Now that the controversial former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is back in the country, after forced self-exile of the past weeks, speculation is rife about his future plans. There is a weak call for his arrest – the OHCHR report does not name anyone, as usual, and the voice of Kumara Welgama, founder of the party that Chandrika Kumaratunga inaugurated the other day, is a voice in wilderness. Those like Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, on the other hand, have gone to town, declaring that the government would not arrest Gota, nor would they, as party men, allow such a thing to happen. It is unclear if Minister Ranatunga would put his job on the line in case of a showdown.
It does not stop there. Ruling SLPP parliamentarian Dr. Seetha Arambepola has offered her National List seat for Gota, if he desired to enter Parliament. Before Seetha, the mercurial Mervyn Silva had offered his parliamentary seat for Gota to enter Parliament and become a minister.
That was after Gota had led the nation as the Defence Secretary under the politically savvy elder brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in defeating the LTTE terrorists completely. In hindsight, maybe, Gota should have taken that offer and gained some exposure to Parliament and experience in politics and exposure to political administration as a minister before launching into the presidency, blind-folded.
It is anybody’s guess if Gota would want to re-enter active politics, that too through the parliamentary route, where he would be challenged, heckled and worse. He is unexposed to that and may not want it now, as it would be subjected to multiple interpretations of an ‘Aragalaya’ inside the House.
According to speculative media reports, Gota as President and Basil as the Rajapaksa brain-trust together grabbed the Finance Ministry under the care of older brother Mahinda, who was left to remain Prime Minister with an assortment of relatively unimportant portfolios. You can credit it to Mahinda’s reported luck, as he has since been absolved of ownership of the duo’s financial decisions, which landed the nation in an economic mess earlier than he too might have anticipated.
Mahinda still cannot escape responsibility and accountability for inflicting a once-unwilling Gota on the nation’s politics and hoisting him as the nation’s President without any prior experience. In a way, it was all Gota’s doing, yes, but by allowing it to happen, Mahinda did do a great dis-service to the nation, and his own brand of politics, which had secured him a near-permanent 40-45 per cent ‘committed vote-share’.
Even when he lost the presidency in the 2015 polls, or doing politics on his own against the incumbent Maithri-Ranil duo, through the next four-plus years, Mahinda had retained this vote-share. But in a shorter span that he spent at Temple Trees as President, Gota managed to bring Mahinda’s ‘popularity’ (?) to a fourth, as recent opinion polls have shown.
Namal Rajapaksa should be a worried man, as he had taken the plunge originally to step into his father’s shoes straight, even though through democratic elections. Post-Independence political history had it that once a party lost power, it would, in a decade or two, return. But in the case of the Rajapaksas, Maithri and Ranil conspired for them than against them, while in power, and the family was back in power in less than five years.
Incidentally, in the said opinion poll, conducted by the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake came on the top with 48-per cent acceptance for the presidency. This should bring some solace to the rest of the self-styled ‘mainline polity’.
The mainline originally comprised two parties, namely, the UNP and the breakaway SLFP. The number multiplied two-fold in the past five years – after the other two split, vertically, horizontally or whatever, to form the SJB and the SLPP, respectively. They all are convinced that Anura’s popularity is momentary, and not momentous, and the voters would return to their fold in real-time elections.
Pushed to the wall
For all this, however, President Wickremesinghe would be alive to and aware of the past mistake he had committed as Prime Minister, though it had made indirect contributions to his coming on the top at present. Possibly, he did not have another route or chance – but it was all not one of his making or design.
But Ranil would acknowledge, even if only to himself, that his pushing the likes of Gota and Basil, and Namal, to a much lesser extent, that forced them all back into active politics when they were down and out after the poll reversal of 2015. The government may have had a case, when they were all imprisoned on corruption charges and paraded to the Court and back.
This was so, despite the Maithri-Ranil dispensation amending the Constitution to deny presidency to Mahinda by re-introducing the two-term upper-limit, and to Namal by upping the minimum age from 30 to 35, which age he would not have attained for the presidential polls of 2019. That left Gota and Basil with their dual citizenship of the US, but Gota took the plunge. Basil would rather want the Constitution amended for him to become an MP and Minister. He is neither of it now.
In context, pushed to the wall again, it is Gota who would need the party and politics more than the other way round. It was so earlier too. It is another matter that his non-existent intellectual support-base melted away under the weight of the Aragalaya, whereas the political ranks of Mahinda, or most of it, has still stood by him. This is despite SLPP second-line having its houses burned down and worse. But then, this time round, Mahinda too may be careful. If nothing else, he would not want to go down in history as the destroyer of the Bandaranaike politico-ideological legacy, to which he has added the names of his uncle and father, all through.
(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected])
By N. Sathiya Moorthy