Political Column  

Mahinda woos JVP but boos from others
By Our Political Editor
Two innocent village lads wind their way into the City yearning to enjoy life there. Fascinated by the neat decor in a colorfully illuminated building they ask an elder whom they meet what it was. "It's a night club," the elderly man responds as commotion erupts. By then a gun toting youth had popped out to seize a charming young girl.

Puzzled by that eerie scene, the lads ask the senior citizen what was going on. He replies again in Sinhala "that's Dutugemunu's Baappa (father's younger brother) taking away a young girl."

There was laughter all round in the audience. Students of S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia, who were members of the Drama Society, were performing on the stage. In the days of yore, King Dutugemunu was known for his heroism, for the way he displayed courage and chivalry when he took on the army of King Elara. But today, those who were laying claims to an ancient warrior's lineage were different. They were, as the drama tried to project, seizing other people's daughters during their leisure from night clubs for their carnal pleasure.

No doubt the drama projected a contemporary scenario. But there was something more apt that many did not know. Playing the role of King Dutugemunu's brother was none other than the young son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse. The proud papa was there in person to see his son perform.

For Rajapakse, who will be the next President of Sri Lanka if he wins the elections, the students including his son were giving a new message. It was only days earlier he declared publicly that some of the spiteful remarks Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva made to the media at the Magistrate's Courts after his son's unruly behavior at a night club did not represent the views of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. It was Mervyn Silva who had proudly boasted with heroic enthusiasm that he was King Dutugemnu's Baappa months earlier.

And it was after both the real life drama and the play he saw at S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia, that Rajapakse went into further action. Incensed by Mervyn Silva's remarks, also at the courthouse, over a thousand persons of Indian origin marched to Temple Trees to lodge their protests. He greeted every one of them with a packet of milk. If Rajapakse's milk of human kindness soothed the protestors, his remarks went beyond dissociating the Freedom Party from the antics of an antiquated politician in Mervyn Silva. He voiced his support to Ceylon Workers Congress leader, Arumugam Thondaman. Even a protest was soothed with milk and turned into a campaign ground.

But for those who believed that the worst, at least within the SLFP, was over for Rajapakse as he readied to take on his rival, Opposition and UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe were mistaken. When he overcame one pitfall, another was coming his way. The same hidden hand that had placed many a hurdle before him was at work, at work with great gusto. There is no doubt, he has to first surmount these odds or face isolation that would make a victory for Wickremesinghe a cakewalk. Overcoming these obstacles has become a more daunting task for Rajapakse aides than embarking on an election campaign.

Rajapakse has set in motion several measures. Treasury Secretary, P.B. Jayasundera is to formulate an economic policy. It would have to be exceptionally sound for Wickremesinghe's strongest point, with a proven track record during the UNF tenure, is a sound economic programme. Otherwise, it would not entice the business community. Equally, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was killed on Friday night (see separate stories) was to formulate a foreign policy outline. These will naturally be an extension of the present policies but the salient features are to be articulated for better effect.

It is with these measures in mind that Rajapakse wrote his first formal letter to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) General Secretary, Tilvin Silva, last week. Declaring formally that he has been named as presidential candidate of the SLFP, he reminded the JVP about its resolve in 2004 to work towards a common programme. He invited it for a dialogue towards reaching understanding on a common platform - in other words seeking JVP backing for his candidature.

The JVP, no doubt, is in a mood to back Rajapakse. Contrary to reports that it was to forge a common alliance with the Jathika Hela Urumaya and field a common candidate, it has no such plans. But it does need its own requirements met. Firebrand Wimal Weerawansa, during a one-and-half-hour speech on the P-TOMS debate in Parliament this week made one point very clear - there should be a commitment to withdraw the P-TOMS by a presidential candidate who would receive JVP's blessings. Weerawansa was critical of several ministers and made particular reference to Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama, who, he said, was "shopping for the premiership." Deputy Minister Sripathi Sooriyaratchi intervened to moderate Weerawansa but that was of no avail. In the meantime, Mervyn Silva advised Sooriyaratchi to go and sit in the Opposition benches.

Even Rajapakse's advice to his party parliamentarians not to embark on a confrontation course with the JVP during the debate seemed to be of no avail. Here again, Rajapakse loyalists were worried whether the JVP critics were under "orders" to hit hard thus distancing Rajapakse from wooing the former junior partner in the Government.

Deputy Minister Dilan Perera, the staunchest voice to defend President Kumaratunga nowadays, branded the JVP as a communalist party and declared his Government's commitment to the P-TOMS. Rajapakse is to approach even Rauff Hakeem to seek the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.

The JVP has not yet responded to the Rajapakse invitation. But its politburo had a lengthy discussion on the matter last Wednesday. There were views both in favour of backing Rajapakse and fielding its own Presidential candidate. The majority appeared to subscribe to the latter view. The ultimate decision was one of significance. It was decided that the politburo would take an immediate decision on whom to back or whom to field as a candidate if an announcement is made that presidential elections would be held in 2005. If it was going to be next year, the matter will be held in abeyance until a later date.

But Rajapakse loyalists are worried about a number of other developments. This week Kumaratunga was in Parliament in her capacity as Minister of Education. She was chairing a meeting of MPs who were members of the advisory committee on education. Whilst the meeting was under way, JVP student unions were staging a protest in the Fort against education reforms. The Police baton-charged them causing injuries to many. When JVP student unions gathered at Kelaniya on Thursday to protest over this, they were baton-charged again.

Rajapakse loyalists see these developments as a sinister move to distance the JVP from him. More so, because Rajapakse had spoken to DIG Colombo, Pujitha Jayasundera and told him that the Police should not take a tough line against the students. In this Police crackdown on JVP students, needless to say, Rajapakse finds himself in a difficult situation. His main rival Wickremesinghe has no such issues and is a beneficiary of these developments. Hence, these loyalists ask whether "such insidious" measures as crackdowns on the students were being done to distance the JVP from Rajapakse and make things difficult for him.

Suspicions over this were heightened after Kumaratunga's visit to Badulla last week. During talks with her party stalwarts, she declared that the JVP was responsible for the student protests. She felt such measures required tough action.

In a separate development, Ranil Wickremesinghe embarked on a move to forge a common platform of opposition parties in Parliament. He wrote to party leaders including the JVP inviting them for a meeting. However, the JVP did not attend the meeting.

These developments come at a time when the ruling party has suffered a great loss - the assassination on Friday of Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar. He has not only been a close confidant of Kumaratunga (though not that close at the time of his untimely death) but also a catalyst in relations between Kumaratunga and Rajapakse. It was he who insisted soon after Rajapakse was named the Presidential candidate that Kumaratunga's interests should be looked after.

Though a Foreign Minister, Kadirgamar was a man of many sorts. Last Tuesday he attended a meeting of the National Security Council chaired by President Kumaratunga. The issue of the LTTE's attempt on the life of JVP's Trincomalee district MP, Jayantha Wijesekera was taken up. Kadirgamar raised issue over the MPs security. Kumaratunga promptly responded by ordering that he be provided with not only escorts but also with an escort vehicle. For the JVP which is not happy at all with Kumaratunga, this was a pleasing moment.

They were happy she had acknowledged the need to protect an opposition parliamentarian. Similar concerns were also taken up for discussion when Speaker, W.J.M. Lokubandara chaired a meeting of party leaders in Parliament. This was to discuss the provision of security to parliamentarians. The three armed forces chiefs Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda (Army), Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri (Navy), Air Marshal Donald Perera (Air Force) and senior DIG Bodhi Liyanage representing the Police Chief were present on the occasion.

The absence of Kadirgamar's role as a major catalyst in relations between the SLFP and the JVP, no doubt, will be a critical factor now. More so when Rajapakse has to overcome the difficulties placed on his way as he aspires to become the president of Sri Lanka.

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