Sweet-Coating the Medicine

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM May 4 2021

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent declaration that those that wanted to flay his Government can do so after quitting the alliance, needs to be seen in perspective. “The door is open” for them to leave, he said, though long after the internal squabbling by some allies went out of internal confabulations among allies, or some, many or any of them taking it up personally with him or President Gotabaya, for whatever was worth. 

There is a reason, or more than one. President Gotabaya won power owing to three elements. First, of course, was the ‘Rajapaksa votes’ from the war years that Mahinda had built up as President for 10 years, and retained through five years out of power. That was only around 40 per cent, but still a lot more than what his adversaries could muster and/or retain. If anything, individually and collectively, they were losing and that was also the message of the twin-polls for the Presidency (2019) and Parliament (2020). 

Two, of course, was the Easter blasts, which sent a sense of personal insecurity through the veins and spines of every citizen across the country, not just Catholics or other denominational Christians. Not just the Christians, but even traditional UNP voters, in the SJB for Parliamentary Polls) wanted the Rajapaksas back, whatever the other consequences, just as they had done in the postwar polls of 2010/11. On the reverse, it also impacted the nation’s Muslim community even more – but they were more confused than before.

 It took time for the community’s divided political leadership to absorb the shock of responsibility or irresponsibility, and give their voters the lead. That went against the Rajapaksas, yes. In context, Candidate Gotabaya, more than leader Mahinda, brought in those additional Sinhala-Buddhist votes that came to the Rajapaksas in 2010. It was not with them in 2005, when Mahinda became President, and had left them when he lost to friend-turned-foe, senior ministerial colleague, Maithripala Sirisena, in 2015. 

There is the third category of voters who wanted back their sense of personal security – and also a sense of political stability, whatever the ways the Rajapaksas might have achieved it earlier. It was an admixture of Mahinda-Gotabaya voters, again not the Rajapaksas, traditionally. After four-plus years of political mayhem under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dual leadership, they wanted some sense of predictability and political peace in the country. 

They were convinced, like most editorial writers, that the Easter blasts could have been averted if and if only the two had worked together, in cohesion and not against each other. Otherwise abused, the excessive interdependence and cohesiveness of the Rajapaksa clan at the helm in a democracy, had come in for a lot of criticism, both avoidable and otherwise, through the previous ten years. But now, the voters wanted precisely that. 

They were ready to excuse them for some of the over-bearing decisions of that past. Like the Rajapaksa political leadership since 2005, they also saw the stability card more through the eyes of Mahinda than other members of the family. Even when Mahinda was in power, many such voters (of the UNP stock, otherwise) were ready to give the benefit of the doubt to President Mahinda, and wanted to blame some other member of the clan for whatever that had gone wrong, and badly so. 

Sibling rivalry or what 

Maybe, the Rajapaksas back in power now feel royal and regal, and do not mind smaller allies doing their li’l things on the periphery. Mahinda, the political leader that he is, was known to indulge even in some of the critics from within, thinking that they too needed space to operate, and they too had constituencies to address. This was more so about smaller allies, who supposedly had distinct ideologies, political philosophies and electoral constituencies. 

It was thus that the JVP in 2005 got extra space from Candidate Mahinda. The fact that the parent SLFP, whose Presidential Candidate he was, did not have as many committed cadres as the united JVP ally of the time, was an attraction. This was especially so when he ended up having to face the UNP rival Ranil Wickremesinghe in the polls – and his own party boss and outgoing President, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, both inside the party and also the poll arena. As Mahinda might have taken his sweet revenge by dropping CBK’s late brother, Anura Bandaranaike, as his prime minister, a position publicly promised to him when he himself was named as the SLFP’s presidential candidate. 

Yet, that did not make him less accommodative of allies, both within the party and outside. Sirisena himself continued in the Government and as the party as secretary-general, possibly with Mahinda’s full knowledge that he would be the first to rebel against him, if an opportunity presented itself. But then when it all happened, the Rajapaksas had given themselves to complacence, which was not theirs during the war years, both on the battle-field and also the political field. Hence, President Mahinda seemingly had no problem if allies like Wimal Weerawansa, first in the centre-left JVP and later with his own National Freedom Front (NFF) and Udaya Gammanpila (from centre-right JHU to the PHU that he formed in 2015), took pot-shots at the Government. 

Some of these might not have been in the script, but he did not mind. He had the full understanding and confidence that at the end of the day, they had to come back to his leadership for votes first – and hence seats, for them, too, to win their own place in Parliament and Government, too. But they were all about Government policies and programmes. 

This time round, however, they rather went overboard. Weerawansa opened the floodgates when he wanted President Gotabaya to become the head of the SLPP. He seemed to have been vague about his proposal – if he wanted Gotabaya to become the leader of the SLPP alliance or SLPP the political party, or both. If it was the political party, it was an internal affair, where Weerawansa had no place. If it was the alliance, public statements are not made this way. This should have been discussed insider alliance fora. Given his long association with Mahinda, he could well have taken it up at that level.

 At the end of the day, such behaviour, with no early reaction from either Gotabaya or Mahinda ended up giving the impression of an evolving sibling rivalry. Their ‘united family’ is the Rajapaksas’ weakness in the eyes of some, but it is also their greatest strength for most others that have been voting for them. 

Independent of the issues that they need to tackle and address, on which they have been facing relentless criticism, from within the country and outside, the Rajapaksas also have to show up a unified face, whatever be the internal differences, if at all any. In the process of those criticisms, they may have already lost a share of their victory-margin votes that were not theirs to begin with but parked themselves in the interim. 

Hard-line decisions 

Needless to recall, a series of actions by the Gotabaya Government may have alienated the Tamil and Muslim constituencies even more than in the twin polls of the recent past. That includes the Cabinet proposal of a burqua ban. It need not be about the decision alone, but the way, some hard-liner Ministers and supporters of the Rajapaksas in the Government are seen as bulldozing such decisions without adequate consultations within their parliamentary group and outside. Such consultations should include the civil society, the affected Muslim community and the larger Opposition. That is not happening, and is also not seen as happening – not that the predecessor Government was seen as doing so. But there is was seen as lack of cohesion, but not one of unison – of Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners, and none else. 

Mini-rebellion or what 

None of these still explain and justify what at one stage was seen as a mini-rebellion within the ruling alliance. Yes, the likes of Weerawansa, who had courageously broken away from the ‘monolith’ JVP during President Mahinda’s first term, with 10 MPs, to back the Government. Likewise, at the height of the 2015 poll campaign, Gammanpila too courageously broke away from parent JHU, where he stood every chance of becoming party chief in his time, and stood by Mahinda, who however lost. If that was cause enough for Mahinda the patriarch to indulge them, that is not what electoral politics is all about. Party cadres and voters won’t see it in the same. It will instead be seen as a weakness of the leadership. As past instances had shown, both in the case of the Rajapaksas and others, both inside the country and outside, once classified as a ‘weak leader’, there is no escaping that opprobrium. 

With that would come the inevitability of other successive events and developments, which would only confirm such a conclusion? It is hence time that Mahinda cracked the whip, and with support from President Gotabaya, that too is well articulated. There are reasons for the allies, too, to feel side-lined and also fearing that the SLPP was strategising to cut them loose and cornering their vote-bank. The JVP’s past experience with the Rajapaksas may bear testimony, too. 

But then, it is not worth the SLPP/ Rajapaksa’s while to be seen as wanting to take all. Whether under different party banners or one, they have this many votes, and would still want more to win the Presidency the next time round. That is because they do not have all the 50-per cent votes required for the purpose. Be it contesting the Provincial Council polls together – whenever held – or discussing the May Day rallies, that is where the Rajapaksas should have indulged the allies through a well-meaning consultative process. Sirisena’s case for not being prosecuted in the Easter blasts case is legal, not political. 

Anyway, there may be no legal case against him, and that alone could make it all political, all over again. Running rough-shod even over loyal allies is not going to work with prospective allies whom the Rajapaksas may still want, but on their terms. It will not work with the constituency of independentthinking voters – or, those that think they are independent. That is what the Rajapaksas seem to have already lost, but need equally badly, still. 

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and HeadChennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected] com) 

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM May 4 2021

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