06 February 2016

As Sarath Fonseka hitches his caravan to an elephant

Four years ago to the day, i.e. on February 7, 2010, an article I wrote titled 'On the union and divorce of elephant and swan' was published in the now defunct Sunday Lakbima News.  It was a consideration of the options for Sarath Fonseka following his defeat at the presidential election in January that year.  It was written keeping in mind that a General Election was around the corner.  The options for the UNP and the JVP were also considered.  Anyway, four years later, Sarath Fonseka, now Field Marshall, seems to have figured out his 'political maximum'. 

This was when Ranil endorsed Fonseka's presidential bid in 2010.  Ranil well and truly played Fonseka for a sucker. Fonseka obliged.  Later, they would part ways and as recently as a few months ago, Fonseka said that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government was full of thieves and claimed that Ranil knows nothing about the economy.  Well, well! 
It sounds like the title of a children’s story doesn’t it?  Like the story of the haava (rabbit) and the ibba (tortoise), or the haava (rabbit) and the nariya (fox), or the bull and the frog.   For a while it was like that, for some at least.  In other words, a fairy tale.  Fantasy fascinates us humans.  We take it, believe it, treat it like fact and when life trips it all up and give us in-your-face reality we howl in protest.  That’s the ‘Sarath Fonseka story’.  In a nutshell.

It bugs the hell out of us when life doesn’t play out the scripts that we prefer doesn’t it?  Well, it’s been more than a week now and that’s long enough for people to get real.  Fonseka may have believed his own propaganda (a cardinal error for any politician) but last week’s ‘protest’ ought to have sobered him up; it was essentially a JVP rally (and itself warrants comment) and the UNP foot soldiers were conspicuously absent.  The Colombians have a hard time accepting what to them is the ‘unbelievable’ but the party organizers at the electoral level seem to have conceded victory to Mahinda Rajapaksa.

What next, is the question that Fonseka must be considering now.  There are options.  He could put all this behind him, calling it ‘sunk costs’ and try to recover some kind of dignity after the rough and tumble of an election, the ignominy of defeat and the embarrassment of post-election theatrics. So yes, retirement is one way of cutting losses and moving on.  He has shown a braver face than he did when holing himself up in Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel, vowing to champion the cause of democracy and to lead the democratization project.  Will he?  Can he?

The options available to Fonseka are naturally framed within the calculations of his main backers, the UNP and the JVP.  He has a party and a symbol, but if this election taught him anything, it is the fact that even with these two parties backing him he lost badly and therefore his swan is not going to fly if the UNP and the JVP withdraw.  So Fonseka’s only hope for political relevancy is a coalition, ideally with both these parties or with the UNP. The rub is this:  Fonseka as Presidential Candidate was No. 1 in the Opposition ranks; but in a parliamentary election following a massive defeat he is in no position to demand.  It would be good to look at some possible scenarios, but before that there is one salient difference between the ‘presidential’ and ‘parliamentary’ that we need to take note of.

A presidential election is a winner-takes-all affair.  There are no consolation prizes.  A parliamentary election is different in that there are lots of consolation prizes.  Those of the winning party who fail to get elected can hope for some high post in a corporation or an ambassadorial post.  In the very least, they can hope that the relevant number of persons who secured more preferential votes would die or resign, thus pushing them ‘up’. And if you end up on the losing side, then there is still a big prize: ‘Leader of the Opposition’.  Lesser players can still get into parliament, move up the party pecking order based on vocal presence in debate and others switching parties. 

If the opposition wishes to contest as a coalition then the issue of which symbol to contest under is crucial.  If it is the swan, then it goes without saying that it will be Fonseka and not Ranil Wickremesinghe who is vying to be Prime Minister or, in the likely event of losing the election, ending up as Opposition Leader. It is hard to think that Ranil Wickremesinghe would take that risk, especially after Fonseka failed to poll anything even remotely close to what Wickremesinghe got in 2005. 

That leaves us with the elephant.  If Fonseka has any political sense he should see the futility of contesting under the swan in a situation where the UNP and JVP contest separately under the elephant and bell, respectively. 

How about Fonseka under the ‘bell’?  It might help the JVP but not Fonseka, unless this man who wanted to be president has the humility to contest with the rathu sahodarayas with no guarantee of getting elected.  Yes, the JVP going it alone will not be the same JVP that contested under the bulath kole.  Neither will it be the JVP of 2001 or 2000, not after Wimal and Co left the party and not after its dismal record in elections and outside of them over the past 4 years. 

Fonseka’s best bet, if he chooses to remain in politics, would be to contest under the elephant symbol.  He will have to swallow his pride a little and accept that he is not a dala etha (tusker).  He would not exactly be an ali petiya (baby elephant) but hardly more than an adolescent bull elephant.  The bottom line is this: Ranil calls the shots, Fonseka follows. 

What are the options, then, for the JVP?  If Fonseka wants to live in the fairytale world along with some of his followers then he will continue to believe that he can fly.  The JVP can’t make him party leader, but wouldn’t mind clinging on, not because they too believe in that kind of flight (they are smarter), because they stand to benefit. 

The better option for the JVP would be to throw their weight behind Ranil Wickremesinghe.  It won’t be the same as a coalition with the SLFP as in 2004 but it would be better than contesting alone, for such a move given them an opportunity to play parasite. 

The JVP contesting under the elephant symbol would be quite the ‘unthinkable’, but if both parties are capable of getting past the past, acknowledging that politics is the art of the possible and most importantly that ideological distinction is utter hogwash, then this is quite the perfect marriage (under the circumstances).  At least the JVP could think so.

All they have to do is to consider the alternative, i.e. contesting separately, and contemplating possible outcomes.   It’s very easy.  Any split in the opposition vote would further diminish the already dismal possibilities of securing bonus seats from each district. 

One way to be pragmatic about it would be to acknowledge that the UPFA is going to win and win handsomely and to concentrate on maintaining party integrity, i.e. taking the each-man-for-himself route.  There is logic to this, but only from the UNP side. This is the logic:  the JVP has always been, is and will always be ‘bad news’. 

Where does Fonseka stand, though, in a possible UNP-JVP joint approach to the general election?  A deveni manamaalaya (a best man, to the groom that is)) whose relevance drops to zero after the ceremony?  He might think otherwise. He might think ‘deputy leader’ is not a bad idea.  But that’s only if he has not read the UNP constitution and has been blind to what’s been happening within the UNP every since Ranil Wickremesinghe became party leader.  Thinks are not looking up for Sarath Fonseka right now all things considered.   

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com