In a wide ranging interview with the Sunday Observer shortly after his arrival from New Delhi where he joined former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s widely reported visit, SLPP Chairman Prof.G.L.Peiris explained the purpose of their trip and the future of the SLPP while shooting down speculation on the notable absence of Basil Rajapaksa from Janabalaya sit-in protest.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: What was the purpose of recent visit by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to India was it to mend fences with Modi administration since the relations between the two countries were acutely strained during the last phase of his government?
A.Yes, it was to turn the page and open a new chapter in Indo –Lanka relations. The visit was undertaken for a variety of reasons, he was invited by Dr.Subramanian Swamy to deliver a public lecture, the lecture was on ‘Indo- Lanka relations : the way forward’.
We had the opportunity of meeting the Indian PM, Shri Narendra Modi, that was a one-on-one meeting. There was a meeting with President of the Congress Party Rahul Gandi, former Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh and Minister for Commerce Anandasharma. In a relationship between two countries it would not be possible to agree on everything. There will be matters on which friendly countries do not agree. But in order to overcome differences and forge ahead with a friendly relationship you need goodwill and rapport. The principle objective of this visit was to establish that rapport.
Former President Rajapaksa has met Modi before he became PM. Modi visited Sri Lanka on two occasions and on each occasion he met him.
This was an opportunity to renew that friendship and there was an appropriate understanding that was established between the two sides. Sonia Gandhi was indisposed so the meeting with the Congress leadership took place at Dr.Manmohan Singh’s official residence. There was enormous media interest to the visit and the contents of his public lecture and his visit was widely reported by the Indian media.
The goodwill was enormous. The lecture was attended by about 800 people. At the follow up banquet, there were Cabinet ministers, several MPs from parliament including from Tamil Nadu, former High Commissioners to Sri Lanka including Ashok Kanthan and Shiv Shanker Menon and university academics.
Q: It is our understanding that only the former President and his son attended the meeting with PM Modi. Was there any particular reason for that?
A. It was a goodwill meeting, not a meeting to discuss political issues. It was a personal meeting which is perfectly normal. Namal Rajapaksa accompanied his father.
Q: The local media was inundated by the pictures of the visit.The Indian PM’s office released not just one but several official photographs. One might read this gesture as an arm twisting tactic by the Indian government to get the Sri Lankan government to submit to its call re Mattala and the Trincomalee oil tank farm?
A. On the contrary there is no arm twisting at all, it was simply a meeting between friends to strengthen existing ties. And to forge new ties with the others that we met, we were left in no doubt about the esteem and regard in which President Rajapaksa was held in India. As a statesman and the most senior leader in the SAAC region, that stature was clearly recognized by all the personalities that we met.
Q: How soon do you plan to finalise the SLPP Presidential candidate ?
A.The former President Rajapaksa has made his position very clear, that he will make the announcement at the appropriate time. The time will be chosen to strengthen the candidate. It will not be done prematurely. The next Presidential election is 14 months away.
The constant focus on the identity of the candidate is a red herring to distract the public from the burning issues.
The collapse of the rupee is complete. The stock market is crashing. Foreign investors are pulling out. The economy very soon will be in a state of free fall.
Q: Why is the topic always on whether it is Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Chamal Rajapaksa, Basil or Namal. Can’t there be any Presidential candidate outside of the Rajapaksa family ?
A. He answered that question in India including in the interview to ‘The Hindu’. He said the candidate that the country wants will be chosen, it could be a member of the family, it could be someone outside the family. And that it will be done at the right time.
Q: MP Dilan Perera says Mahinda Rajapaksa is the most marketable politician in the country right now. He is clearly the most popular candidate in the opposition. What if the Supreme Court rules that he cannot contest a third term under the 19-A ?
A. It does not help to speculate on hypothetical situations, President Rajapaksa did say in India, there was a strong view that has been expressed in Sri Lanka that there was no legal impediment for his own candidature, but that is a matter that he has not made up his mind. So these are the options available and it is much too early in the day to make final decisions on that matter. Our attempt right now is to strengthen the SLPP, to make all preparations that are necessary before we present ourselves at a national election.
The national convention of the SLPP will also be held towards the end of this year. The farmer’s convention will also be held probably in Anuradhapura. We are also setting up unions with different groups of interest – teachers, students including the business community – to prepare the ground before we face elections.
Q: If the SLFP wants to join forces at the upcoming Provincial Council election, what would be the symbol of the coalition?
A. The people are accustomed to the Nelum Pohottuwa symbol, under that symbol we contested successfully at the recently concluded Local government election, where we won 71 % of the wards. Former President has made it clear that in the future the symbol would be Nelum Pohottuwa at whatever election.
Q: Given the organizational powers of former Minister Basil Rajapaksa, do you think Janabalaya would have been a better story if had he put his weight behind the sit-in protest, given that there were criticism over the behavior of the protestors and the flaws in its organisation?
A. In a large organisation like the SLPP everyone has something to contribute, depending on his background, capabilities, interests. There is no doubt about the remarkability of Basil Rajapaksa as an organizer and a strategist. He played a singular role in the formation of the SLPP.
However, it is a mistake to say ‘Columbata Janabalaya’ was a failure, because it achieved its purpose. Its purpose was never to change a government. It is not a realistic expectation.
The people did not come to stay. Business community, professionals, public officials, students, farmers – they are all dissatisfied with the government.
The demonstration was to show the intensity of their anger and make it clear that the government’s popularity is at a lowest possible end.
Q: It is claimed that Basil Rajapksa kept away from Janabalaya because there is a major rift among the Rajapaksa brothers over the next presidential candidate. Would you like to comment on this claim ?
A. That is a canard without any foundation, Basil Rajapaksa has not visited his family for more than a year. His wife and family lives in the United States and he has not visited them for a long time.
He said that he was going to take this break to be away from the country for six weeks. So it did not come as a surprise. But the event had his total blessings. This speculation on his absence is deliberate. That is to get the people distracted.
Q: Former Minister Welgama made a speech yesterday where he had pointed out firmly the need to give the seniors of the party their due place, and not to overlook them in a hurry to groom the juniors. Referring to President Maithripala Sirisena’s unfortunate departure he cautioned that frustrations can lead to the creation of another Sirisena ?
A. The constitution of the SLPP is very different. It is in contrast to major political parties the UNP and SLFP. In all those parties the power is concentrated at the top. In the SLPP the authority moves up from the base.
Here, no one’s view is imposed arbitrarily. Decisions are taken after fullest possible consultation, that is very much the culture.
At the same time I think there has to be a balance between the juniors and the seniors. The party needs fresh blood also. The public are looking forward to that. That does not mean the seniors should be elbowed out. The seniors are a reservoir of experience.
Q: Why can’t you be the SLPP candidate?
A. Now again this speculation is deliberate to get people talking about something which is not relevant. When he said it doesn’t have to confine to the family, what he meant was being a family member is neither a qualification nor a disqualification.
You don’t start with the premise that it has to be a family member, which is not a democratic way of choosing a party’s candidate at a national election.
At the same time being a member of the Rajapaksa family is not a disqualification. If he had all the credentials and qualifications, he should not be excluded.
The field is wide open. Former President said that he will not make his choice known through media, he will tell the people directly on a public occasion.