The Cat’s Paw & The Dog Whistle: Mahinda – Sajith Spat Over “Communalistic Political Parties”

By Rajan Philips –                                  

Rajan Philips

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has lately been blossoming into a political writer of sorts. An article under his name appears practically every week in the print and electronic media, including Colombo Telegraph which despite its name shares no love with the Colombo establishment. Mr. Rajapaksa’s latest missive took direct aim at Sajith Premadasa and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), calling the latter a “cat’s paw of communalistic political parties.” Mr. Premadasa lost no time firing back, asking his older counterpart to look into the mirror to find out who the real cat’s paw is. The Prime Minister is accusing Sajith Premadasa of championing constitutional proposals, at the behest of ‘communalistic parties’, that would ultimately lead to the division of the country. In turn, Mr. Premadasa is reminding the PM that he is the one who as President “offered a devolution package which went beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.”    

According to the PM, the communalistic parties which were earlier wedded to Ranil Wickremesinghe have now left him and are partnering Sajith Premadasa and the SJB because they think that SP/SJB can garner a larger number of Sinhala votes for an overall majority than Ranil Wickremesinghe. So, Sajith Premadasa is the new cat’s paw of communalistic parties, although I do not recall Mr. Rajapaksa ever calling Ranil Wickremesinghe a cat’s paw of anybody. The latter, of course, played the role of a political cat’s paw when he was His Excellency’s loyal Leader of the Opposition during the decade long (2005-2014) Rajapaksa-I presidency. 

Political mara-senawa

For whatever reason, the Prime Minister is shy of naming the political parties that he is calling communalistic. The Tamil and Muslim political parties that he is dog-whistling about are treated as nameless. They are branded as the “political ‘mara-senawa’ that came together to capture power through the presidency and to divide the country after trampling underfoot the majority community.” And they are dismissed as catering “to a single ethnic or religious community”, looking “after the narrow interests of that group” and considering “other communities to be outsiders or even enemies.” The Easter Sunday terrorist attack is condemned “as the most recent experience of the dangerous consequence of this brand of politics.” 

Besides not naming the Tamil and Muslim political parties there is also no acknowledgement of real Sri Lankans, either of the Tamils or the Muslims, or even the Sinhalese for that matter, the state of political relationship between them, and between each of them and the State. The only reference to the Tamil and Muslim communities, is to make the PM’s self-serving co-option argument that they were once represented by Tamil and Muslim “stalwarts of either the UNP or the SLFP.” The old stalwarts, according to the Prime Minister were G.G. Ponnambalam (UNP), Alfred Duriappah (SLFP), A.C.S. Hameed and M.H.Mohamed (UNP), and Badiuddin Mohamed and Alavi Moulana (SLFP). They, according to the Prime Minister’s version of political history, rejected the “politics of trampling the majority community underfoot and obtaining privileges for one’s own community through political extortion.” The very politics that the current crop of have made a career of benefiting from. I am of course guilty of paraphrasing for spicy effect. 

Never mind, Stanley de Zoysa, when he was Finance Minister (1956-59), described Ponnambalam in parliament as the “time honoured high priest of unbridled communalism.” GGP shot back that his “distinguished junior” was “talking out of turn.” That was the heyday of parliamentary cut and thrust in stilted English. Alfred Duriappah was no stalwart of any political party. He was an independent one term MP (1960-64) from Jaffna, representing only Jaffna town, of which he was also a selectively popular Mayor from time to time.  

The leading Muslim politicians of the 1970s and 1980s were stalwarts of either the SLFP or the UNP because of their strong roots in the Muslim community.  Just as they should not be called communalistic for what they did for their community from the inside, the Muslim leaders of today should not be called communalistic for what they are trying to do for their community from the outside. They would be insiders today if only they had crossed over in October 2018 in support of the Sirisena constitutional coup. Principle or politics, they chose not to. So, they are vilified now. Earlier, they swayed the other way to vote for the 18th Amendment. They were lauded and rewarded then. 

Strangely, or not so strangely, Mr. Rajapaksa does not mention Lakshman Kadirgamar as a potential role model for Tamil representation in politics. Although, and in fairness, the late lamented Kadirgamar always and very correctly insisted that he should not be seen as a Tamil political representative, he derived almost all of his political weight at home and abroad because of the fact he was a Tamil. Perhaps, Mr. Kadirgamar would have been eligible as an example if he had been not been rejected as ineligible to be Prime Minister in April 2004. 

A somewhat calculated omission is any reference to communalistic parties among the upcountry Tamils. There was a time when it was open war between the old patriarch Thondaman and the SLFP’s matriarchal leadership. Now it is a different world of political cohabitation in the thottam for the SLPP leadership. And the political turnaround of the Catholic Church? In the 1960s, an Anglican SLFP Minister vowed to bring the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka to its knees. Now all politicians are constrained to show political deference to Catholic prelates.   

We can go back and forth on this until the cows come home, but where is the Prime Minister trying to take the country in all of this? What is the promised land he is saying is nigh if only the people would give him a two-thirds majority?  His more immediate concern and his message are, of course, for the August election. The people defeated the communalistic brand of politics, says the PM, in the 2019 presidential election, and he wants “an overwhelming mandate exceeding even that of the presidential election of 2019,” in the August parliamentary election, “in order to put an end to narrow minded communalism in the politics of this country.” Then only, says he, the country will be able “to see the kind of friendship and cooperation that existed between the various communities in this country in times past,” and see as well “a new generation of Ponnambalams, Duriappahs, Hameeds and Moulanas (will) emerge from among the younger generation.” 

The Prime Minister’s appeal for this overwhelming mandate is directed to “all voters”, but obviously is not intended for every Sri Lankan voter. He is not calling for a vote against the communalistic parties, but only for a majority, preferably two-thirds majority, government, first “to ensure that those who engage in narrow minded communal politics are not able to benefit from it,” and second “to put an end to narrow minded communalism in the politics of this country.” He is not making any appeal to Tamil or Muslim voters, but a not so indirect an appeal to Sinhala voters not to vote for Sajith Premadasa or SJB, because they are the cat’s paw of communalistic parties. 

New trope

A new and interesting trope that the Prime Minister uses in this selective appeal is about the “politics of trampling the majority community underfoot and obtaining privileges for one’s own community through political extortion.” We might call this ‘cultural appropriation’, or an inversion of the traditional Tamil, and to a lesser extent Muslim, accusations against not so much the Sinhalese but against the State of Sri Lanka that has an asymmetric and unequal relationship with the island’s ethnic groups. Dr. Colvin R de Silva, the Historian, among other things, described it as “incongruent” at the All Party Conference convened by President Jayewardene in January 1985. The 13th Amendment, that came more than two years later was a complicated attempt to restore some symmetry in this relationship. 

The Prime Minister is not saying anything about the 13th Amendment, while Sajith Premadasa is accusing the PM of pandering to communalistic politics by his earlier commitments to go beyond the 13th Amendment. No political has directly responded to Milinda Moragoda’s succinct call to abolish the Provincial Councils and create a national second chamber as a forum for balanced minority representation. Even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who as Defence Secretary pushed for rescinding 13A, and told the Indian media during his first presidential to India that devolution is a dirty word in Sri Lanka, has not taken up Mr. Moragoda’s suggestion. 

Instead, and not without some internal cue, Chairman GL Peiris (of the SLPP) has announced that Provincial Council elections will be held before the end of this year to revive all nine councils that currently stand dissolved and disbanded. And he gave a textbook justification for prioritizing PC elections: “According to the 9th Schedule of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, PCs fulfil 36 responsibilities that directly make an impact on the people’s livelihood. Elections are the right of the people, its their sovereign right.” That still does not answer Mr. Moragoda’s reasoning for abolishing the Provincial Councils, or the general skepticism about the reason for their being. What are the real impacts that people have suffered because there were no PCs to fulfill their responsibilities in 36 areas for nearly two years?

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa could have and should have levelled a different criticism, a more statesmanlike criticism, not only against Sajith Premadasa and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, but against everyone who was associated with the yahapalanaya government for the parlous state in which they left the Provincial Council system after five years of constitutional dithering. None of them, including the TNA, would have any moral ground to object if the new Rajapaksa Administration were to move to abolish the PC system. 

By the looks of it, the aiya-malli government is not going to rescind 13A or abolish the PC system, because they need the Provincial Councils not to fulfill their 36 responsibilities, as Peiris is piously professing, but as tentacles of personal power from the centre to peripheral corners. What the task forces are becoming to the President, the Provincial Councils will be to the Prime Minister. The big fly in the ointment could again be the Northern Provincial Council. It will be accused of “trampling the majority community underfoot and obtaining privileges through political extortion.” And the parody of politics will continue for yet another term.    

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