05 April 2018

Just wars and just battles

Battles are fundamentally different from wars although the two terms are often used as though they are synonyms.  They are different and this is why sometimes people say ‘the battle was won, but not the war.’

Of course depending on objectives what would for some be battles could very well be wars for others.  For example, in politics, a candidate might think getting elected is akin to winning a war, whereas another candidate might think that securing a seat in a local government body is a battle won, sure, but not a victory in a war, if he/she entertains greater ambitions.

It is the same for collectives. The ultimate victory for a political party would be capturing absolute power. That would be a war-victory. Anything that brings the party closer to this objective would be a battle won.  

This is how motions of no-confidence should be seen, I feel. The current crisis is one of legitimacy in representation. The composition of parliament is at odds with popular sentiment, the latter being clearly expressed on the 10th of February.  As such the sentiments of the majority are naturally underrepresented.  

Sure, things are not rosy for the Yahapalana lot, but parliamentary arithmetic says much about the balance of power, legitimacy of the same notwithstanding.  From the get go it was clear that the Joint Opposition would have an uphill battle in winning over MPs from the SLFP.  Orchestrating ‘betrayal’ from the UNP was obviously an even more formidable challenge.  With Maithripala Sirisena playing a cat and mouse game, the SLFP vote was never guaranteed.  Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of the UNP’s constitution and party culture could predict that Ranil Wickremesinghe had the inside track.

So, for all the noises about numbers moving this way and that, in a situation where the SLFP did not vote en bloc for the no-confidence motion, it was a safe bet that the UNP MPs would hold their noses and back Ranil.  ‘Hold their noses’ following all the anti-Ranil sentiment that has oozed out of Sirikotha over the past few weeks.

Didn’t the Joint Opposition know all this?  Unlikely.  What’s being missed here is the confusion over battles and wars. While it may seem that the motion was about deciding the fate of Wickremesinghe’s political future, it was also going to be a framing of Maithripala Sirisena. 

The SLFP was made to decide as a block or as individual MPs which position to take.  The Parliamentary group initially decided unanimously to back the motion. Whether the majority ended up voting for or against, given the overall sentiment of the anti-UNP vote, Sirisena and the SLFP are likely to lose much political ground. Such loss translates as gains for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.  

Sirisena’s dilemma is easy to understand. He had two choices: back the motion and become Mahinda Rajapkasa’s hostage or go against it and become Wickremesinghe’s hostage.  Indeed that can be seen as what the entire exercise was about: Sirisena’s and not Wickremesinghe’s fate.

Wickremesinghe, given the UNP constitution and the sway it gives him over the party, will survive the current moves within the party to unseat him.  In fact retaining power within the party has arguably been the one thing he has mastered.  This would not upset the SLPP because Wickremesinghe is that party’s preferred opponent at the next presidential election.  Meanwhile, any erosion in the SLFP pushes the party even closer to Mahinda Rajapaksa especially since defeat of the motion makes Sirisena even more dependent on Wickremesinghe or, if he chooses to be aloof not only throws the government into crisis but further diminishes his, Sirisena’s, political relevance. 

Battles are about consolidating gains. They are about securing strategic objectives, capturing territory, wresting the initiative from the opposition, and obtaining the best position possible to launch the next attack.  At the end of the day, that’s what needs to be assessed. In other words, consider where Wickremesinghe, Sirisena and the SLPP were before this circus started and check where they all are now. Who has gained, who has lost. 

And so, these battles are fought and once fought a casualty count is taken by the warring parties, wounds are licked, victories are claimed (even by the defeated) as per the ancient game of relative merits, and strategy plotted in terms of the bigger prize(s).  

And while these battles are fought in the name of citizens, how should citizens view it all? Are these our battles? Is this part of our war?  Where were we when the bugles were sounded and the banners were raised? What happened to our voice amidst war whoops and cries of anguish? And when the day was done and a timeout of sorts was called, where did we find ourselves?

No, folks, this was not about us.  

This was not our battle and neither is their ‘war’ our war.  We were standing outside and that’s where we are still.  At the periphery of things, at best, cheering or jeering as per our illusions and complicities. Far, far away from victory.  

This was just a battle and not necessarily a just one.  Not ours. There’s a just war but we are not fighting it. Maybe we should.


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com