Behind and beyond the ‘maroon shawl’

By N Sathiya Moorthy

In his maiden address to Parliament, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa turned nostalgic about his Ruhuna rural family’s long connection to the nation’s politico-administrative structure at one level and to the forgotten farming community at the other. In context, he referred to the ‘maroon shawl’ (‘kurahan satakaya’ in Sinhala) that they have sported since the pre-Independence days of his uncle D M Rajapaksa and father D A Rajapaksa down to the present and future generations (Namal Rajapaksa, MP), acknowledging that he however was not in the same league.

The fact was for 20 years, Gota was wearing the army fatigues and later for another 10 years under President Mahinda Rajapaksa – brother, who is now Prime Minister under him – and he himself outlined his non-political career too in his parliamentary address. If news reports on his Inauguration at Anuradhaura were to be believed – they were not officially denied – Gota declined the ‘kurahan satakaya’ offered by family elders, thus possibly sending out a message of its own to the new-generation urban and semi-urban voters across the country.

As is known, maroon is the colour of kurahan, the millet on which the southern farmers had made their limited livelihood and the larger population, their lives. President Gota declared in Parliament that he stood by the ‘kurahan’ philosophy, of putting farmers on the top of the nation’s priority (all over again?). If however the idea was also to put it across is pre-poll message ahead of the parliamentary polls, due later this year, it may not work.

The new generation, especially in the increasing urbanising environment of the country, has little or no use for kurahan-like symbolism. They may otherwise belong to farming communities, to whoever region they may belong, but farming is not on the top of their personal agenda for a life-long career. The older generation would not have forgotten the kurahan symbolism that silently and without a word dominated brother Mahinda R’s successful maiden presidential poll campaign in 2005.

It was about an all-white Sri Lanka map – outline drawn in blue – sporting a kurahan satayaka. The white in the campaign posters stood for Buddhism, the nation’s majority/majoritarian religion. Universally, white also symbolises peace. The blue outline stood for the seas that surround the country on all sides, making it the island that it is. The kurahan satayaka represented the nation’s farming community.

That Candidate Mahinda too sported similar attire (barring the blue outline) made words of explanation unnecessary for the voter to draw the parallel – and his electoral inspiration. Yet, the fact remains that even the Rajapaksa campaign did not repeat the same symbolism in successive elections after that. The reason was/is straight and simple. In history, no same issue has won successive elections in any democracy. Sri Lanka is a democracy, still.

Security & stability

Yet, President Gota in his address to Parliament, left no one in doubt that ‘national security’ is on the top of his administrative priorities. Needless to point out that his electoral victory owed as much to the sense of insecurity that had crept into the southern Sri Lankan psyche in particular following the dastardly ‘Easter Sunday serial blasts’ as to the political instability that the dual leadership of then President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – came to represent, and radiated too in no humble measure.

Inaction on the part of the intelligence and security apparatus (to act on repeated Indian alert) was readily attributed to political instability of the time, and the unsure approach that nations and governments could make in matters of reaching out to the divided leadership after a time. The confusion was compounded even more in the case of the nation’s bureaucratic set-up, including the police and security top brass.

The combined issues of security and stability, along with the state of the economy, were the driving forces behind Gota’s massive electoral victory – even before he had filed the nomination papers. The 40-per cent Mahinda voters from the previous decades did not find any reason to desert the Rajapaksas, Instead, those that had deserted them in 2015, after contributing to a resounding victory for incumbent Mahinda R in his post-war re-election campaign, returned to them – precisely for these three combined reasons.

The question still remains if security and stability are inter-changeable, or should go together or could go separately. While instability could lead to security threats as had happened in the case of the LTTE in the aftermath of President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s assassination in the early nineties, stable governments in the past too had failed on the security front.

Conversely, when President Mahinda R led the nation to the decisive and conclusive war victory against the LTTE, he had a parliamentary majority, yes, but then, he was also faced with electoral ally in the JVP deserting him, mid-way through. What mattered the most for the nation’s armed forces, who too were fighting the LTTE with their ‘hands tied to the back’, as was the case with the IPKF earlier, was the sense of purpose, direction and leadership that President Mahinda R and Defence Secretary Gota R gave them.

To the nation’s armed forces, all of it meant  that they would not be asked to pull back halfway through, in the name of internationally-negotiated ceasefire, especially at times when the LTTE was at the receiving end. Today, when the Gota presidency has come to represent the sense of political stability that was wholesale absent under predecessor Maithripala Sirisena, to belief that it should run concurrent to and concomitant with national security could land his SLPP in the kind of situation that the Rajapaksas faced in Elections-2015.

As poll figures from 2015 showed, it was not only the minorities, namely, Sri Lankan Tamils (SLT), Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, who had voted against Mahinda R at the time. There was a substantial swing in the Sinhala constituency, too, compared to the previous 2010 polls, post-war. They have swung back to the Rajapaksas’ camp now, but it will not take them a long time to swing back to the other side, if they found the dichotomy between their perceptions and present-day governmental practices at wide variance.

In 2010, for instance, apart from the very fact of the Rajapaksa leadership liquidating LTTE terrorism, it was the symbolic return of the missing sense of security that made the massive poll victory happen at the time. With the end of the war went the street-corner check-points and highways frisking of individuals and vehicles. Today, to bring them back, whether in reality or by sending out the message that the ‘Big Brother is watching’, could give a hit to the Rajapaksas’ parliamentary majority, which they very badly need in this year’s election.

That is to say, a sense of security should be felt, need not be seen. Political stability facilitates it, yes, but that is no sanction as the Rajapaksas misunderstood in the aftermath of the massive post-war poll victories since 2010, or even earlier – after the decisive battle victories in the East. It’s a tight-rope walk that the Rajapaksas can do without just now, as seeing is not believing in electoral terms, too.

Strong arms of State

In his parliamentary address, President Gota Rajapaksa spoke even more vehemently about ensuring a strong Executive, Legislature and Judiciary – the three traditional arms of the State. As long as none of them resorts to strong-arm methods viz one another and against the nation’s population, it is all welcome – though still debatable. Why and how they should be and could be achieved remains to be seen, though.

In context, President Gota told Parliament that he wanted Constitution amended to facilitate the process. If his idea was to abrogate relevant portions of the 19th Amendment passed by Parliament under the predecessor administration, he did not mention it. Going by whatever name, that however is the crux of the matter. Hence also the question of why and how of it.

There is no denying that the half-hearted, halfway approach of 19-A in transferring most Executive powers to the Prime Minister, including the promise of his being made the head of the Cabinet and Government, in the place of the President, was root-cause of all the troubles in this regard. Either they should have left it all to the Executive President still, or transferred it wholesale to the PM. Sirisen and Wickremesinghe found enough meat in the 19-A interpretations to fight it out in the open than carry on with their respective work, for which there was enough scope.

Today, going by 19-A, the Executive Presidency ceases to exist after Sirisena’s first term in office. Going by what is obvious, incumbent Gota continues to exercise those powers that went away with predecessor Sirisena even as elder brother Mahinda R as his PM continue to play second-fiddle. The question is not a who’s who affair, but one of how their respective constituencies views the make-over, and what they would relish in the promised change-over.

Satayaka vote-bank

It is clear that a minimum of 40 per cent of Gota’s 52 per cent vote-share were Mahinda’s traditional vote-share, built through his 10 years in office. The additional 12 per cent, or a substantial part thereof, came in for the greater sense of stability and security that the Rajapaksas had represented in Mahindas raj, when compared to that of his divided successors. Much of it also belonged to Gota R in his personal capacity, as he was not burdened by the baggage that had cost Mahinda his second re-election in 2015.

Ahead of the parliamentary elections, to be followed by nine Provincial Council polls, if the Gota leadership were to signal the weakening of the Prime Minister’s office still, it could confuse and upset Mahinda’s ‘kurahan satayaha’ voters from the past. They would remain so despite Mahinda R putting his heart into the parliamentary poll campaign, given President Gota’s acknowledged non-identification with the kurahan and satayaka.

The kurahan satayaka vote-bank combine in itself rural farmers, who are mostly poor and also belief in the supremacy of majority/majoritarian Buddhism in national affairs and polity. They identified with Gota R in the presidential polls through the larger-than-life imagery of brother Mahinda R.

The best thing that the Government leadership can do for itself ahead of the parliamentary /PC polls is not to talk about controversial 19-A and even more controversial amendments that it may have in mind. Instead, they could get straight onto the job, and ensure price-stability and goods-availability, which was the other reason why the ‘swing voters’ went the Gota way.

Given the minority voter-mood and their political leaderships’ ways, for the Rajapaksas to ensure a simple majority in Parliament, leave alone two-thirds margin, they need all the swing votes and more that they could inspire between now and the elections. They need to retain everyone of the satayaka voters even more. Therein lies their problem – and also the solution!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: