06 March 2020

The elephant is not in the room

There are rooms, there are discussions and there are elephants in certain rooms whose existence is denied. Sometimes people do say ‘hey, there’s an elephant here, we can’t ignore it.’ Once that’s said, you can’t ignore it or wish it away. You have to talk about the elephant. 

A good example is what has been happening at the UNHRC in Geneva. There are many elephants in this case. There’s the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, the LTTE. There’s the fact that the LTTE held hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians hostage and that the last days of the battle was to secure their release; a hostage rescue operation, essentially. There is the utterly flawed and slanted Darusman Report whose flaws and slants are assumed to be non-existent. There’s a truckload of mis/disinformation regarding history, context and of course the reality pertaining to the issue at hand, details included. Indeed, not only have the elephants in the room been ignored, non-existent behemoths have been talked about for years. 

That’s another story. This is about an elephant or rather the elephant-symbol and what it represents — the United National Party (UNP). 

Now diehard UNPers like to call it the ‘Grand Old Party’. They even brag, after the performance in elections in the first few days after Independence, that the UNP has to biggest vote bank. Today, in reduced circumstances such braggadocio is muted. Happens. 

The point is, there was an elephant in the room called ‘Sri Lankan Politics’. It was big. It was bold. It was, at times, a marauding rogue. It wasn’t and couldn’t be ignored. No one could pretend it wasn’t in the room. The elephant, you see, could and did talk. Shouted, rather. 

What’s happened to the elephant? What’s happening to the elephant. Is the elephant sleeping or is it dead? Did it die of natural causes or was it killed? Questions that might have seemed silly not too long ago are being asked now. The leader of the UNP, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has stated that if the internal conflict is not resolved by nomination day (March 12, 2020), the party would have to go it alone.  He was referring to the rift between himself and Sajith Premadasa. A section of the party has already pledged allegiance to the latter who has, with other UNP-allies (such as the Democratic Front, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Jathika Hela Urumaya) formed a coalition, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).

Samagi Jana Balavegaya. That would read ‘United People’s Force.’ Unity is yet to be obtained. The vote bank has considerably declined. In a General Election such an alliance, even assuming the UNP (official) is part it, would not get the support that Sajith Premadasa received from the Northern and Eastern provinces at the Presidential Election. The true strength, as JHU leader Champika Ranawaka mentioned some time ago is 30% or less of the voting population. After the debacle last November, it is unlikely that this coalition would attract the same numbers of the floating vote. A split would probably result in further decline. So the ‘jana’ part of the name is iffy. A force it is not. 

Even if we were to ignore the internal issues of the UNP, we can’t get around the fact that the elephant has been in trouble for decades. In two of the last four presidential elections the UNP couldn’t field its own candidate. In 2001 the UNP barely won the General Election and this too thanks to key SLFPers and the SLMC crossing over from the People’s Alliance. Even that UNP Government had to function under the shadow of an SLFP President, Chandrika Kumaratunga. In 2015, the UNP-led coalition cashed in on the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa to a fellow SLFPer, Maithripala Sirisena. The UMP thereafter had to function under an SLFP President. 

Wait, how about the SLFP? That’ a legit question. The SLFP was routed at the local government elections two years ago. The SLFP didn’t/couldn’t even field a presidential candidate for the first time ever. It has been reduced to a poor cousin of the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP). If the elephant has left the room (or been pushed out of it) then the same has to be said of the SLFP. Correct? Yes and no. One could also argue that what’s transpired is that the SLFP has been renamed. The new brand name is SLPP. 

[Note, we are talking parties and not ideologies here: the two major political formations, whatever they call themselves, although not exactly ideological twins are brothers in arms nevertheless [when it comes to things economic] with other parties such as the JVP, SLMC and TNA tagging to coattails and/or sari-potas].

Isn’t the SJB the green equivalent of the SLPP, someone might ask. Is Sajith Premadasa a green equivalent of Mahinda Rajapaksa, someone would respond. The answer is no. 

In the coming days, the fate of the elephant would become clearer. If there’s patch-up what would count is who ends up holding the aces. An easy indicator would be who ends up as the General Secretary. If there is a split, in late April everyone will know who has greater claim to the party leadership as per voter-acceptance, Wickremesinghe or Premadasa. 

Time will tell how fortunes swing. Time will tell if the elephant can return to the room or if the room sprouts legs and goes to the elephant offering its grand seat, metaphorically speaking. For that to happen, however, sooner or later the UNP would have to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth the issue is not so much about personality as it is about pulse or rather not having one when it comes to sentiments of the electorate. Sure, we can say ‘Ranil had the reins and he didn’t deliver.’ But then, would anyone else have delivered either?

The UNP has been such a slave-party to the West, i.e. North America and Europe, that it welcomed with open arms not just the robber barons (openly invited here by J.R. Jayewardene) but anyone and everyone ready to stick a knife into the nation’s dignity. The voters did not buy Sajith Premadasa’s chest-thumping, foot-stomping nationalism. There’s a reason for this. Rhetoric is not enough. 

There’s a big house called ‘The Nation’. The elephant turned its back on that house. It didn’t want to enter that room. It wanted to pretend that such a house did not exist or that if it did, it is best razed to the ground.

The house couldn’t be wished away. And there are no votes outside the house. The elephant has lost all sense of habitat. Small wonder that it’s lost its way.

This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [March 5, 2020]