on the heels of the JVP-SLFP accord, and in the opinion of at least some sections of the UNF it was all too good to be true.

But others said she had reason to play cautious maiden. The LTTE promptly rejected the JVP-SLFP accord and said there will be no negotiations with a racist Sinhala chauvinist outfit, and Anton Balasingham said the "formation of the alliance might create the objective conditions for war.'' One senior figure in the President's own power combine, the People's Alliance, Dew Goonesekera told the President bluntly that she had irreparably damaged her image as a moderate leader who enjoyed the confidence of the minorities by signing this accord with the JVP.

This appeared to sting the President. She pleaded with Mr. Goonesekera to stay on with the SLFP, and then she launched on this almost self-pitying tirade against the elements in her party who she said had within the last few months undermined her position as a leader with global reach and national recognition among all communities. She was reminded by Mr. Gooneseekera that one JVP leader -- a callow young upstart he called him -- had made a venomously anti-Tamil oration in Trincomalee recently.

The President, soon after at a meeting with her party men said that she had tried her best to create an atmosphere of racial harmony on Thai Pongal day, organising a cultural festival and making a speech in Tamil. But then, her own party men go for meetings at which the Tamil community is being mercilessly lambasted, and all they do is clap and listen, she thundered.

So, the President's guilt conscience it was or otherwise, that prompted her to contact the Prime Minister's office through her key functionaries, to revive the Mano-Malik talks between the UNF and the PA. Her call to revive such talks immediately put a stop to some efforts being made by many senior UNF Ministers to call for an impeachment motion against the President.

Their fear was that the President was making use of the publicity generated by the immediate formation of the Alliance to call for a snap election. The only way to stop her from deriving unfair electoral advantage from this move - they theorised -- was to table an impeachment motion in parliament which prevents her from dissolving parliament and calling for elections as per the provisions of the constitution.

All things considered, at the end of the week, the insecurity and uncertainty generated by the formation of the JVP alliance seemed to dissipate. Even up North, the LTTE's Thamilchelvan, soon after meeting Japanese envoy Yasushi Akashi in Kilinochchi said that the LTTE hopes to continue with talks no matter the circumstances in the future, which seemed to belie the previous assertion made by the talkative Anton Balasingham that no talks will be held at all in the event of a JVP-SLFP government being in power in the South.

Though there can be no certainty about a general election in the near future, it appeared last week that the President was clearly veering away from a direct electoral confrontation. There are pressures on that from all quarters and one of them is India. The Indians are playing a behind the scenes role in attempting some kind of rapprochement between the Kumaratunga- Wickremesinghe factions in Sri Lankan politics.

These efforts acquired a renewed sense of urgency last week, due to the white heat that is being generated in the political firmament due to the new JVP-SLFP combine. The Indians felt that this attempt at a throwback to Sinhala majoritarian chauvinism in the South, will in fact strengthen the hand of the LTTE which will seek to call all the shots in a future minority dominated government, if all minorities can be got together to oppose the new JVP-SLFP combine.

But, if the President wants to keep whatever is left of her moderate image, she is going to have to do some fighting with her own party faithful, who were last week spoiling for a showdown with the UNF that they hope will culminate in the formation of a UPFA (SLFP-JVP) government. ITN for instance, was carrying the fight right into UNF territory last week - carrying a show that was purported to be an exposure of corruption in the CWE and some other establishments coming under the stewardship of Commerce Minister Ravi Karunanayake.

Minister Karunanayake has sent letters of demand all around, to ITN as well as the Lakbima newspaper, and says he is challenging his accusers to meet him in the glare of the public spotlight for a debate on all the allegations made.

In some ways, last week saw a rear-guard reaction of the political establishment. Chandrika Kumaratunga does not want to be remembered as the chauvinist witch of Sri Lankan politics, and this in spite of the fact that she has some split personality about it because she also sees herself as the inheritor of the Bandaranaike legacy of looking after the interests of the SLFP "core constituency'' the Sinhala peasants and the "sanga veda guru govi kamkaru'' elements.

But it might be a little too late to salvage her image. In the South, she is able to convince the UNF that she is still amenable -- and she is also most of the time able to maintain some of her moral authority at least by taking the moral high ground on incidental issues. For instance, through the Mano - Malik committee, the issue of getting the embattled Thilanga Sumathipala to resign from the Chairmanship of the Sri Lanka Telecom was discussed - and the Mano Malik committee continues to do its bit for the political establishment --- meeting next Tuesday.

But what she seems unable to do is to keep the larger issues from moving beyond her grasp. From November, her image has been coming unstuck among the international community, a fact that she alluded to when she met her party faithful last week and gave them that pep-talk referred to earlier. Among the minorities, her image of a rampaging loose-canon is almost going beyond repair which is why at week's end it was being said on authority that she is making her own overtures to talk to Prabhakaran. Whatever she may do in terms of damage control, the forces she unleashed seem to be acquiring a life of their own.

Counting chicks before alliance eggs are hatched
By Harinda Ranura Vidanage
The red blue project is still to roll out into the political arena after being launched in a grand fashion. These are tense days for the architects of the venture and are hoping that it will not face the same fate as that of the UK Mars expedition which after much hype delivered nothing. The red planet gulped the Beagle explorer down.

The SLFP faction who spearheaded the endeavor was in for a shock the night before it was to be signed. President Chandrika Kumaratunga who gave the official thumbs up for the project looked a totally different person during the group meeting. "We will win the next election she thundered but in the election after wards SLFP will be limited to its sign board." she said.

"Now you all must stop relying only on me, go back to your seats and start working and start up own financing for election expenditure and don't ask for my help" she kept saying. Volley after volley the verbal barrage hit pro-JVP, pro-SLFP camp alike. Incapable of decoding the Presidential fervor the MPs kept listening. Suddenly the guns were redirected to a more sensitive target. "If any one goes without my consent to Desha Hiteshi rallies I will take care of it personally."

President Kumaratunga never says anything lightly especially in a verbal harangue she wants maximum damage. The Desha Hiteshi Janata Viyaparaya (DJV) is another political front opened by the JVP fearing an alliance with the SLFP was not possible sometime back. Many SLFP and PA MPs had used the platform of the DJV. Anura Bandaranaike was the most frequent of them all.

The hidden factor behind the President's outburst was that it is not an emotional free fall but a culmination of both internal and external influences on her decision to go ahead with the alliance. The internal pressure comes from people most close to her. The external pressure came from our immediate neighbour India.

Both stakeholders in this new joint venture were looking towards India as a patron and provider of a unilateral safety net. But in two separate instances India gave strong indications of their views on a snap general elections and destability of Sri Lanka. This may be the reason why the President is deliberately trying to push back general elections while advancing the provincial council elections.

Indian message first went to Dr. Sarath Amunugama who was briefed by Prime Minister Vajpayee’s Principal Secretary Brijesh Mishra. The Indian Intelligence unit RAW directly reports to Mishra and he has been worried about their reports on Sri Lanka. The Indians do not want a strong LTTE caucus having access to the Sri Lankan parliament and multiple dysfunctions at their doorstep. This message was reiterated to President Kumaratunga by Prime Minister Vajpayee at the recent SAARC summit and also by Foreign Minister Jaswant Sinha.

The signing of the SLFP JVP alliance had a mixed reaction from the general public and academics of all disciplines. Some said that this was the much-needed United Front the country needed while others perceived it as a "recipe for disaster". A leading political analyst in Sri Lanka Dayan Jayatileke had made an interesting observation on this.

He says, "The Sandhaanaya platform is profoundly insensitive to Tamil identity and deeply insulting to Tamil aspirations. For the first time in 20 years, since the 1984 All Party Conference and Parthasarathy's Annexure C which introduced devolution of power, there is no alternative to separatism presented in the form of either a negotiation process or a package of reforms. Instead we have so-called "fair conditions" for talks, a blanket denunciation of the Norwegian facilitation with no acceptable alternative facilitator mentioned, no prospect of resumption of talks, and no specific autonomy package on offer for the Tamils of even the anti-Tiger parties!

This is arrogant unilateralism and creates a dangerous politico-diplomatic vacuum, which puts the clock back to the early '80s. It imbecilically gives the Tigers justification for invoking external self-determination and launching pre-emptive war". In a much lighter vein he responded to Mangala Samaraweera identifying the alliance as a radical left of Sri Lanka as equivalent to saying "Kolus" drag similar to Jennifer Lopez.

The most talked about issue in the ceremonial signing of the MoU was the notable absence of the Christian clergy. The story behind this unfortunate but organizational blunder has been the lack of common sense in processing an invitation. Susil Premajayantha and Jeevan Kumaratunga were assigned the task of inviting the Christian representative. Mr Premajayantha has rung Rev Bishop Oswald Gomis and invited him to the ceremony over the phone. The Bishop has said that he was unable to attend but had requested for a written invitation. Mr. Premajayantha has responded saying that there was none and he will send somebody over and that had been end of the process. If the SLFP authority had followed through this process this significant absenteeism could have been averted.

Anton Balasingham was the most senior LTTE representative to respond to the SLFP- JVP pact but amazingly President Kumaratunga is yet to make any statement on it. Though she gave the green light, she is yet to come in public to endorse the alliance or otherwise. This is the state of uncertainty in political decision making that has gripped the leadership of the country- a type of paralysis of will. If its post purchases dissonance for Chandrika Kumaratunga already what would her citizens be feeling.?

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