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Politics


Aiyer embarrasses Anura

 

  • Rajapaksa loyalists chagrined over Anura’s invitee list
  • Opposition explores ways of working with JVP
  • Ranil’s inconsistency irritates UNP members

The 47th commemoration of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was held on Tuesday (26) at Horagolla with the participation of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Indian Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyer.
It was also the 6th death anniversary of the world’s first woman Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
The commemoration ceremony was held in a very solemn and fitting manner to this great statesman and stateswoman, who rendered a yeoman service to the country as prime ministers of independent Sri Lanka.
A memorial oration was also held the same evening at the BMICH. The oration was delivered by the Indian Minister of Panchayat Raj and Youth Affairs, Mani Shankar Aiyer. The conspicuous absentee on both these occasions was former President, Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Minister Aiyer arrived in the country on Monday (25) to be on time for the Bandaranaike commemoration.
In fact, President Rajapaksa, who was keen to invite Minister Aiyer for the event got in touch with him over the phone somewhere in late June and asked Minister Anura Bandaranaike to follow up with a formal invitation in writing.
On Monday when he arrived in Colombo, Aiyer was first hosted by Advisor to the President, Sunimal Fernanado, to high tea along with several other political personalities at his residence at Horton place. It was reported that Minister Aiyer has been a close friend of Sunimal Fernando for a long time.
The same evening, Minister Anura Bandaranaike too hosted the visiting Indian Minister to dinner at the 1864 Regency of the Galle Face Hotel, where mainly the friends of the Bandaranaike were invited.
Among the invitees were Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, SLMC Leader, Rauf Hakeem, Ministers John Seneviratne and Nimal Siripala De Silva, business magnate Lalith Kotalawela, Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Ms.Nirupama Rao, Dipoo Senanayake and several other guests who are Bandaranaike’s close friends.
Rajapaksa loyalists are bit irked over the manner in which Bandaranaike had selected his invitees. They thought that President Rajapaksa should have been invited to the occasion, but there are no misgivings over that. What irked them more was the invitation extended to Rauf Hakeem and Lalith Kotalawela, who are not in the good books of the government.
Pivotal role
The government’s backroom analysts are of the view that Anura Bandaranaike wanted to create an impression in the mind of the visiting Indian Minister that he could play a pivotal role in bringing together the various factions who are politically divided on petty political issues.
This was further corroborated when Minister Aiyer referred to the dinner hosted by Bandaranaike during his intellectual disposition and on the two most outstanding Bandaranaikes, at the BMICH on Tuesday.
Minister Aiyer said that at the dinner hosted by Minister Bandaranaike he saw what democracy was all about. In the same breath he said, at the lunch hosted by Nirupama Rao, that he thought that it was Sri Lanka’s National Government that best showcased democracy at work.
What does that imply? Is it that India is capable of making a government in Sri Lanka according to what it believes is best for its little neighbour? Or is it just a random thought coming off the cuff?
Whatever it may be, it could be a mind boggling question for many to ponder. However, the underlying message could be that Sri Lanka should not do things on its own maverick way when the big brother is just across the shore.
Be that as it may, at the dinner hosted by Anura Bandaranaike on Monday at the Galle Face Hotel in honour of visiting Minister Aiyer, High Commissioner Nirupama Rao looked disillusioned. and was keeping a very low profile. Most of the invitees too were amused to see Ms. Rao sitting more towards the corner of the table when protocol demanded that she sit elsewhere.
Banadaranaike added insult to injury on Tuesday when her name was mentioned as the former High Commissioner for India in Sri Lanka during the announcements made over the public address system at the main ceremony at Horagolla. The officials at the Indian High Commission are not taking it very kindly and they are annoyed over the way the Indian High Commissioner was treated.
However, the theory that every action has an equal and an opposite reaction came into play the same evening when Mani Shankar Aiyer delivered his memorial oration on the Bandaranaikes.
He made it a point to praise Nirupama Rao profusely and put her on a pedestal as a member of the Indian Foreign Service. Thereafter he quoted copiously from a newspaper article that she had written. Aiyer showed his intellectual capacity, no doubt, but he went on butterfly shooting, one analyst told this column, putting the whole thing in a nutshell.
Random thoughts
Some of them were of the view that he had no theme and did not mention a word about Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike during his speech. They thought it was more appropriate to call it the random thoughts of Mani Shankar Aiyer rather than an eloquent presentation at a commemoration.
Many of the invitees thought that his reference to Rao was totally irrelevant, but being a politician drawn from the Indian Foreign Service himself, he had instinctively changed his course and defended her role as India’s envoy in Sri Lanka.
No doubt it was a slap in the face for Anura Bandaranaike and more than anything it proved beyond reasonable doubt that India meant serious business when it came to statecraft. Friends are secondary to all that and they have clearly identified their priorities — a good lesson to our politicians, especially Bandaranaike who thinks that friendship could do anything and everything. The answer should be ‘yes’ but not always. This fact was hit home by none other than his celebrated friend, Mani Shankar Aiyer.
Interestingly Bandaranaike had these words to welcome the Indian Minister. He said,” there is no finer person than Mani to deliver my father’s 47th commemoration lecture. My father began and laid the foundation of a long and lasting friendship with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Mani is a remarkable man who epitomes all that is best and finest in the firmament of India’s volatile politics. He is a gifted writer and an outstanding orator who virtually single-handedly took on the might of the BJP government and crossed swords with another great orator, former Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and demolished his government with wit, tact and sarcasm.”
The question asked all round is what Bandaranaike got in return. It was sheer embarrassment. In addition to this, Bandaranaike was visibly upset over the reference made by Aiyer to S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike as SWORD Bandaranaike.
Bandaranaike always likes to take refuge under the shadows of his father, mother and sister, uttering various things done during their tenures in office. He boasts that the Bandaranaikes have rendered a great service to the nation and likes to delve into the past, recalling their family connections to the Nehrus and other Indian leaders, just to take solace under those great names. It is now time for Bandaranaike to realise that people cannot be taken for a ride any longer through this rhetoric, and that India is not going to change its policy towards Sri Lanka because of his family connections. All we can tell Bandaranaike is to shed all that is superfluous and try to be a politician with a mature and intellectual disposition. If he develops these qualities, no doubt he could be a leader worth his salt.
All Party Conference
It was not only Bandaranaike but even President Rajapaksa who hosted Mani Shankar Aiyer to dinner with a representative gathering of Sri Lankan politics. Some of the participants represented minority parties such as the CWC and the Upcountry People’s Front. At the dinner, it was suggested that Minister Mani Shankar Aiyer should take the opportunity to address the All Party Conference on Wednesday before he left Sri Lanka.
The suggestion was first put to the officer dealing in political affairs of the Indian High Commission, called Vipul, who in turn asked the High Commissioner, Nirupama Rao. Her spontaneous reaction was to tell the political affairs officer that the minister’s itinerary was full and that it would not be possible to accommodate the President’s request. Knowing that the High Commissioner was not very happy over the manner that things were being done, it was decided to ask Minister Aiyer directly to which he acceded very happily.
Accordingly, a time was fixed for 9.30 a.m. the next morning, but the minister was late by exactly 45 minutes - the reason once again being Anura Bandaranaike. It was later reported that Bandaranaike was hanging around in the Taj Samudra Hotel where the minister was staying to meet him that morning following a misunderstanding over a breakfast meeting and its venue. Finally all those problems were sorted out, but the problem between Bandaranaike and Nirupama Rao, who is scheduled to leave the shores of the island in three weeks time, remains unresolved.
At the All Party Conference meeting, Minister Aiyer dealt with the subject of devolution and the characteristics of the Indian model and on the Panchayat Raj system which is effectively practised in India.
Mani Shankar Aiyer has now left the shores of Sri Lanka, but in fact, he was originally invited to deliver the Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial lecture in August but apparently Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, had failed to set in motion any follow up action at this end after having given him a verbal confirmation on the matter.
Initially the invitation was extended at the residence of Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner for India, Romesh Jayasinghe, by Minister Samaraweera during one of his tours to India, but he apparently had forgotten the whole episode when he came back to Sri Lanka. The matter became a faux pas after diplomat Jayasinghe accidentally met him at the Delhi Airport.
Minister Mani Shankar Aiyer told our High Commissioner that he needed the formal invitation to deliver the Lakshman Kadirgamar oration on time for him to obtain permission from the Prime Minister and to attend to other formalities. Jayasinghe faced a bit of an embarrassing situation, but told him very diplomatically that the government had already invited a respected Indian statesman, Karan Singh, to deliver the memorial oration.
Faux pas
Later, Minister Aiyer complained to his Sri Lankan friends about the diplomatic faux pas on the part of the Sri Lankan government and the emotionally upset Minister said that he would not come to Sri Lanka again, but he however, changed his mind after President Rajapaksa telephoned him to invite him to deliver the Bandaranaike memorial lecture on September 26.
Be that as it may, on Tuesday, Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Nirupama Rao, invited a wide spectrum of politicians to lunch with Minister Aiyer at India House. The government was represented by ministers DEW Gunasekara and Thondaman, while the Presidential Secretariat was represented by Presidential Advisor, Basil Rajapaksa and Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga.
The UNP was represented by former ministers G.L. Peiris and Ravi Karunanayake. Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and TNA Parliamentarian, Raviraj and JVP Leader, Somawansa Amarasinghe were also present on the occasion.
Somawansa Amarasinghe was seated next to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and they were seen discussing a very important matter. During the conversation, Gotabhaya spoke his mind and apparently told off Amarasinghe. Gotabhaya was heard saying, “You all are not allowing us to do this and at the same time you are also not doing anything constructive” — probably a reference to the criticism levelled by the JVP to the government. Amarasinghe was visibly upset over the remark made by the Defence Secretary but had to stomach everything since the situation demanded him to be calm and quiet.
It now appears that the Rajapaksa administration that maintained cordial relations with the JVP is not prepared to tolerate the party any more. Basil Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabhaya, who were having a long chat with TNA parliamentarian Raviraj, had apparently downplayed the JVP factor in the government.
With this kind of development that reached a point of culmination after the utterances by the JVP Leader that the SLFP was similar to those who are practising the oldest profession in the world, the SLFP leadership is now hell bent on getting around the UNP to form a government of national consensus.
UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday briefed the UNP delegation sitting in committees to explore possibilities of how they could work together. The conspicuous absentee from these briefings was none other than his erstwhile lieutenant, Milinda Moragoda. Some UNP insiders feel that Moragoda has already crossed the borderline, but he had been present at all the meetings between the two parties although he had skipped the party leader’s briefings.
Just before Tuesday’s meeting with his party delegation, Wickremesinghe had a meeting with Professor G.L.Peiris to discuss the party’s position relating to the bilateral talks with the SLFP delegation.
Hare and hound
With all this, yet party insiders are not happy with the disposition of Wickremesinghe who believes that he is trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hound simultaneously.
His effort these days is to keep the party intact without allowing further erosion to take place, but he is suspicious that President Mahinda Rajapaksa was moving insidiously to grab more UNPers from the fold. It is rumoured that Wickremesinghe had apparently summoned one Ravi Wijeratna, a one time ally of the UNP, for a meeting in order to discourage him from wooing UNPers to join the government.
At Tuesday’s Parliamentary Goup meeting, UNP party members expressed their concerns over the current political situation in the country.
Former minister, Ravi Karunanayake said that the JVP’s hypocrisy should be exposed to the people. He said the JVP was now pretending to be the godfathers of the security forces.
“They go on preaching that they are the protectors of the three armed forces,” said the former minister. He said that the UNP as a responsible political party should counter their propaganda and tell the world how they went on a rampage during 1987-89 periods trying to liquidate the very armed forces whom they are now trying to protect.
Karunanayake also had a severe indictment against the party’s media outfit and said that the media unit is more or less a non-existent one and called for the immediate reorganisation of the media arm of the party. He said that somebody should take responsibility for the despicable behaviour of the party’s media outfit.
Party Leader Wickremesinghe said that there would be a complete overhaul of the media unit but Karunanayake wanted to know when he was going to implement all these reforms. Then reply was that it would be done very soon but Wickremesinghe did not assign a date or time for the proposed reorganisation.
At this meeting it was also asked by members whether it would be detrimental to the future of the bipartisan talks between the government and the UNP, if they criticised the government on various shortcomings.
Wickremesinghe replied that there was no barrier on criticising the government despite the ongoing talks. At this point, Bandula Gunawardene said the oil prices in the world market had slumped, but the government had failed to reduce the oil prices accordingly in keeping with the world prices. Gunawardene saw this as a conspiracy against the masses and wanted the party to take appropriate action to bring the oil prices down.
The main problem appears to be the heavy debts of the government to the Petroleum Corporation which have not been serviced as required and the heavy taxes which have been passed on to unsuspecting consumers. The Petroleum Minister always tries to mislead and bluff the masses by saying that the corporation is running at a loss and not
revealing the truth behind the fabricated story by the ministry from time to time, he said.
Progress
At the meeting, Prof. G.L.Peiris explained the progress they had made so far in their talks with the government. He said the two delegations were devising a common national agenda to work together. The six sub committees who are working separately on six identified areas would be submitting their reports at the next plenary to be held on October 3.
It is also learnt that the Committee on Mechanism has had a meeting on Thursday (28).
The UNP was represented by Prof. G.L. Peiris, Rukman Senanayake and Milinda Moragoda while the government was represented by Nimal Siripala de Silva, Maithripala Sirisena and John Seneviratne. Minister John Seneviratne was not present for the meeting due to certain exigencies, but met with them later in the day.
The talking point at the moment is the UNP’s decision to appoint a committee to strike a dialogue with the JVP. The committee comprises Jayawickrama Perera, Bandula Gunawardene, Vajira Abetwardene and T. Maheswaran.
It was Maheswaran who suggested to Party Leader Wickremesinghe the idea conceived in his mind. Wickremesinghe not only approved Maheswaran’s idea, but appointed a committee to explore the possibilities of working together.
Maheswaran has already spoken to his friends in the JVP who had also agreed to talk to the UNP to explore areas where the two parties could work together.
Besides Anura Kumara Dissanayake and K.D. Lalkantha, Maheswaran had also spoken to Wimal Weerawansa who told Maheswaran to send a formal letter signed by Ranil Wickremesinghe to JVP Leader Somawansa Amerasinghe.
However,the committee faced certain snags at the very initial stages because two of the committee members are trying to distance themselves from the so called JVP-UNP committee. One member said that such a committee was not in existence. The two members who are distancing from the committee are Jayawickrama Perera and Bandula Gunawardena.
At the same time, some UNP members think that this committee has been formulated by Wickremesinghe to scuttle the bi-partisan approach between the government and the UNP.
Various people had various things to say. Some said that the UNP would have to agree to the 20 point programme of the JVP if they were to work together, while others said that a pre-condition of the JVP would be to abolish the Ceasefire Agreement and removal of the Norwegian facilitators from the peace process.
One maverick type UNPer told this column it was better for the leader to give all these assurances to the JVP now itself or the JVP would turn back and say the same thing they told the SLFP couple of days ago. He said - “they might say even worse things about us.”
Dialogue
Another idea is that he should have appointed Rukman Senanayake to talk to the JVP, since Rukman single-handedly handled the JVP during the 1989 crisis period.
Be that as it may, the question of having a dialogue with the JVP was raised at the meeting held under the chairmanship of Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Cambridge Terrace office of the UNP leader on Thursday. There he said that he was not in a hurry and that he told Maheswaran who initiated it, to wait for at least three weeks before talking to the JVP. Maheswaran however had denied any such direction from the Leader.
Party members are apparently annoyed with the ways of Wickremesinghe who is not consistent in his policies when it comes to party matters. One angry UNP insider told this column that such red herrings are going to be a damp squib for him.
The UNPers are more or less in a confused state since they are now not too sure of what their leader says. On most of these occasions, they tend to cross-check with each other to be definite as to whether he meant what he said.
At the meeting to discuss the government-UNP talks, the UNP delegation also deliberated on the proposed electoral reforms devised by the Dinesh Gunawardene Select Committee.
Although the party is of the view that the reforms are useful, Party Leader Wickremesinghe has reservations about the whole exercise. In fact, he has taken into account a worse scenario for the UNP, the situation that arises from an electoral defeat and thinks that the proposed system is disadvantageous for the party in such a situation.
Though it likely to apply universally to all the other parties at an electoral defeat, Wickremesinghe has worked out the numbers in relation to the UNP and found it to be disadvantageous for the UNP. Hence it is likely that the party might drag its feet on the proposed electoral reforms which envisages 150 seats under the first past the post system and 75 seats under the proportional representation system.
Not only the UNP, smaller parties like the SLMC and the CWC are also not in agreement with the proposed reforms. The stand taken by the SLMC is that there was no ample time given to the parties within parliament to discuss the issues involved.
Parties like the JHU which would have to fight for survival under the new system, had asked the cut off point for the proportional representation system to be reduced to the very low ebb of 1% from the proposed 3% where they might have the luck of scraping in at least one member out of the 75 members to be appointed under the proportional representation system.
The UNP’s idea is for a more American based constitutional system where the executive president could draw his cabinet from outside - mainly technocrats to run the country - while proposing committees for each ministry which would function as the supervising body for each ministry. These committees would be drawn out from parliament and will bear the features of the American system. In fact it is these oversight committees, which are much like the Congress Committees in the US, that the UNP hopes to get the JVP to agree to during talks with them, should they materialise.