By N Sathiya Moorthy
Reports about a fast-emerging rift within the ruling Rajapaksa clan seems to have hit the streets at a wrong time for them, or so it seems. Apart from the uncontrollable Covid pandemic, whose better management alone helped the ruling SLPP sweep the parliamentary polls last year, there are unilateral and at times unscientific farm policies of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa may have robbed the administration of the post-poll gloss of the past two years.
With the result, the much-delayed and yet promised polls to the nine Provincial Councils (PC) can be as challenging for the Rajapaksas as they may be relatively easier for the divided Opposition, which had all but lost all hopes after the twin losses – in the presidential polls of 2019 and parliamentary elections, 2020. If there is one more cause that may contribute to a further delay in the PC polls, it is this, the intra-Rajapaksa family rift, as is being tom-tomed by the social media, when the mainline media is mostly looking the other way.
At the centre of the rift, if true, is the relative popularity of President Gotabaya and elder brother and Prime Minister, Mahinda R. A back of the envelope calculation would still show that over 40 per cent of the 52-per cent votes that Candidate Gota polled in 2019 were ‘Mahinda votes’. The remaining 12-per cent were of urban and semi-urban middle-class with their unsteady and unsure mind, which was becoming sick and tired of the predecessor Sirisena-Wickremesinghe squabbles, which shattered the already fragile economy and provided the ‘political and security climate’ that facilitated the Easter serial-blasts, 2019.
These ‘non-committed’ voters had migrated away from Mahinda after the post-war 2010 presidential polls to the rival camp. They would have no hesitation to shift their electoral royalties one more time, or any number of times. The way the Gota leadership is hitting them at their dining tables after letting Covid do its job – in terms of continued joblessness – is what a future election will be all about. Add to this the emerging controversy over the China Port City (CPC) management Bill, and the picture is complete.
Allies are concerned, but the more vocal and self-styled shrewd ones among them have thought it wise to back Gota, who is the present against Mahinda, who is in the past. They are not ready to grant the future of a Namal Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s politician-cum-parliamentarian son, and naturally so. The other qualified Rajapaksa, Basil, the duo’s brother, is said to be yet unwilling to surrender his US citizenship, to be able to contest elections inside the nation.
A new element has since been thrown in by former President Maithripala Sirisena and the Catholic Church’s one-point agenda to have him arraigned in the Easter blasts case. Once a target himself, Sirisena turned around in good time. According to media reports, not very long after, and not very long before the present, he hosted a meeting of all non-SLPP allies in the Gota dispensation, starting with the parent SLFP, of which he is still the boss. Participating in the discussion was every ally in the Government other than the SLPP.
Various participants gave various versions to and through the media. The common bemoan was the unilateral SLPP decision to host a separate May Day rally, and announcing the same without consultations. In the normal circumstances, it’s the allies who would do it, as if to assert their seats-demands, this time ahead of the pending PC polls. The message was clear.
It’s that the SLPP as the boss would decide on the ratio and proportion of seats for each ally, and also the Province-wise list. Needless to say, the SLPP would want to hold the chief ministers’ post for itself in all seven non-Tamil Provinces and also the multi-ethnic East, if possible.
Before controversies surrounding the Colombo Port City began marooning all news, including Covid, media reports had claimed that Prime Minister Mahinda R would try to sort out the differences with the allies. Clearly, it’s not as Prime Minister per se, but as the leader and founder of the party, whose popularity still matters, especially after the ‘Gota quota’ of votes may have already vanished – thanks also to the Government’s decisions on overnight ban on import of turmeric, and palm oil – that too when the people could ill-afford ‘black market prices’ for food items of daily use.
Table turns itself?
Today, the table seems to have turned against President Gota, after some of the very vocal allies like Ministers Wimal Weeravansa (NFF) and Udaya Gammanpilla (PHU) were seen as turning against one-time mentor Mahinda Rajapaksa. Without notice, Weerawansa in particular publicly wanted Gota to be made the SLPP chief.
Weeks down the line, it’s unclear if he wanted the President to be made the head of the coalition headed by the SLPP, or SLPP party as such. Though in the early days, some SLPP second-line leaders openly decried alliance partners interfering in the affairs of the party. Today, no one is talking any more about Mahinda. Whoever from the alliance is talking, it’s about the May Day rallies, PC polls, etc, etc.
It is in this context, the Colombo Port City controversy has the potential to rattle the SLPP alliance from within. With the Opposition and ruling party parliamentarian in Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe dubbing the new Bill for the management of the China-funded SEZ as a ‘Province within a Province’ or a ‘State within a State’, some of the allies are visibly uncomfortable with identifying with a project that is being propagated as challenging the ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ of Sri Lanka – that too after the even more controversial Hambantota Port project.
For all this however, Mahinda seems to be keeping his own counsels. He is seldom seen in public, making out-of-turn statements, leaving it all to be done by his so-called rivals within the coalition. He seems alive to the fact that the party needs him more than his needing the party – or, the party needing anyone else, starting with President Gota and/or their strategist-brother, Basil R.
It is not just his popularity, it is more about Mahinda’s famous feel for the pulse of the people, especially the majority Sinhala-Buddhists. His constituency goes beyond the traditional Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners. It includes those voters whose needs and demands a leader could instinctively understand and appreciate – and draw up policies and programmes for them.
Mahinda is a politician by instinct. Gota is a leader by design, like the failed Wickremesinghe at the other end of the rural-urban elitist divide. Possibly, had it not been for the predecessor Wickremesinghe regime going after him, short of framing him on war-crimes charges, Gota may not have entered active politics, relegating himself to an administrative role as much as he had done in the post-war era of President Mahinda.
It was also the time when the 19th Amendment ensured that Mahinda could not contest the presidential polls another time, and Basil R would not surrender his American citizenship to contest the presidency. The visible rankle within the family too seems to have a role to play through the present Rajapaksa crisis. Add to that the not-so-infrequent inferences of Team Gota members like Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara, and the picture is complete.
Mahinda knows that the likes of Weerasekara are a burden on the party’s poll prospects, now and ever. Every time the Minister opens his mouth, the SLPP seems to be losing yet another big chunk of ‘non-committed’ Sinhala-Buddhist voters, who want an able administration, not ethnically-divisive administrators, even the ex-military types as retired Rear-Admiral Weerasekara is.
It was anticipated that tale-carriers would have a field day and success in a Government under President Gota, in which the more popular Mahinda had to necessarily play the second fiddle. The breaking-point was reached when Weerawansa – aided by Gammanpilla – wanted Gota to become SLPP chief. It suits them all, as Gota’s agenda for ‘ethnic solution’ is closer to their own thinking than that of Mahinda’s. If it has not broken as it, it seem to owe more to the sibling-commitments of the past decades – which, however, can go only thus far and no more!
(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: sathiyam,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