Last week was important because of two historic events. First was when Sri Lanka completed 20 years of becoming World Champions in One Day International (ODI) Cricket by beating Australia at Lahore in 1996. Second was, the general public experiencing the worst ever countrywide power failure in 20 years, since 1996.
Either of these did not stop the United National Party (UNP) and the Joint Opposition of which the majority comprises Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members from taking the masses to Colombo to protest against each other. Probably for the first time in history a government took to the streets against its Opposition. Irrespective what motivated both UNP and Joint Opposition to storm Colombo streets, one thing is clear. Both parties wanted to show how 'powerful' they are.
While the UNP organized a successful rally completely with its third layer youth leadership against the Opposition demanding them to stop pulling by the government's leg and let it continue with development, Joint Opposition too, had its own reasons to storm Colombo streets. One of the main reasons was that there was an allegation from within that it had failed to raise its voice against the government in a way that public would feel the impact.
This week's Cabinet meeting was held a day after UNP's protest and a day before the Joint Opposition's rally. As there was a mounting public outcry over continuous power failures, that prevailed for a few days, since last Sunday (13), everyone expected these topics to take centre stage at the weekly Cabinet meeting. Yet, it seemed President Maithripala Sirisena who came directly after a one-on-one meeting with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, seemed to have had other plans in mind.
Several eyebrows were raised when he opened the meeting by criticizing ministers for undertaking an unacceptable number of foreign trips in the past few months.
He who was in possession of a document pointed it at the Cabinet of Ministers and said that it was extremely disappointing to see that ministers had been undertaking foreign trips as and when they liked in the past six months.
Referring to the document, he added that at least six ministers were out of the country even at that time and said he would soon introduce a detailed circular setting out the procedure to be followed by ministers when going on foreign trips.
According to the President, many of these ministers have gone on a number of foreign trips to attend conferences, citing official tours and some for personal reasons.
"Now I have been invited to take several tours in the USA and Turkey but I will not undertake those. Be rational when choosing foreign trips without going for each and every trip that comes your way," he added.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who approved President Sirisena however, pointed that the latter must attend the G-7 Summit to be held in Japan in May this year, to which President Sirisena responded positively. President Maithripala Sirisena last week directed to get Army protection for all installation sites connected to the national electricity grid with government suspecting sabotage behind Sunday's sudden countrywide blackout.
Power and Energy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya provided a detailed report to the Cabinet about power cuts and also briefed on action that has been taken on the matter.
President Sirisena who listened to Siyambalapitiya's report and everyone else's grievances revealed that this power cut somehow opened his eyes to a grave problem. When everyone looked curiously at him, the President continued, "I was doing some work when power went off suddenly and when it didn't come back after a while, I was inquiring as to why power has not been restored at the Presidential Secretariat. I was shocked when I heard that the generator at the Presidential Secretariat was out of order. I had to go home putting all my work aside for the day. I was thinking what an embarrassing situation it would have created had a foreign delegation visited me on that day."
What may come?
It seems like SLFP Parliamentarians who attended Jana Satana would not face a threat of losing their parliamentary seat despite speculations to the contrary.
United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary, Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, who continues to be hopeful of bringing all factions together under the UPFA umbrella said as of the reports received so far, none of the speakers who were at the rally criticized the SLFP leadership in particular even though they were critical of the government.
Meanwhile, SLFP General Secretary, Minister Duminda Dissanayake, also told media that the issue of taking part in the Joint Opposition rally would be taken up at the next Central Committee (CC) meeting.
"We are not in a hurry to take disciplinary action against those who participated in this meeting, but will act in accordance with party guidelines and constitution. I have sent a letter to SLFP parliamentarians and provincial councillors, not to violate party discipline. We will take a decision in line with that directive. However, the CC will review the situation, go through what has been said at the meeting and then decide whether there was a violation of Party discipline by those who participated," he told media.
Meanwhile, UPFA General Secretary Amaraweera sharing the same sentiments added that he feels there was nothing for the SLFP to worry at length as neither SLFP nor its Leader President Sirisena was criticized by the speakers on that day.
"However, the SLFP CC will decide on the matter. A final decision will be taken only after going through video footages of the rally. If there is no solid evidence against them I do not think anybody should worry," he added.
Former President, Kurunegala District Parliamentarian Mahinda Rajapaksa, former speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, former Ministers Bandula Gunawardana, Kumara Welgama, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana and Mahindananda Aluthgamage were among the SLFP frontliners who participated.
Do or die game
However, if found to be guilty of criticizing SLFP policies they have a fair chance of facing grave repercussions as President Sirisena who remained ignorant of the existence of Joint Opposition suddenly opting for a strict policy by replacing dozens of SLFP organizers who are known to be Mahinda allies with his supporters.
This may certainly have sent a red alert to several SLFP stalwarts known to be ardent supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa who were not attending Colombo's Jana Satana protest citing various excuses.
Forty-two UPFA members out of which 37 were SLFPers present at the rally with three out of five senior vice presidents, four out of eight vice presidents, 284 out of 417 provincial councillors and 1,484 out of 2,611 local government members.
MPs Prasanna Ranatunga, Prasanna Ranaweera, Roshan Ranasinghe, Vidura Wikramanayake and Geetha Kumarasinghe were amongst notable absentees.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was undecided about attending the rally till the eleventh hour, however, pledged his support at the last minute.
"I administered this land for nearly a decade and I did not curtail any subsidies which we provided for the general public. I would like to request the government to hand over the country again to me if it is really unable to govern it better," Rajapaksa said while strongly indicating he will not retire from politics.
While many would see this rally as an anti-government or anti- Wickremesinghe rally, a sensible person would understand it is to show power and put pressure on President Sirisena to give up Party Leadership.
If Rajapaksa is determined to be in politics, the only way he could survive is by taking Party's reins to his hands, because the 19th Amendment to the Constitution clearly has ruled out his or, as a matter of fact President Chandrika Kumaratunga's chances of returning to power.
It seems the Joint Opposition either has been misled by someone else or is determined to mislead the public by taking up slogans to send this yahapalana government home. The 19th Amendment also prevents arbitrary dissolution of Parliament elected by the public, by the Executive President before the completion of four and a half years in office. It also prevents the President running for a second term before completing four years in office. This means there will be no General Election till April 2020 or a Presidential Election till 2019.
This is probably the reason why the government too is not bothered about the crowds that stormed Colombo streets.
In this context, it is evident that the Joint Opposition is not flexing its muscles to topple the government but to establish Mahinda Rajapaksa's power in the SLFP. This is indeed a do or die game for Rajapaksa in order to survive in politics until another Rajapaksa takes the reins.