By N. Sathiya Moorthy
It was showing since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the President, and swore in elder brother and predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. The first and unexpected phase of the Covid pandemic seemed to have distracted the nation and also the brothers from it all at the time. But now that Covid has become a way of life for the nation as much as for the rest of the world, the sibling strains could not be held back any more, or so it seems.
It began with the trination ECT (Eastern Container Terminal) deal, also involving India and Japan, where smaller parties in the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led combine, backing labour unions that had been demanding the cancellation of the draft deal, or the Memorandum of Co-operation (MoC). Prime Minister Rajapaksa issued a statement announcing the cancellation, a day ahead of the crucial cabinet meeting, which alone was supposed to take the decision – reverting the earlier and more recent commitment made to India.
Close to a month later, President Rajapaksa is yet to refer to the ECT deal cancellation, in and to the public. Ahead of the parliamentary polls in August 2020, when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led labour protests got revived, he had acknowledged India’s stakes in the ECT, and offered the 70% India-centric transhipment business at Colombo Port as justification.
This was followed by Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa suggesting in public that President Gota also became the SLPP President, as it would ensure greater co-ordination between the party and the Government. SLPP parliamentary members, in an alliance meeting, called it almost blasphemous wanted Weerawansa to apologise. The moderates among them suggested that inner-alliance matters should not be discussed in public. Some also pointed out that the SLPP was a separate party like Weerawansa’s NFF (National Freedom Front), and the latter could not be commenting on the internal affairs of the coalition leader (which he seemed to have mistook for the coalition as a whole).
PM Mahinda, as SLPP President, was chairing the meeting. He ruled that as Weerawansa was not present at the meeting – he had a court appearance elsewhere that day – the matter should be discussed only when he was present. There rests the matter. Weerawansa has not taken back his statement, nor has he apologised, nor has he blamed the media for misquoting, which has become the traditional politico’s way of getting out of such a mess. He appeared alongside PM Mahinda in a couple of public events connected to his Industries Ministry.
The third, and equally embarrassing for PM Mahinda, relates to the issue of cremating the Muslim Covid dead. Sri Lanka is the only country that insists on burning their Covid dead, independent of all global practices and World Health Organisation (WHO) clearances. So much so, that it would rather have Muslim families bury their Covid dead in neighbouring Maldives, where the Government has been accepting and facilitating it, as a “good neighbourly gesture”.
Given possibly the justification in the local Muslims’ demand for letting them bury their Covid dead, PM Mahinda announced in Parliament that the traditional practice could be back in place. Pat came the response from State Healthcare Minister, Dr. Sudarshini Furnandopulle, the very next day. She told the House that all such decisions could be taken by only the committee of experts, who had taken the decision against burial, in the first place.
The local media has since quoted the State Minister that the status quo against burial remains. According to her, only a gazette notification would allow health authorities attending to Covid victims to revert to the religious practice, in place of the new regulation to cremate all Covid dead, irrespective of religion (Muslims, Christians, and in some cases, Sinhalese too).
It is too early to speculate on the causes and results of the current impasse in the Government, which could be mis-presented as the beginning of a brotherly problem between Gota and Mahinda? If so, it presents a picture much different and even more confusing compared the one etched in every Sri Lankan mind – pro, or anti-Rajapaksas.
That is a picture from the LTTE past. It’s about then President Mahinda hugging brother Gota, Secretary of Defence, who had just escaped a suicide bomb attempt by the LTTE, at Colombo’s Piththala Junction on 1 December 2006. Whether they conveyed it or not, viewers of that picture imposed on it all the emotions attached to sibling sacrifice – relief, thankfulness to the gods, etc., etc.
It is another matter that Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, as Minister in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government (2015-19), claimed in Parliament that the suicide attack on Gota was “stage-managed”. He did not produce any proof or evidence. The rancour in him was understandable, and his claim lacked credibility after the Rajapaksas had harassed and jailed the wartime Army Commander, purportedly for wrongdoing, but reportedly for talking out of turn, in the closing months of the war and afterwards too.
Stoic silence or what
On all three issues, Gota has maintained stoic silence, and not just on the ECT deal cancellation. If the silence on the ECT deal has sent out confusing messages to India, Japan, and the investor community overseas, the other two have sent out wrong messages to the Rajapaksas’ domestic constituency.
Mahinda was the Founder and Founder-President of the SLPP. But that is only a technical matter. Beyond it is the sibling strength that the Rajapaksas had displayed, on right issues and wrong, through the past one-and-a-half decades and more. It would not have been possible for a Weerawansa to demand Mahinda’s replacement in public without Gota especially taking him to task – if only in private.
The same cannot be said of the other two senior Rajapaksas, Chamal, the oldest of them all, who is the ‘family unifier’ and Basil, whose strength is in the details. They are not generally expected to comment on issues, or even have a stand independent of Mahinda in the past. Where there were differences, Chamal especially was known to bring issues to the table, and sort them out.
Not this time, it would seem – or, not thus far. Else, the controversy focusing on Mahinda over the Covid dead would not have surfaced. At least, his position would not have been challenged repeatedly by a junior minister, supposedly working in a government with him as Prime Minister. It is another matter if it was Mahinda as President who brought a reluctant (Dr.) Sudarshini (Fernandopulle) into active politics after the LTTE had killed her Minister husband, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, in a road bomb attack in the Colombo suburb of Weliweriya.
Firing from other shoulders
Three issues within as many weeks or so, and the good military man in Gota seems to be firing from other people’s shoulders. The list includes Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa of the NFF, a breakaway faction of the centre-left JVP, Power Minister Udaya Gammanpila, whose PHU (Pivithuru Hela Urumaya) had walked out of the centre-right JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya) ahead of the 2015 presidential polls, traditional left-leaning LSSP’s (Lanka Sama Samaja Party) Vasudeva Nanayakara, Minister for Water Supply and Drainage.
That is a point many analysts had missed when Gota named Mahinda as Prime Minister in November 2019, and followed it up with a second swearing-in after the parliamentary polls of August last year. Dinesh Gunawardena, who is the all-important Foreign Minister, is from the MES, another lesser-known party.
EPDP’s (Eelam People’s Democratic Party) Douglas Devananda, the Fisheries Minister, is from the ‘minority’ Tamil community, an ex-militant who was anti-LTTE. He is among the top in the pegging order in the Cabinet of Ministers, or so it seems.
They are all ideologues all the way, and the best of public speakers and parliamentarians, who also brought socio-political diversity to the Rajapaksa camp, especially when the latter began drifting away from the parent SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) in the curiously contested presidential polls of 2015. Mahinda is known to put great premium on personal relations and loyalties – and barring Devananda, who had remained neutral, the rest stood by him during his difficult days in the united SLFP after losing the presidency in 2015.
In that election, as may be recalled, the incumbent-loser Mahinda was the head of the ruling SLFP of the time. The victor, Maithripala Sirisena, was the victor, but was an SLFP rebel, who went on to capture the party as per the SLFP Constitution that Mahinda R. had got amended to suit him after his post-war re-election in 2010.
Of the ‘minor party’ ministers now in the Gota-Mahinda team, Dinesh Gunawardena does not seem to be talking out of turn. Mahinda had made him the Leader of the pre-SLPP rebel group’s head in Parliament. If he is talking tough on UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) and MCC (Millenium Challenge Corporation) Grant-like issues to foreign diplomats, it is the collective decision of the Cabinet. In a way, he is also a Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liner, no questions asked, no quarters given.
But that cannot be said of Weeravansa and Gammanpila, among others. A little-known film artistes’ association identifying with Weerawansa has since gone to town, defending him. It has argued, how Weerawansa had campaigned across the country, for Mahinda’s sake, after the latter had lost the presidency. That is to urge detractors not to read personal motives into Weerawansa demanding Gota as SLPP Chief.
According to N. Vithyatharan, veteran Tamil journalist, now editing his ‘Kaalai Kathir’ (‘Morning Rays’) from northern Jaffna, it all portends to a succession plan, in which Mahinda wants to retire from active politics and hand over the prime ministerial reign to Basil Rajapaksa. He has indicated as much through his daily political column under the pen name, ‘Minnal’ or ‘Lightening’, after a tea session with PM Mahinda.
Vithy explained in the first of the two-part column that what used to be a usual lunch session had to be reduced to tea, owing to the Covid pandemic. But in the second, he has surmised that because Mahinda was turning 75, and wanted to retire gracefully, those that are uncomfortable with Basil’s no-nonsense approach are already betting on the future Rajapaksa formation(s).
But then, Gota is equally non-nonsensical as Basil, if not more – unlike Mahinda, who has remained the family’s public face and vote-getter, who needed to carry everyone with them, and all the time. That is a compulsion that too may need to be inherited. But then, are there any takers?
(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: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Colombo Gazette’s point of view.