As expected, Mahinda Rajapaksa has named brother and his war-time Defence Secretary Gota Rajpaksa as his SLPP-JO’s presidential candidate. Equally predicted was his becoming the prime ministerial nominee of the combine. The latter announcement, more than the former, has the potential to rock the rival UNP of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe even more, even as other prime ministerial aspirants in his own party and some in President Maithripala Sirisena-led SLFP-UPFA, who want to join hands with the Rajapaksas, possibly for the same reason.
First and foremost, the twin announcement gives an early-bird advantage to the Rajapaksas, as the UNP rival is stilling grabbling over the issue of its prime ministerial nominee. Two, by declaring that under the Rajapaksas, the PM will be more powerful as per 19-A (that is if Gota is elected), Mahinda may have set the cat among the UNP cats, if not pigeons.
There is thus a likelihood of UNP leaders reviewing their own personal positions on the presidency. Those that aspired to be President may want to step aside in favour of a commitment on the prime ministerial job. Again given the past record set by rival Mahinda R after he became President for the first time in 2005, the UNP prime ministerial aspirant may require unimpeachable guarantees in the matter.
As may be recalled, Mahinda entered the 2005 presidential race with SLFP founder’s son, the late Anura Bandaranaike as the prime ministerial running-mate. The latter having deserted the campaign along with incumbent President-sister, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, CBK, and in fact was campaigning against the ruling SLFP nominee, Mahinda dropped him as a hot-brick once he won by a wafer-thin majority.
Imagery of stability
Given the brotherly bonding between the two Rajapaksa candidates, and the way they successfully prosecuted the anti-LTTE war through Mahinda’s first term in office, already there is an imagery of ‘political stability’ attending on the ticket. There is an attendant and at times bigger problem of the same imagery converting itself into one of autocracy and ‘authorised violence’ against political and not-so-political adversaries. This was the imagery that cost Mahinda a share of his traditional Sinhala-South votes in Elections-2015, compared to the earlier two elections.
There is a more immediate and internal dynamics working in and for the Rajapaksa ticket. In the US and other nations, including the Maldivian neighbour, the running-mate is ordinarily toothless while in office. More importantly, in the elections, he or she is expected to bring in margin and/or marginal votes, over and above that of the presidential candidate.
In the SLPP-Rajapaksa context, it is the running-mate, say, Mahinda who will be bringing in most of the votes for the alliance. But Gota as the presidential candidate need to bring in those margin/marginal votes, through his personality as the no-nonsense war-victor, if the ticket has to make the grade.
Through his pre-emptive announcement that he would be the Prime Minister if Gota gets elected President, and that under 19-A he wold be the more powerful of the two, Mahinda also seems to have nipped a few ambition-buds before they could hope to bloom. First and foremost, he was reassuring his personal constituency, which is what the SLPP-JO’s enviable vote-share of 40-45 per cent is, that they were voting for his return, and not just that of Gota’s presidential ticket.
The constituency that still seem to swear by Mahinda’s charisma needed that reassurance, given that Got has more or less continued to maintain his war-time image of being ‘unapproachable’. Maybe Gota tried to reach out to that constituency and more through the past year and more, but it was confined to Colombo’s famed seminar circuit and possibly sections of the trade and industry organisations that had identified with the Rajapaksas anyway.
There is no knowing if differences of opinion could erupt between the two power-centres in a Rajapaksas-led Government, with more hanging outside, both within the family and outside. However, there is now an imagery of political stability and at times invincibility, too, which has added to their early-bird advantage.
Of equal and at times greater importance, Mahinda R has also sent out a clear message to all those prime ministerial aspirants, both within the SLPP-JO and SLFP-UPFA, who too are said to be keen on joining hands with the ticket or cross-over, if that is the case. Indications are that Mahinda would not want to be seen as the liquidator of the parent party that his previous generation too had helped put through, alongside the real founder, the late S W R D Bandaranaike.
As coincidence would have it, Mahinda R began his Sunday when he announced the party’s presidential ticket with a meeting with Allice Wells, the visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. The meeting might not have been a coincidence but the choice of date obviously was. Both sides had fixed their schedules independent of each other, but then the political message for the Rajapaksa enthusiasts and cadres waiting for the party’s chosen D-Day could be much different from the obvious and ordinary.
International diplomacy does not work that way, but for the Rajapaksa constituency, the Wells’ meeting could be an American acknowledgement of things to come. Coupled with a relatively easy clearance for Gota’s relinquishment of US citizenship, which again may be a routine affair otherwise, to them, it could well mean an ‘American atonement’ of the ‘plot’ that cost Mahinda the presidency in Elections-2015.
At least Mahinda had said as much at the time, and at least that is the kind of imagery that his loyalists would draw for themselves just now. It’s going to enthuse them even more to press into the Rajapaksas’ campaign than may be understood and acknowledged.
Question for Sirisena
The problem however for the Rajapaksas is the minority votes. Whether or not they get a respectable share of Tamil and Muslim votes, the Rajapaksa ticket, if it wins the presidential elections, will have to be seen as being a Government for all Sri Lankans, and not just some, even if it means the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist majority’. Hence possibly also reports of the Brothers Rajapaksa, including party Organiser and poll strategist, Basil R, meeting with estranged Tamil leaders especially.
For the Rajapaksas, the Tamil voters are a real thorn in the flesh, given the imagery of theirs having a ‘Sinhala exclusivist’ constituency alone to call their own – however big and large it be. For the Tamils, the Rajapaksas are more than a thorn from the war-time past. They have been tutored and brainwashed into believing and/or propagating that the Rajapaksas were alone behind all the ‘war-crimes’ alleged against the forces at the time.
The argument makes sense because every Tamil voter and every TNA leader has since conveniently forgotten that they had actually voted for war-time army chief, present-day Sarath Fonseka, in the post-war polls of 2010. The TNA also did precious little to stall the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dual leadership created Fonseka the nation’s first ‘Field Marshal’, obvious for his unparalleled services during the war, in which they claim tens of thousands of their innocent brethren were annihilated without rhyme or reason, war-time requirement or justification.
Yet, for President Sirisena to create war-time Navy and Air Force Chiefs respectively as ‘Admiral of the Fleet’ and ‘Marshal of the Air Force’ have made a mockery of the national honour that might have otherwise been due to them. The timing of the honour for Adm Wasantha Karranagoda and Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetikeke, both veterans, gives the impression that they and the forces that they represented at war-time were being conferred the titles not because they deserved it, but because Fonseka’s name is doing the rounds all over again for being the UNP-led common candidate against another Rajapkasa, in the presidential poll.
Hidden behind the possibility for floating the Fonseka candidacy may as much have to do with the readiness of the Tamils to vote him in 2010 as to the internal disputes within the UNP as to the choice of their presidential nominee. It may have come to the stage where rather than seeking the ticket for the self, some seem wanting to ‘deny’ it to the other(s), even more.
All of it could well boil down to Sirisena having to answer why he did not consider the two worthy of equal honour along with Fonseka when he conferred the ‘Field Marshal’ title on the latter, and why he woke up only now. It is another matter that controversial as he otherwise was, Adm Karannagoda also had to face the humiliation of being arrested by the police in relation to a ‘war crimes’ probe, and the Government looked the other way – not very long ago.
There is yet another reason why Mahinda might have decided to announce his prime ministerial running-mate status while declaring Gota’s presidential nomination. While it is as much clear that the Muslim community identified the BBS that came down on him without notice and reason with then Defence Secretary Gota R, they are equally, if not more upset with the current regime, after the Easter blasts.
There is no denying that the Muslims felt reassured on the BBS front after the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government had the outfit’s boss, Gnanasara Thero arrested. The group too went out of focus from a while. But then, the anti-Muslim riots in Batti and Kandy in 2018, and now the post-blasts ‘harassment’ of individual Muslims and governmental interference with their personal laws and ‘non-traditional’ practices like face-cover for their women, have upset them, no end.
In context, Mahinda seems wanting to reassure the community that he (alone) would be in charge if Gota is elected President, and they would have nothing to fear from another Rajapaksa presidency, all over again. It is even more so with the nation’s Sinhala-speaking sections of the Christian community, after the armed forces targeted them, also in 2013. They are even more distraught after the Easter blasts.
The ghosts of Aluthagama in the case of Muslims and Welliweriya for Christians are imageries that refuse to go away that easily. Mahinda hopes that his ‘reassurance’ that he would be in charge and would ensure that such acts are not repeated – but then, he was also in charge when those atrocities happened!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: email@example.com)