By N Sathiya Moorthy
Independent of certain social media perceptions that President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s electoral win was owed to Sinhala-Buddhist ‘racism’, it owed to ground realities with which a majority of Sinhala voters were simply fed up. This does not necessarily mean that the minority communities were ‘racist’. After all, they too voted for another Sinhala-Buddhist candidate in Sajith Premadasa, whom they believed, possibly without justification, would ensure physical security and tie up political solutions for the three distinctive denominations – namely, the Sri Lankan Tamils (SLT), Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils.
Sure enough, there are political players inside the country and outside, and also international ‘game-changers’ (read: regime-changers’), who will be waiting to pounce upon the Rajapaksas and by extension Sri Lanka under their care, if there were a slip-up, real or imaginary – both packaged and propagated better than the LTTE could ever do within the country, in the absence of war-time emergency regulations.
After all, it was not only the Sri Lankan State and political and bureaucratic players, starting with the uniformed services, who could twist facts when freedom of speech is stifled under legit laws. The LTTE did it even better. The war-time ‘Sencholai episode’ was one such incident, where there could be no contestation that almost every victim of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) attack was a student. But no one sought to know – or, offered any explanation – the name of the ‘college’ (school) which had black-uniforms for its students (other than the suicidal ‘Black Tigers’ group of the dreaded LTTE).
Such episodes did galore on either side of the military-divide with almost predictably periodicity. The world chose to believe what it wanted to, as the Darusman Report for the UN Secretary-General proved, without providing any prima facie evidence to file what the world voted upon and against Sri Lanka, at UNHRC. The rest, including the slowed down pace of the UNHRC resolutions after Sri Lanka’s ‘regime-change’ in 2015, is history.
Because Sri Lanka is as much a functional democracy of the electoral kind as it has also been the oldest of modern democracies in these parts since 1931, the voter has had a sweet-revenge on all those that sought to challenge the nation’s sovereignty, from within and outside, in Electioons-2019. This does not at all mean that there were no ‘war crimes’, even if fewer in numbers and less ghastly than could have been imagined. The worn-out dictum that all is fair in love and war does not hold any more – at least when the targeted democracy is a Third World nation like Sri Lanka.
There is no denying, post facto, that the nation enjoyed a great element of political stability under the first innings of the Rajapaksas (2005-15). Those that charge them with dynastic rule need to ask themselves if it could have been possible without well-knot family taking up and over the roles of political allies and co-workers in a chaotic and unpredictable democracy. Even when the JVP withdrew from the Government, split and else, and voted against the Government on an annual budget, that too when the LTTE war was still raging, not many suspected – thought some did hope – that the first Mahinda Rajapaksa Government would go away.
The stability of the Rajapaksa dispensation, both during the war and soon afterwards owed to the close coordination between the various arms of the Government, with the four brothers sharing governmental responsibility (as if in medieval kingdoms / sultanates, the likes of which still exist in neighbouring West Asia, no t in South Asia). But the Rajapakas were/are not the only ones in Sri Lankan context. Leave aside the Senanayakes and the Bandaranaikes, even their current electoral competitor Sajith Premadasa would have created another ‘political dynasty’, if he had won – or, could win in future.
After all, Sajith’s slain father Ranasinghe Premadasa was President in his time – a fact either the international media pitted against the Rajapaksas did not know or did not want to tell the world. For the domestic critics of the Rajapaksas, their ‘dynasty’ was for real against the Premadasas’, which would have only been in the future. It is another matter that like the other political dynasties of the nation, including the current-generation Rajapaksas, the Premadasas have had their own share of ideological moorings, which alone Sajith propagated and promised in his election campaign.
Whether the Rajapaksa Quadrilateral failed was in losing the patience to listen to others, most importantly those from within the party with grassroots-level contacts intact. After the electoral defeat of 2015, they should have hopefully understood how they themselves had veered away from Mahinda’s inherent trait of having his ears and mind open to all-comers, and how he used to seek out various opinions, through a demonstrable briefing and de-briefing system, though at times gathered and compiled by the brothers, before taking decisions.
It is here that decisions like the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirant Bandaranayake, and the cavalier and at times arrogant approach to the whole affair, before the very eyes of the post-war Sri Lanka, where the message and the messenger travelled faster in a nation that had become hungry for information and interpretations, post-emergency. It is another matter those that felt stifled around the Rajapaksas and still continued on their political or ministerial team or both took vicarious pleasure in making friends, both from within the country and outside, feel that they were being watched and the ‘white van’ may be waiting for them.
That was the kind of self-importance that some of them arrogated to themselves, because the Rajapaksas would not give them what may have been otherwise due to them, any more. It is one area that the Rajapaksa Bro Inc need to address if there were not to face a repeat of the same five years down the line, or even earlier, in the parliamentary polls.
Still, if the Rajapaksa camp is talking about a small-sized interim government until parliamentary polls, it may not be because they want to keep it all to themselves. It may have more to do with the kind of heart-burns that a pre-poll distribution of ministerial positions and portfolios could cause avoidable heart-burns when they need to engage in applying the soothing balm all round.
In the earlier 10 years of the Rajapaksas in power, it was clear that President Mahinda was the party’s political face and decision-maker – and also those of the family. In present-day President Gota Rajapaksa rested all departments aligned to the nation’s security, both internal and external. Basil Rajapaksa was the economic face of the family, and also their collective political strategists and enforcer. Of course, eldest brother Chamal as Parliament Speaker and Mahinda’s parliamentarian-son Namal had their own roles, limited, though.
Looking back, it should be conceded that most of the Rajapaksas’ political problems flowed from the departments under Gota’s care, though others too were blamed for political corruption and nepotism and the like to various degrees. It is clear however but for the gaps in the Gota fabric the Rajapaksas might not have lost the urban middle class ‘non-committed voters’, who swung against them in 2015 and returned to their fold now. This is the decisive constituency that votes on perceptions, if not performance, per se.
To begin on a clean slate, with the nation’s future in mind, the Rajapksas have to come to peace with some, if not all of the controversies surrounding them, still, especially on the ethnic and war-crimes front. The former is still a domestic affair, and the Tamil/Muslim minorities should understand that the latter did not flow automatically from the other, though that was the excuse that the West proffered when then wanted the Rajapaksas out.
This does not mean that finding a permanent political solution to the ethnic issue on the one hand, restoring a sense of security in the Muslim community, post-BBS attacks (2013) and the ‘Easter serial blasts’ (2019) and ensuring the delayed dignity of the Upcountry Tamils would automatically end Sri Lanka’s travails on the UNHRC front. But without waiting on China and Russia for their veto-vote for their support in UNHRC and veto-vote at the UNSC, Sri Lanka can (afford) to practise ‘neutral foreign policy’ as President Gotabhaya declared at his Inauguration, if and only if the nation addresses these issues adequately, at least at this distance in time.
Sworn critics in the country, especially the SLT and Muslim communities, need to acknowledge that if the Rajapaksas cannot ‘sell’ a political package for their benefit to the majority Sinhala-Buddhist constituency, hard-liners or not, no other ruler can do it in the foreseeable future – just as the Rajapaksa-replacements could not do through the past five years. They also need to understand that some, if not most of their own political decisions owed to respective societal pressures, bottom-up, so would be the case of the Sinhala political-administrator of the nation – whether a Rajapaksa or a Ranil Wickremesinghe.
It will be tempting for the Rajapaksas now to take to acts of political victimisation, targeting baiters from the other side of the political-divide, who, post-poll, characteristically would be trying to cross over, if only to retain their ministerial positions and political non-importance. The temptation would be more whenever they are stone-walled on the domestic front, which is inevitable, may be after they all had faced the parliamentary and nine-province council polls,.
Sure enough, there are legitimate economic offences of the ‘Central Bank bonds scam’ where the Rajapaksas had taken a (correct) political position, independent of political advantage accruing to them otherwise, then or since. There was also their strong criticism to the ‘debty-to-equity’ swap-deal with China on Hambantota, which they at least need to review – and also be seen as reviewing it, whatever the outcome.
In between there are the likes of those now in the political Opposition, or back in their sides, who had said all kinds of things against them and proved nothing – like that most Rajapaksas had escaped the country even after the 2015 poll results were rolling out, that they had tons of money in foreign banks, etc, etc. These are the kind of political allegations, which should be left aside, lest those that they made those charges when electoral wind was blowing their side, could acquire a hero status, which they believed they had acquired – but did not!
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: [email protected])