By N Sathiya Moorthy
For Sri Lankans who might have been complaining that under the 10-year Rajapaksa presidency, only native Hambantota got into the news (maybe for the wrong reasons), here is the current catch. Should Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP fields party deputy and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa, even if reluctantly, then no one can hold that charge against the Rajapaksas (alone), anymore.
At the end of it all, the presidential fight could end up as ‘Hambantota vs Hambantota’, or ‘Gota R vs Sajith P’. If you want to be more expansive about the geographical span, then it could well be ‘Ruhuna vs Ruhuna’ – or, should it be ‘Ruhunu vs Ruhunu’? Given that any Sinhala-centric electoral fight is always dubbed ‘South vs South’ in the eyes of the minority SLT community and the Muslims, and also the international community, that idea may be redundant for all practical purposes.
From Anuradhapura district recently, Sajith P seemed to send out a defiance missive to the UNP leadership: “Either you name me the party candidate for the presidential polls, or I will go my own way and do it on my own.” For a scion of the Preamadasa family, defiance is in the blood as much as loyalty. Father Ranasinghe Premadasa did swear by the party, yes, but when it came to challenging incumbent President J R Jayewardene on Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, IPKF and 13-A, he defied the leadership. Despite other circumstances not being in his favour, it was this defiance and tough-talking that won him the UNP presidential nomination and also the presidency – the latter, of course, against a much-weakened Sirimavo Bandaranaike whose SLFP had weakened even more when JRJ was in office.
Yet, Sajith cannot forget that despite the odds favouring his slain father, Premadasa, Sr, merely managed to scrape through, 50.43 per cent vote-share, against Sirimavo’s 44.95 per cent. It came close to SLFP victor Mahinda R’s 50.29 per cent against Ranil W’s (UNP) 49.43 per cent. It is anybody’s guess, which way the Oswin Abeyagunasekara’s 4.63 per cent votes would have made the difference to Ranasinghe Premadasa’s 1988 victory if the former’s Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) was not in the race.
The significance about a possible Gota-Sajith electoral clash is this. If it came to that, this could well be the first poll battle in which the contenders have a solid rural background. Of course, for a third election in a row, from 2010, the presidential polls have moved away from a ‘Colombo Seven’ urban/urbane mindset of its candidates – and more so, about the candidates. This time, it would be more pronounced and purposeful than on the two earlier occasions.
In 2010, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who lost to incumbent Mahinda R, came from a ‘non-urban’ background. He belongs to Ambalangoda in suburban Galle district, just outside of capital Colombo. In 2015, present-day incumbent Maithripala Sirisena belonged to an even more non-urban Polonnaruwa district in North-Central Province. In his recent media interaction at neighbouring Anuradhapura district, Sajith Premadasa, referred to the entire region by its traditional name, ‘Raja Rata’.
Yet, the fact remains that both Fonseka and Sirisena were ‘accidental candidates’. Of them, the latter even became an ‘accidental President’, with the votes of everyone else, especially the traditional UNP rival, brought for him – as was the case with Fonseka, too, but to no avail. Sirisena at least a majority vote-share in his native district but Fonseka did not have it in native Ambalangoda town. It was saying a lot, considering that he was the/is possibly among the ‘greatest sons’ of the town.
Boorishness and worse…
Going by Colombo’s boorishness that is unbecoming of a national capital long after Sri Lanka ceased to be a British/European colony, Sajith P did his schooling in one of the city’s famed ‘colleges’ (read: schools) and also a counterpart in the UK. Yet, he has managed to retain much of his grassroots-level connections and more so approach to politics and public life. The same cannot be said of most top-rung leaders of his party, which itself is branded as Sri Lanka’s ‘elitist party’, or the ‘party of elites’ — possibly for no fault of it.
Worse, however, thus, was a challenge thrown at Sajith P not very long ago, and by a party colleague, to show up his university degree certificate. It was as if to claim that Sajith did not hold even an under-grad degree, whereas a UNP presidential nominee should have been educationally better qualified and more. In a way, it was worse than UNP second-line leaders challenging rival Gota to display the certificate for his relinquishing American citizenship.
If today, for instance, a leader with a ‘rural/rustic’ image like Sajith P could aspire to be the UNP’s presidential candidate, just as his slain father was President himself, it owed to their traditional solid support-base in the rural areas of southern Sri Lanka, with its Buddhist majority. But for a UNP candidate especially, he needs the ‘urban elite backing’ and ‘urban elitist’ votes, even more.
Gradation among Govigamas
It is sad but true that like in much of the rest of the democratic world – whether old or young, developed or under-developed – certain caste-like markers play a part. In Sri Lanka, it is caste, good and proper, both among the majority Sinhalas and even more so in the case of ‘minority’ Tamils. Both sides will stoutly deny it, but past voter-performance would say much more than mere words can deny, and unconvincingly so.
In most Third World democracies, the ‘most influential’ community, which in turn, claims to be the upper-most caste in social hierarchy, is mostly numerically not the strongest one. Not in the case of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist majority, where the upper-most Govigama community is also the numerically strongest, with 55 per cent of the community population.
Like with every other democracy, higher the number in terms of total population, the most powerful of communities would also have natural divisions within. The Govigamas are no exception, so also are the ‘Saiva Vellalar’ upper-castes in the minority Tamil community, who too have a ‘born-to-rule’ chip on their shoulders. In many ways, more so in relation to their times, Ranasinghe Preamadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa broke the mould, and came out of it, too – though the latter is still a Govigama, though not belonging to the most elitist, Upcountry Govigama clan.
‘Bloody past’ or what
The fact however remains that both Gota and Sajith are being haunted by a ‘bloody past’, which does not belong to his own deeds, as for as the latter is concerned. While the Tamil minorities are opposed to the Rajapaksas for what they call ‘war-crimes’ and some of their Diaspora brethren wants to dramatise as ‘genocide’, they did not raise any of these issues when they were voting for Fonseka against incumbent Mahinda in the post-war presidential polls of 2010.
Even today, all Tamil references to ‘war-crimes’ and worse are reserved only for the Rajapaksas and for every senior war-time officer of any of the three Services – barring of course Field Marshal Gardihewa Sarath Chandralal Fonseka. It is anybody’s guess how they could explain either their vote for Fonseka in 2010, or their leaving him out of the ‘war-crimes net’ openly, but linking everyone else above and below him, as if he did not exist.
In the case of Sajith P, however, the links go back to his father, who as President put down the ‘Second JVP insurgency’ (1987-89) with an iron-hand. There have not been any official acknowledgement as yet – and none is possibly expected either – but multiple human rights studies from then on had put the number of Sinhalas killed in the armed forces’ anti-insurgency operations, variously at 60,000 to 100,000.
The ghosts may not remain, but families of the Sinhalas of both genders, mostly in the re-productive ages, remain. They have not talked about much of it any time later, but then Sajith’s competitors for the party ticket, seem keen for someone to dig up his parental past. Obviously, the Gota camp may be the last one who could afford to dig up anything of the kind, lest more dirt of the ‘war-times’ kind could get thrown up at them – whether true or not, whether proven or provable, either.
That way, maybe, yes, other UNP candidates may have an advantage over Sajith, but then that cannot become a point to ponder too much over. If nothing else, Sajith has declared that he will contest the presidency, possibly holding a white-threat to his party and leadership. In context, before the UNP returned to power in 2015, he was in the habit of throwing the gauntlet at his party rivals, starting with Ranil W, and it remains to be seen if others are going to pick it up this time, or he himself is going to discard it – or, both sides are going to walk ahead, hand-in-hand, or otherwise!
(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)