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When convenience becomes nuisance

Some marriages just don’t last, especially not those that see two extremely different personalities coming together on account of one moment of attraction. We are talking about the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the historic marriage a couple of months ago and the quick falling-apart of the same. This, then, is a post-mortem. Nothing startling of course, but a necessary exercise to lay it all out: the rationale of marriage, the associated illusions, the inherent contradictions, the inevitable dissolution, the ‘settlement’, who got what and who was short-changed etc.

Let’s do a quick recap to start things off. The UNP was in a quandary. Well, let’s say Ranil Wickremesinghe was in a quandary. The presidential election was coming up and the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa was enjoying unprecedented popularity for someone seeking re-election. A re-play of November 2005 would have seen Ranil getting creamed and the natural play would have seen the UNP getting creamed in the parliamentary Election that would have followed. There would have been renewed calls for Ranil’s head and although I am pretty sure he would prevail, he wouldn’t come off un-bloodied.

JVP’s dismal performance
The JVP. Well, that party had lost its iconic orator, Wimal Weerawansa, along with a dozen others. Performance in the provincial council and local government elections was dismal. Vote base had declined, obviously. Poorly chosen slogans and political strategies meant that they could not support Rajapaksa. Putting forward a candidate of its own would have revealed the true strength of the party and this was not something the JVP could afford to risk given that a presidential election throws up just one winner and that there are no consolation prizes. The only consolation in electoral political was the strength in Parliament. A poor performance at the presidential election would have resulted in utter demoralisation and this would have bled into the general election campaign. The provincial council elections show that the JVP would be down to single-digit strength in Parliament and stamped the fact that in the end, after two unsuccessful, bloody and destructive insurrections and close to two decades of operating within the democratic frame, the party had gone the way of the LSSP and CP.

Then came Sarath Fonseka, breathing fire, spitting invective, decorated soldier, war-hero, angry at the Rajapaksas and (in uniform at least) a man who seemed to have everything that Ranil Wickremesinghe lacked. He put to rest Ranil Wickremesinghe’s anxieties. He sorted out the JVP’s dilemma about how to approach the presidential election. He cleared the ground for Ranil and Tilvin to have a little romance. He was indulgent for it was that rare kind of ‘marriage’ where the true beneficiary is neither the bride nor the groom but the kapu mahaththaya. Well, a default kapu mahaththaya at any rate.

A mismatch
So they married. It was a rahu kaalaya marriage as far as the UNP was concerned, a marriage which was quite like someone stepping inside the house until the rain ceased. The rain ceased on the morning of January 27, 2010. The inevitable happened. Fonseka lost. Ranil smiled. The fundamental mismatch then surfaced: the fact that the JVP had a different apalaya, a different rahu kalaya. Theirs did not end the same hour.

Fonseka’s defeat was Ranil’s victory. He consolidated. His leadership was now secure. He recovered the elephant symbol. The UNP was able to convince all the three-wheeler parties to contest under the elephant symbol. Fonseka, shot his mouth, spat too far, painted ‘security risk’ all over himself and virtually wrote himself out of the political equation. Ranil’s smile grew wider. Fonseka behind bars was a plus for the UNP because it have the part an additional slogan on the one hand while taking out a potential bull in the china shop kind of personality from the campaign trail (read, ‘one less headache to worry about’).

The JVP had acquired the kind of visibility they would not have got had Tilvin Silva or someone else contested. Instead of being forced to admit, ‘we got just 1.34% of the vote’, for example, they could say ‘we got 40%’. What next? Well, Part 2 of The Plan was to get Fonseka to lead the opposition’s campaign, preferably under the swan symbol. As things unfolded, as Ranil’s grin got wider, Tilvin and Co grew despondent.

The JVP needed the UNP much more than the UNP needed the JVP. It’s as simple as that. The JVP will not add value to the UNP, but would gain something out of the union. There were two options: a common opposition front led by Fonseka and a parting of ways. The first was the ideal as far as the JVP was concerned. It would have essentially handed over the Opposition Leader slot to Fonseka, forced Ranil into retirement or oblivion, undercut the UNP and inflated the JVP’s true strength. As things stand, the JVP is scrambling for whatever crumbs may come their way as the Fonseka cookie crumbles. They don’t even have the swan symbol, let’s note this; the owner of that party/symbol has essentially told Tilvin, ‘no can do’.

Can the JVP contest under the ‘elephant’ symbol? The ideological mismatches were too significant for this marriage to last, regardless of the fact that populist motivation can easily and quick erase all ideological objections. Simply, the JVP is still emotionally attached to the colour red, the hammer-sickle symbol, the Marxist iconography and socialist rhetoric. The UNP is capitalism’s local cheer boy and wants to sell off all public enterprises including the banks; the JVP wants controls and is the key local objector (in word at least) to capitalism. In addition, the JVP’s nationalistic posturing was at odds with the federalist/separatist line that the UNP held close to heart for almost two decades now. It is one thing to tag on to slogans such as abolishing the executive presidency, reforming government, changing constitution etc and promising heaven and earth in a losing cause and quite another to bed with a person one dislikes intensely in an election that offers some consolation prizes.

Obtaining undated letters
Ranil Wickremesinghe did a 21st century version of Uncle J.R.’s trick of obtaining undated letters of resignation from his MPs. Ranil demanded all candidates to submit affidavits pledging not to cross over. He would have demanded this of the JVP too, essentially imprisoning that party within his agenda. Tilvin dare not bite, therefore, and had to go alone.

Finally, there is the business of ghosts. They could be kept at bay by both parties by putting Fonseka between the parties and the ghosts, but this is a different election and Fonseka, under arrest or out free would be a man much diminished in stature and too much of a political dwarf for either Tilvin or Ranil to hide behind. The ghosts of all those JVPers killed by the death squads unleashed by the UNP Government will scramble onto the political stage, as would all the UNP MPs and supporters lynched by the JVP’s deshapremi assassins. It would be a matter of time before both Ranil and Tilvin are unceremoniously evicted and I can’t think of any exorcist that could sort things out.

Greens vs the blues
Why should Ranil Wickremesinghe risk all that? He is sitting pretty. He is well positioned to retain his post as Leader of the Opposition. He doesn’t have to do the silly thing of letting the JVP tap into the UNP’s vote base.
And so, after all the excitement of the presidential election, it is business as usual: the greens vs the blues. Few would be upset about the JVP’s dilemmas. I have only one concern. Sarath Fonseka has suffered much on account of being taken for a ride by one Mangala Samaraweera. His arrogance and villainy aside, the man has still done much more for the country that all the JVPers and all the UNPers put together. He has been made to bite the dust and he can’t blame anyone for this but himself, his naiveté and arrogance. There’s a limit, though. He’s reached it. Let him be now. The law will take its course, of course, but there’s no reason why the man should be further used to serve the narrow and selfish political objectives of anyone, least of all the JVP.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malinsene@gmail.com