The Collapse of the Old Guard and the Wait for the Young Turks



by Rajan Philips

President Wickremesinghe’s political days are numbered in more ways than one. There are virtually none left for Mahinda Rajapaksa. The oldest of them, R. Sampanthan, is under pressure to formally retire. Vasudeva Nanayakkara has not been heard in a while, but he too belongs to the cohort of politicians who entered parliament in 1970 or 1977. They respectively came from Colombo, Hambantota, Galle/Kiriella and Trincomalee, and belonged to the UNP, the SLFP, the TULF and the LSSP – four parties that spanned the entire political spectrum of Sri Lanka in the 20th century.

Vasudeva Nanayakkara was 30 years old, and Mahinda Rajapaksa was 25, when they entered parliament in 1970. Ranil Wickremesinghe was 28 and Sampanthan was 44 when they entered parliament seven years later in 1977. As they are on their way out they are also symptomatic of the state of their political parties, if not the state of politics in the country. Not to mention the economy.

Not many are waiting in the wings to replace them. The public focus is on two men: Anura Kumara Dissanayake (55) and Sajith Premadasa (56). The latter leads the SJB with a larger representation in parliament and is the leader of the opposition. The former has only two JVP/NPP MPs with him in parliament, but is steadily rising in political popularity in the country. Both are untested in national leadership, and they are waiting for their turn at a time when the country is waiting to overcome the most trying challenges it has ever faced in its modern history.

Historical Parallels

Historical parallels may not mean much but are useful to assess the seriousness of the current challenges and the scarceness of national capacity to meet them. Politics in 1970 and 1977 was both energizing and optimistic with two opposing visions that were advocated by impressively talented leaders. The public was engaged and had clear alternative choices. Neither is the case now. That does not mean either Dissanayake or Premadasa cannot mobilize their organizations and rise to the occasion. It only means that the onus is on them to show what they are made of and what teams they will assemble for the next parliament – teams with depths of talent and dedication, and nothing of the corrupt and the incompetent. The time for demonstration is now, well in advance of whatever election that comes first sometimes next year.

Another parallel can be drawn from the time of independence when political competition was between DS Senanayake, who was emerging as the elder statesman – from being nobody to somebody, as Kumari Jayawardena has chronicled, and the young Turks of the time – SWRD Bandaranaike, GG Ponnambalam and Philip Gunawardena. For nearly 15 years preceding independence, the three men, with remarkable abilities and even more remarkable ambitions, had been stalking DS Senanayake to wrest control of the country’s political leadership. Each was on his own path that was exclusive to himself either egotistically or ideologically. Yet their politics was of a high order.

SWRD was the centrist of the three, jostling for position both within and outside the orbit of DS Senanayake, discreetly building his independent base through the Sinhala Maha Sabha, and being strategically ambivalent in confronting colonial rule. GG Ponnambalam was unabashedly pro-colonial and was trying to project himself as the representational champion of the minorities with his technically sound but politically untenable 50-50 cry. Philip Gunawardena was the implacable anti-imperialist, cantankerous by nature, but yet the inspirational leader of Sri Lanka’s first political party, the LSSP.

What was common to all three men was that each was convinced that he was far more able and equipped for political leadership than DS Senanayake during what were clearly the twilight years of colonial rule. But the wily old Senanayake bested them all. Bandaranaike and Ponnambalam became Ministers in the first Senanayake cabinet, although Mr. Bandaranaike would soon leave to set up his own political party, the SLFP that became his vehicle to power in 1956. Ponnambalam dazzled for a while, but his fortunes dwindled soon after DS Senanayake’s sudden death in 1952. Philip became isolated even within the left movement and except for a brief cameo as a consequential cabinet minister in 1956, his early promises gradually evaporated.

Contrast DS Senanayake and his detractors with Ranil Wickremesinghe and his rivals. Nothing more needs to be said. Or contrast the promises of that time with the predicaments of today. The predicaments that our current contenders for power, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa, have to deal with had their origins in the political questions that preoccupied the time of independence and the years after it. The 20th century legacies of the constitution, the ethnic question and the economy are haunting us still.

20th Century Legacies

First, there was and there is, the constitution. Independence arrived on the back of a new constitution, the Soulbury Constitution; rather, the Jennings Constitution. Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama recently described it as the finest of the three constitutions we have had over 75 years. The late Newton Gunasinghe, Marxist and Socialist, used to say the same thing. Here we are today debating the possibility of reverting back to parliamentary democracy that characterized the Jennings Constitution, and jettisoning the current presidential system that is enshrined by the Jayewardene Constitution.

Second, and inextricably tied to the constitution was, and is, the ethnic question. The Jennings Constitution was predicated on what AJ Wilson called the “communal compact,” a supposed understanding between the leaders of the different ethnic communities about the constitutional safeguards for minority rights.

The safeguards were primarily Section 29 of the Constitution, public sector hiring, and the formula for political representation based on population and electoral areas. As it turned out, the safeguards were breached almost from the morrow of independence. The judiciary was independent, but often sided with the government on constitutional questions.

The first breach was the disenfranchisement of the estate Tamils soon after independence. The mass of stateless people in the estates along with the mass of settlers from the south colonizing the eastern province, totally invalidated the constitutional formula for minority representation in parliament. Then came the language question and the opening of the floodgates first in public sector hiring and later in university admissions. The 1972 and 1978 constitutions simply removed the pretense of safeguards that the 1947 constitution had included in its provisions.

The 13th Amendment to the current Constitution belatedly addressed the earlier breaches, but there is more debate about 13A-plus than there is real commitment to implementing what is already part of the constitution. In addition to the 13th Amendment, the citizenship question of the estate Tamils has also been ‘resolved.’ There was never going to be an equitable resolution after nearly half the estate population was repatriated to India, but there is now some finality to it.

It so happens that this month of November marks the bicentenary of the first arrival of the ancestors of the estate Tamils as indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu. The have been commemorations and celebrations throughout this year under the rubric, “Naam 200” (We are 200), but the most recent one at the Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo would seem to have bordered on the farcical.

The event was organized under the auspices of Jeevan Thondaman in his capacity as Minister of Water Supply and Estate Infrastructure Development (another instance of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s bizarre mixing of ministerial portfolios). More famously, the young Thondaman is the grandson of the CWC patriarch, the late S. Thondaman. The event had more to do with who was invited and who was excluded, and less to with the people on the estates. And the invitations were selectively extended to the BJP in India and the BJP put on a better show in Colombo than it could ever do in Chennai.

The resolution of the citizenship of the estate Tamils, the emergence of territorially defined Muslim political parties, and the exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils, have transformed the ethnic question from what it was for most of the 20th century. The Sri Lankan Tamils are no longer the ‘majority’ in the minority question. The tri-lingual fluency of the Muslims and the estate Tamils is also transforming the linguistic landscape of the island. The retirement of the TNA leader, R. Sampanthan will create its own unique vacuum. President Wickremesinghe tried to fast track reconciliation, but his efforts were undone because his motives were self-serving.

It was known then that it was Sampanthan who persuaded Ranil Wickremesinghe to support Maithripala Sirisena as the common opposition candidate for the 2015 presidential election. Now, there are no indications as to which way the minority political parties will sway, and what offers will be made by Anura Kumara Dissanayake or Sajith Premadasa to make them (minorities) sway their way.

The elephant in the room of course is the economy. It was the most promising of all the prospects at the time of independence. Today it is biggest burden on the country and its future. Ranil Wickremesinghe often brags about the state of the economy under DS Senanayake, even though much of the economy at that time was leftover from colonial rule. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, on the other hand, once blamed the entire political history after independence for the economic mess that Gotabaya Rajapaksa singlehandedly created.

Mr. Dissanayake’s rhetoric was obviously over the top although it was understandable in the context of his insisting two years ago that the JVP/NPP was ready to take over the leadership of the country. Now that Mr. Dissanayake is becoming a real contender for power, the people will expect to hear from him as much substance as political rhetoric. There will be similar expectations and pressure on Sajith Premadasa who is currently trailing the JVP leader by some distance in opinion polling. It is always a long way to power. The journey is still starting.