Dr Harsha De Silva as Leader of the Opposition
Colombo Telegraph, 7 August 2020
The 2020 general election led to a result that left many observers surprised. However, this result perfectly corresponded to one forecast, that of Basil Rajapaksa, the man who is considered to be the foremost brain behind the SLPP political project. The two-thirds majority on a family-centric political party is deeply worrying. It is even more worrying that from now on, the Rajapaksa brothers have carte blanche to move ahead with almost any decision of governance with no hindrance – be it appointing more military men for civilian roles, signing MCC hiding behind their Sinhala-Buddhist garb [with no meaningful negotiations with US authorities on how best to maximise and strengthen Lanka-USA relations without compromising Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty, natural resources, environment, ecosystem and more]. The last time the Rajapaksa brothers held power, they made Sri Lanka a laughing stock on the world stage, with a level of foreign policy mismanagement that was beyond belief [this is NOT to say that the UNP-Sirisena joint government’s foreign policy was commendable. In many respects, it also involved policy disasters with very serious consequences].
The hallmark of Rajapaksa rule is family rule. Those non-family members who revere them, and especially those who have been elected to office thanks to the Rajapaksa clout, ought to understand that their position in a two-thirds majority Rajapaksa government is that of mere pawns. No young politico [there are not many to begin with!] would, for instance, be allowed to outshine Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eldest son.
A strong Leader of the Opposition: Essential
In this scenario, we are left with a situation in which a powerful opposition is required more than ever. Given the low number of seats the SJB had JJB/NPP have secured, it is very challenging, if not simply impossible, to think of a numerically strong opposition. This time around, the strength of the opposition will need to be demonstrated in the strategizing, effectiveness and overall delivery of the small number of opposition MPs. That opposition needs to be led by someone with credentials that no one in the Rajapaksa family can claim – such as belonging to a political dynasty, and coming from provincial politics [there is plenty of all that on the government front bench, and does not require replication on the opposition front bench!]. The new Leader of the Opposition [LOTO] also needs to be someone who can speak to Sri Lankans, and to the world with a level of simultaneous effectiveness. They need to be someone who can deal with the world productively, and be an epitome of cosmopolitanism [to present a sharp contrast to the ‘maroon’ government frontbench]. They must have a profile strong enough to develop mutually workable and strong alliances and negotiations with key world powers, our neighbours in the SAARC region, and with key partners in the Southeast Asian region. They need to be someone with a strong track record of delivery while in government, high academic and professional credentials, and a strong vote base on top of that, plus a profile that commands the respect citizens and politicos of all political hues.
The candidate who best corresponds to these criteria out of the elected SJB MPs is indeed Dr Harsha de Silva.
Harsha as LOTO could also send a strong message from the SJB that it is not a platform that is ‘built upon’ or ‘revolves around’ dynastic politics. This will help the SJB stand out a) as a credible alternative to the Rajapaksa family-led SLPP and b) to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP. This will also enable the SJB to position itself as a true alternative to clientelist and dynastic politicking. This will also strengthen a commitment to meritocracy within the SJB rank and file. Harsha as LOTO will also be able to appeal to the liberal intelligentsia of the centre and centre/left, who have been left in mid-air since the Easter Sunday attacks [the JJB/NPP has been trying to lure them, but due to structural and policy concerns, not many in that demographic could, or would head in that direction]. Harsha is more articulate and presentable than many on the SLPP front bench, and compared to the majority of SLPP frontbenchers, Harsha is in the prime of his youth!
If the parliamentary opposition were to be headed by a politician of Harsha’s calibre, it will tremendously a) strengthen the possibilities of keeping a certain level of checks and balances on the SLPP dinosaur, b) reinforce the SJB into a well and truly competitive second force by 2025, and c) enable SJB leader Sajith Premadasa to focus all his energies on developing his party at the ground level.
Sajith: National Leadership and Political ‘Movement-Building
Despite many attacks, critiques and negative comments, Sajith is very much a victor in his own right in this election. He had to start from the scratch, leave the Lankan GoP and opt for a new party, a new symbol and then campaign robustly. This he did with vigour, and the results are visible in the Colombo District, in the preferential votes he received, and in his ability to ensure the victory of at least one SJB seat in almost all electoral districts [except those of the north with their specific ethnonationally-focused electoral configurations]. All of this had to be done within a small amount of time, and in the backdrop of his defeat at the November 2019 presidential election. Mr and Mrs Premadasa should also be commended for their dignified reactions to the vile personal abuse thrown at them, by the most powerful individual on the opposite side. All of this means that Sajith has a huge role as a party leader, as a ‘man of the people’, in mobilising the masses and strengthening his party and making his way to the top as a ‘people’s leader’.
Strategic and Non-Egocentric Decision-Making: Essential for Successful Politics
A decision to enable Sajith to devote all his energy to the role of party leader, and to assign the functions of LOTO to Harsha, will tremendously facilitate the development of the SJB as a viable, credible, feasible and dependable opposition to the SLPP within the next five years. Sri Lanka, as some analysts have highlighted, is at a moment where we may well drift to a form of totalitarianism, as opposed to the authoritarian regimes we have known in the past. In order to confront such impending political challenges and disturbing realities, we need an opposition leadership that is not centred around one name, one family or one person, but rather a ‘concept’ – of commitment to prioritising talent, of facilitating the upward mobility of suitably qualified people to national leadership, of pluralism [or, to speak realpolitik and quote one political analyst - ‘a progressive, pluralist populism’] without drifting to the abyss of inciting ethnonational and/or ethnoreligious hatred. Sri Lanka has a major human rights deficit, and this requires holistic addressing with a modern and universal, yet firmly locally-grounded outlook. The maturity, and capability to make such progress happen lies in making the doors of national leadership open to the best of talent and cosmopolitanism at one’s disposition.
Due to all of this and more, it is highly advisable for the SJB and its leadership to strongly consider, and SJB circles and supporters to actively advocate for, the appointment of Dr Harsha de Silva as LOTO of the 16th Parliament of Sri Lanka.