By N Sathiya Moorthy
Coming as it does at the height of the Special High Court fast-tracking hearing in the corruption case against Gota Rajapaksa from 22 January, President Maithripala Sirisena’s appointment of a five-member commission to probe similar wrong-doings of the incumbent Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe causes eye-brows to rise. Going alongside is also the continued silence, bordering on denial, from the larger Rajapaksa camp on Gota’s on-again-off-again references to his (wanting to) contest the presidential election that is due by the year-end.
The presidential notification on the appointment of the five-member commission, headed by retired Supreme Court Judge, A H M Upali Abeyrathne, is similar to the one that incumbent Maithripala Sirisena ordered against Gota and all the Rajapaksas, barring ones in the wombs of their mothers, on similar allegations pertaining to Mahinda R’s presidency. The probe covers the period, 15 January 2015 to 31 December 2018, from the first week of the Wickremesinghe Government, which had come into office on 9 January 2015.
There was/is an interesting irony to both. The Rajapaksa probe did not come up with any findings against former Ministers who deserted the family along with Sirisena at the height of the 2015 presidential poll. It remains to be seen if the new probe against Wickremesinghe team would similarly have anything to say against any or all of the Ministers, starting with those others who too were/are around the President, when they were all part of the non-functional Government of National Unity (GNU).
The question is not what the new probe would have to say on the alleged wrong-doings of Team Wickremesinghe, with or without Sirisena & Co. It is about the political leverage that Sirisena may have acquired, or wanted to acquire in pushing around the Rajapaksas, to back his possible candidacy for the presidency. Seldom can political leaders, like corporate honchos, come up with new strategies. They either repeat the old, including old mistakes at times, or correct those mistakes and re-apply the same to a new situation and to new partners.
This was true of Mahinda, whose only answer to delaying, if not avoiding mounting administrative problems, was to advance the presidential polls. Once, his strategy worked in 2010, owing to the post-war situation. The second time when he tried it, it failed on his face in 2015. Thus became Sirisena, the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Amen!
Sirisena should know that the probe against Wickremesinghe, especially on the Central Bank bonds scam did not weaken either the Prime Minister or the latter’s UNP politically. It did weaken them electorally, but the benefit in the local government polls did not go to Sirisena’s SLFP-UPFA but to Mahinda’s SLPP-JO. It could happen all over again, if Sirisena played the card too close to his chest, closing his eyes and believing that other players in the field are all kiddos. Mahinda did it once, and is still paying the price for it!
There is no denying the Rajapaksa dilemma in all this, not that the rival UNP does not have one of its own. There are one too many Rajapaksas around, but whoever can contest the presidential election, it is said, does not want to contest. Whoever want to contest cannot contest, or fear being disqualified.
The mad rush of the Wickremesinghe Government to have Gota ‘fixed’ on corruption cases has nothing genuine about it. If so, they would have pursued the bonds scam too with equal vigour and honesty. Instead, they are afraid of facing a Rajapaksa, especially Mahinda or Gota, in the presidential polls. The Constitution bars Mahinda from contesting under 19-A and Gota, they are not sure, could be disqualified of his dual-citizenship.
But then Gota himself seems wanting to have the cake and eat it too. Through much of the past year, he was marketing himself as the presidential candidate of the family but carefully without using the family name or the captive party of theirs, JO then and the SLPP-JO since. No other Rajapaksa or even JO leader has talked about his candidacy, either in the open or in private.
This may also be because of Gota’s cardinal sin when he declared that he would consider giving up the US citizenship if and only if he was nominated as the presidential candidate. He did not say who should nominate him but the conclusion was that the family, Mahinda and the JO then, SLPP-JO, since.
Gota’s ‘confession’ of sorts that he held the American citizenship closer to the heart than the nation he had served as Defence Secretary during the decisive ‘Eelam War IV’ was a clean give-away. Possibly noting his predicament and preferences, US officials in Colombo then promptly let it known that they would consider cancelling his citizenship only on merit, if and when applied for.
This did make things difficult for the family to decide, as even months later, Gota does not seem to be willing to take the risk of surrendering his US citizenship and wait for the family and the ‘party’ to nominate him for the presidency. What he does not seem to realise is that even if he had the nomination, there was no guarantee that Sri Lanka would vote him the President – as TNA’s Sampanthan rightly pointed out on Mahinda getting 18-A passed, for him to contest a third time.
The Rajapaksa dilemma does not stop there. There seemed to be a time when Mahinda might have hoped to come back to power, first as Prime Minister, at the height of the local government poll results. The camp obviously considered introducing a 20-A of its own, possibly for him to contest a fourth time. It has all proved to be wishful thinking. He has not been able to become even Prime Minister, and/or keep that job either.
Today, at the end of the twin constitutional crises initiated by President Sirisena, there is clear indication that Mahinda still hopes to become Prime Minister through the electoral route. Neither he, nor the family, nor the SLPP-JO, can afford to have an unpredictable Gota, if the latter were to get elected President.
Gota is not the one to permit the down-sizing of the Executive Presidency. It is another matter that for the past year and more, he has been going to ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ and other electoral constituencies that hope he would make a better political administrator, over the head of the family, Mahinda in particular.
If in the past, media reports speculated that Chamal was not in the race, so was Basil, the other two Rajapaksa brothers, now the former seems to have thrown the hat into the ring. The idea seems to stall Gota’s emergence as a serious contender for the presidency from within, even if it meant that the family might have to consider the claims of incumbent Sirisena, whether legit or not.
Yes, the Supreme Court has set a date to hear Mahinda R’s petition against the Court of Appeal (CA) order, upholding Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s initiatives, not to have him as Prime Minister. If Mahinda were to get a favourable verdict, as rival Wickremesinghe got in the ‘Parliament dissolution case’ even without filing a petition personally, it could force early parliamentary polls, not possibly one for the presidency.
It could still imply that Mahinda cannot contest the presidency whenever the poll is held. The Gota camp keeps chanting that his American citizenship is not an issue, but then no party leadership or cadre could approach a crucial poll with critical doubts in their own minds. If that were the case, how are they expected to market their leader to the rest of the populace, voters and non-voters alike?
Tail wagging the dog
One other and even more crucial dilemma facing the Rajapaksas is their having to support the candidacy of incumbent Sirisena for a second term. Even while patting their own backs on the local government poll figures, the Rajapaksa-JO seemed to have overlooked the fact that their numbers till hovered around the 45-per cent mark not anywhere closer to the mandated 50-per cent minimum.
The Basil Rs from within would tell them, how it was difficult to make up that figure in the presidential poll of 2015, and how it remains equally so for 2019. What they also did not say, or even see about the local government poll results, was that only the Sirisena-UPFA had those numbers, taking their combined total well past the 50-per cent mark.
The question before the Rajapaksas is just not one but is in multiples. One, can they trust Sirisena another time? Two, can they repeat Wickremesinghe’s tail-wagging-the dog syndrome from 2015, which alone put Sirisena in the seat? Conventional political tacticians as they are, the Rajapaksa-JO strategists may always conclude that he who had betrayed every leader who had put him in a position of power cannot be and should not be trusted.
The more important question before the Rajapaksa-JO is this. Most, if not all of their 40-45 per cent vote-share belonged to the person and personality of Mahinda R, whatever the reason and justification. From within the family, he may be able to transfer the same only to Gota, the other war-victor. No other Rajapaksa, and least of all those outside the family, could hope to get all of it, or most of it. Whether those voters stayed at home or voted for the UNP rival, disaster awaited the Rajapaksas.
Included in the list is also incumbent Sirisena. Despite making Mahinda the Prime Minister of his second-choice on 26 October, even the latter cannot be expected to ‘transfer’ all his votes to Sirisena in a presidential election, even if he tried. If Mahinda had continued as Prime Minister, it would have been worse for the likes of Sirisena. His cadres and voters would then have wanted to ‘empower’ Mahinda the Prime Minister as he used to be ‘empowered’ as President.
Having taken an ambiguous position on the abolition of the Executive Presidency, if ever he had taken any position remotely favouring the same, Mahinda would then have found it difficult to change tune, and also change the law. Today, unsure of who would become President, the Rajapaksas cannot support any weakening of the Executive Presidency, in the eyes of their constituency, new Constitution or not.
All those demanding the abolition or weakening of the Executive Presidency should acknowledge that through the war years, they alone wanted the larger Sinahala-Buddhist constituency to believe that the ‘unitary State’ and the ‘Executive Presidency’ alone were the constitutional guarantees against a weakening State structure, leading in turn to possible loss of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. They cannot re-package it now and hope to market it, not that anyone is trying to do so.
In a recent interview to the Indian periodical, The Week, Mahinda sort of evaded the question on the presidential candidate. The party would decide it when the time came, was his refrain. Be it as it may, if it was not Mahinda, and even if it was Gota, the party would need time to package or re-package the candidate and then market him/her first to the cadres and constituency, and then to the nation. Given that they needed to retain that 40-plus per cent vote-share and still needed to find the remaining five-plus per cent, it is saying a lot, Gota or not!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)