16 January 2017

Wimal Weerawansa’s political presence

Wimal Weerawansa is under arrest. The Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) holds that Wimal abused privileges, especially with respect to the use of vehicles.  He is also charged with outright corruption and nepotism regarding the distribution of houses constructed by the government while he was the Minister of Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities in the previous government.  The National Freedom Front (NFF) which Wimal heads, contends he is innocent.  The jury is still out on the legality of the FCID, but this notwithstanding the matter is now in court.  Court will decide.  

Wimal was arrested even as his party was getting ready to hold its convention.  Perhaps the arrest was timed well, politically, the party alleges.  Wimal, after all, is the voice, the personality and all but the party.  One notes that such machinations are not uncommon in Sri Lanka and that the yahapalanists have amply demonstrated that they too are (happy) creatures of a pernicious political culture that has hardly suffered a dent since January 8, 2015.  

The man first entered the political imagination of the country as a journalist.  He was then Wimalasiri Gamlath, writing to ‘Lakdiva’ which evolved into the key media platform of the then proscribed JVP.  He was one of several pro-JVP writers who left that newspaper and launched ‘Hiru’.  It was his lines, in print and those thundered from political platforms, that wide-eyed young people, especially from the universities, lapped up and later mouthed to would-be followers.  

I remember the first time I heard him speak.  This was in 1994, shortly before the General Election.   I was, along with a few others, selling the monthly newspaper put out by a group called ‘Janatha Mithuro’.  We were selling ‘Asipatha’ at the Goodshed bus stand.  Wimal, at the same time, was speaking at a rally at Bogambara.  

While the JVP activists had been extremely silent in the aftermath of the 1988-89 bheeshanaya, it was those involved with the Janatha Mithuro and the Jathika Chinthanaya who talked politics in the universities.  It might even be said that these elements paved the way for the JVP to make a come-back in the universities.  Wimal said it differently.

‘Galivar nidaagena iddi liliputtan tikak ekathu vela sadda daanava’ (some Lilliputians are making noise while Gulliver is asleep).  

Gulliver, to Wimal, was of course the JVP.   Even back then it was clear that Wimal had a way with words.  In 2010 April, after the UPFA had rolled over all opposition at the General Election, Wimal, addressing a media conference put it succinctly: ratata aadare kattiyata rata giyaa, badata aadare kattiyata bada giyaa’ (‘the country went to those who loved the country, and those who loved their stomachs were inflicted with diarrhea’ playing on the Sinhala word ‘bada’, meaning stomach and therefore the term, literally, ‘stomach went’ or ‘suffered purging’).

Rhetoric was his thing, and not always substance.  A collection of parliamentary speeches titled ‘Garu Kathaanaayakathumani…’ (Honorable Speaker….), another lovely heading by the way, could be described as wordy or alternately ‘fluff’.  Fluff, however, sells.  Wimal was a good salesman.  He was a crowd-puller.  People came to hear him speak.  This is why he was usually asked to make the final speech at major rallies organized by the JVP or by the UPFA when the JVP was the junior partner of that coalition which was led by the SLFP and included several smaller parties such as the CP, LSSP, MEP and DVJP (during the 2004 Parliamentary Election and the 2005 Presidential Election).  This ensured that the crowds would remain until the end.

There’s a story that a parliament reporter related to me way back in 2007 when the final vote on Budget 2008 was taken.  It was a tense moment.  Anura Banadaranaike had crossed over to the Opposition.  It was a given that the TNA and UNP would vote ‘nay’.  Thondaman’s CWC was not ‘in the bag’.  It was a critical moment.  Minister who had just attended a media briefing on cabinet decisions at the Department of Government Information and were sipping tea in the office of the then Director General Anusha Palpita, had grave faces.  Wasantha Ramanayake, who ‘rose’ after Maithripala Siriesna became President but gave the impression of loyalty to the then President, insisted that Parliament should be dissolved.  This was just before the vote was taken.  The JVP held the key.  If the JVP had voted against the budget, it would not pass.

The said reporter said that when the name of the first JVP member of the UPFA was called up, he had looked at Wimal and what was probably a pre-arranged signal had been given.  The JVP abstained.  Had they stood with the Opposition, it could very well have precipitated an unfolding of political events which among other things may have not given us the ‘result’ of May 2009.  Ravi Karunanayake was livid and expressed frustrations by banging on his desk with both hands.  Anura Bandaranaike immediately left the house, hotly followed by Arjuna Ranatunga who was trying to pacify the broken man.

Wimal could be called the signal-giving agent of the JVP for that particular moment, but at the time he was quite the mover and the shaker in the party.  In the very least, he gave the signal that prevented history taking a different turn and taking it instead on a path that might very well have seen the LTTE survive to this date.  On the flip side, of course, it kept the Rajapaksa’s in power and enabled all manner of abuse and erosion of democracy, but that’s another story.   It was a moment that was marked by Wimal Weerawansa.  No contest there.

Wimal was expelled by the JVP in March 2008 and later formed the National Freedom Front (NFF).  That was not a ‘split’.  The real split came when Kumar Gunaratnam and others left to form the Frontline Socialist Party four years later.  If numbers alone counted, then the NFF was an inconsequential sliver and the 2012 split a rip down the middle.  

‘Split’ was what it was called, however.  Perhaps this is why those who supported Sarath Fonseka’s presidential bid in January 2010 thought that Mahinda Rajapaksa could be defeated.  In 2004, the JVP backed Mahinda but in 2010 the party stood with Fonseka.  In 2004, if not for the JVP, Mahinda wouldn’t have had a team to put up posters.  The soldiers, so to speak, had abandoned Mahinda, it was thought.  Other factors should not be discounted of course.  In 2005 Mahinda was a candidate but in 2010 he was incumbent; in 2005 the UNP was a threat, in 2010 it was in disarray; in 2005 Ranil and not Mahinda had the support of both private and public media but in 2010 it was Mahinda who owned the media; in 2005 we were in the middle of a war, by 2010, i.e. under the political stewardship of Mahinda, terrorism had been defeated. Some did say that it was Fonseka who won the war and not Mahinda, but then again those who curse the dictatorial powers of the executive presidency conveniently count out the fact that when dictatorship is conceded sway on all fronts is also implicitly acknowledged. 

What’s relevant here is the error in quantifying the ‘JVP-factor’.  The number of ‘soldiers’ did matter of course, but that factor, when comparing 2005 with 2010 had ceased to be relevant given the changed circumstances and the stature that incumbency gives, not to mention the resources that could be mobilized, legally and illegally.  Outside of this, the JVP was nothing.  Wimal was all.  His voice and turn of phrase, far outweighed anything that the likes of Somawansa, Tilvin, Arura Kumara, Handunnetti, Vijitha Herath and Lalkantha could deliver, individually or as a collective.  

Wimal was one factor and certainly not the only relevant element, but one simply cannot footnote or erase the role he played in the rise of the JVP.   The hard and necessary organizing that is a non-negotiable for party building notwithstanding Wimal gave the JVP the massive public presence it sorely needed following the 88-89 debacle.  He was the JVP’s brand ambassador and helped it rise from a lost cause to a little something and eventually a considerable parliamentary force: 1 seat through Ariya Bulegoa’s party in 1994, 10 in 2000, 17 in 2001 and almost 40 courtesy the manaapa kramaya and joining forces with the SLFP in 2004.  

The brand ambassador became the brand, it could be argued.  Wimal was ejected in 2008 but remained politically relevant.  That’s the advantage of being a brand.  What happened to the JVP after that tells the story of Wimal’s political worth to that party, at least in part. The party’s fortunes declined dramatically.  In April 2010 the JVP won 4 seats (contesting under Fonseka’s banner) and in 2015, returned just 6.  The ‘vote bank’ appears to have stabilized to around 500,000.   

Wimal, along or with his party, is certainly not going to best the JVP in a General Election, but Wimal and his words proved to be a thorn in the JVP’s flesh.  And not just the JVP.   

The maubime panchayudhaya (which he called himself in 2010) has certainly lost its shine.  Electoral defeat does that.  Wrongdoing or even allegations of wrongdoing does that.  There has been a lot of invective against Wimal from pro-Government quarters in social media.  He is not liked.  He is feared by some, especially those who are slow in retort or cannot match his wit.  Others would not consider Wimal a heavyweight.  

One could talk about Wimal’s ideological preferences and how these have evolved over the years.  He’s a nationalist now, for convenience or our of conviction, only he would know.  He is perceived as a threat by those who are opposed to nationalism (are they internationalists, though?).  As such, given the political preferences of the regime, Wimal being incarcerated should be a relief.  It would be a stretch to say that the relief comes from ‘taking out’ a crook, considering the crooks that hobnob with the self-righteous in the high seats of power and the crookedness that is encouraged one way or another by this government.  

Time in the can, as they say, can be sobering.  It quietened Fonseka and all but took out S.B. Dissanayake.  What it would do to Wimal, we cannot say.  He had his moments.  Perhaps he’s not yet done. 



Anonymous said...

A good historical analysis of Wimal's role. We'll have to wait and see what future holds for him.