From Sri Lanka’s most popular political family to its most despised — going by the voices on the streets calling for the Rajapaksas’ ouster what went wrong for the powerful clan?
Veteran Sri Lanka watcher N Sathiya Moorthy offers an insight.
Days before his first-time election as Sri Lanka’s president in 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa was already facing tight competition from predecessor and ideological political rival Ranil Wickremesinghe of the right-wing United National Party, the island-nation’s grand old party. He was unsure as yet, how much and how far would the dreaded Tamil Tigers influence the Tamil electorate.
But candidate Mahinda had a new threat from within his left-leaning Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Outgoing president and party chief, Chandrika-Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who had first elevated him as prime minister from ports minister, and now as the ruling combine’s presidential candidate, was publicly campaigning against him, more so in native Attanagalla in Western Province, where the capital Colombo is located.
The irony was that Mahinda had already named Chandrika’s erratic politician-brother (the late) Anura Bandaranaike as his prime ministerial running-mate. It was also a precedent. But Anura too was now campaigning against Mahinda instead of in their collective favour.
Translated, it meant that the sister-brother duo was indirectly helping Ranil to defeat the candidate of the party that their father, slain prime minister S W R D Bandaranaike had founded, and which their mother, Sirimavo, the first woman head of government in the post-War world, had nurtured.
The reasons were unclear ,but the speculation was that the Bandaranaike siblings felt suddenly uncomfortable to hand over the mantle to the rugged Rajapaksas, whose late father and his elder brother had stood shoulder to shoulder with their father in forming and promoting the SLFP in its formative days in the early 1950s.
‘Now that they are out to have you defeated, why don’t you declare that Anura won’t be your prime minister when elected,’ a member of Mahinda’s close-knit campaign team reportedly told him. Others expressed similar views, and they were the ones whom Mahinda had once told would have to carry him on their shoulders to put him on the president’s seat — and that he was not given to hard work, especially waking up long hours in the night, like almost all of them did.
Mahinda was in a pensive mood and would not comment. But egged on, he finally had this much to say: ‘I did not wait all these years, carefully calculating my chances and climbing up the ladder one step after another, just to lose it all in this final hour. Let the election be over, the results come, and I become the president. Then, I will show them who I really am…’ Or, so goes the narrative.
On his 60th birthday, November 18, 2005, Mahinda was elected president and he took over the next day. In those 24 hours, he made his first major political announcement. That Anura would not be his prime minister.
In the early days, he made a major foreign-cum-investment policy announcement. That his government was going back on the Hambantota Port project, which CBK as president had offered to China, and was opening it up all over again for the consideration of the Indian neighbour.
Most critics of Mahinda in India, though aware of his decision, play it down to show as if China was his choice. It was in a way India’s choice as it turned down the offer both by Chandrika and MR, as Mahinda is known — and for good reason.
The project, Indian experts had already found, would be uneconomical though New Delhi at the time had not calculated the perceived strategic potential of the same for a historic adversary like China with its post-Cold War expansionist agenda, as outlined by its ‘String of Pearls’ encirclement policy.
President Mahinda did not stop with dumping Anura. As subsequent events showed, he embarrassed Chandrika repeatedly, politically and otherwise. He had the SLFP amend the party byelaws to make the person holding the highest elected office in government its president.
It’s a provision that subsequently caused him to lose the party post when he lost the national presidency in elections 2015 to one-time trusted deputy, Maithripala Sirisena, both still continuing in the same party.
Likewise, he soon dumped his foreign minister, the late Mangala Samaraweera, said to be the architect of his poll campaign.
In particular, locals and foreigners were stunned by the very imaginative and even more powerful campaign cut-out. It showed an all-white outline map of Sri Lanka — the striking visual representation of this Buddhism majority nation — wrapped in the Rajapaksa family’s trademark kurukkan satta, or maroon-coloured shawl that Mahinda to begin with had inherited from his father and uncle, in the colour of millet, his people’s staple food in their southern-most Ruhuna kingdom from the past.
And Mangala’s possible sin? Together with President Chandrika, he as the ports and fisheries minister, had sidestepped Prime Minister Mahinda, who was occupying a sinecure position in the government, on many matters, including the Hambantota deal, in the Rajapaksas’s native district. Or, so was it believed though none of the stakeholders are known to have spoken about it in public.
It did not stop there, either. Truth be acknowledged, and every Rajapaksa is believed to have acknowledged it all the same, Mahinda’s 2005 poll victory, that too by a wafer-thin majority in a nation-wide direct election, became possible only because of the wholesale boycott by the Tamils in the North and the East, that too when the Norway-facilitated ceasefire agreement was in force.
The Tamil boycott became only possible because of a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam diktat, for violating which they reportedly chopped off the right hand of the only man who was emboldened to cast his vote. Indications were that left to themselves, the Tamils would have voted for Ranil, and particularly against Mahinda.
As has since been reported widely, the Rajapaksas ‘purchased’ the LTTE’s ban order for Tamil voters, by literally bribing the dreaded Prabhakaran leadership with millions of rupees. It was even rumoured that the LTTE’s revival of the war, by occupying the Maavil Aaru irrigation waterhead in the Eastern Province in 2006, owed to the delayed payment of the second instalment, months after Mahinda had become president.
Whether true or not, that false step by the LTTE led to its complete annihilation three years later, in May 2009.
Does it all mean that the Rajapaksas were/are vengeful? The answer is yes-and-no. The former is also the public perception. But as the public face of the clan, Mahinda Rajapaksa has been a ‘political animal’, biding his time. Up to a point, that time, including those was filing election nominations, taking office et al depended on his favourite astrologer Sumunadasa Abeygunawardena.
Once he fixed the date for the advanced presidential poll of 2015, and early indications were that incumbent Mahinda was going to lose, the astrologer got himself hospitalised, as if not to invite the wrath of the Rajapaksas.
Yet, when Rajapaksa went meanly after Gota’s choice of wartime army commander Sarath Fonseka — now field marshal and Opposition parliamentarian — the question of vengefulness did crop up and has refused to die.
The explanation that Fonseka, in the closing weeks and months of the war, began exceeding his brief and authority, and began speaking on policy matters, was the cause behind the Rajapaksas (and also others belonging to the political class) suspecting his electoral ambitions, has not washed since.
It owes even more to the way they hunted down Fonseka and humiliated him, by ordering his elaborate cashiering after sending him to prison on what was said to be trumped-up graft charges.
But that was also possibly one occasion of the kind that the nation does not want to forget, just as the present-day protestors do not want to give up on branding Basil Rajapaksa especially as ‘corrupt’, dating mainly back to Mahinda’s early days as president.
The unsaid explanation was that the party needed money to face parliamentary elections and others, and also shore up the badly-missed majority in the House, so as to ensure a stable government ahead of moving ahead on the ethnic issue — peace if the LTTE also sued for the same, or war if it had to be.
But the latter had to be a fight-to-the-finish, as the armed forces had briefed both candidates ahead of the 2005 presidential polls, and where Mahinda was still untested compared to Ranil’s one-step-forward-two-steps-backward approach, whether it was war or peace.
Things have not been the same since for the Rajapaksas since, starting with Mahinda. Until the current economic crisis that has taken the shape of public protests for his brother Gotabaya’s exit as president over the upstart-like mismanagement of the economy, and which the political Opposition has since hijacked, Mahinda remained the single-most popular leader in the country, averaging a personal loyalty of 40-45 per cent vote share.
It was also this vote share that helped Gotabaya, a retired lieutenant colonel who returned to take charge as the all-important defence secretary when Mahinda came to power, to bag the presidency in 2019.
Gota is a self-confessed non-politician, lacking tact, patience and a feel for the ground, as only his brother Mahinda has had for any leader in his place over for decades.
Because the re-amended constitution barred Mahinda from seeking another term after personally changed laws had helped him to contest — and lose — a third time in 2015, Gota became the family’s inevitable choice.
A reluctant Gota also had reasons to enter politics, after the predecessor government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — otherwise daggers drawn at each other — went after Brothers Gota and Basil, who was monitoring post-war economic rehabilitation and a host of other socio-economic infrastructural schemes of the Mahinda dispensation (2005-2015).
Unsure of what the US, where he held a ‘dual citizenship’, permitted under the Sri Lankan constitution, would do in terms of hauling him up under domestic laws for alleged war crimes and worse, Gota reluctantly gave up his American citizenship to contest as the presidential candidate of the family-run Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the breakaway majority party of the Bandaranaikes’s SLFP.
Needless to say, he won it very creditably. Part of his victory owed also to his image as a tough and no-nonsense man capable of restoring the sense of security-confidence that the ‘Sinhala nation’ had lost only months earlier, in the 2019 Easter serial blasts. This also meant that he hoped to strike a personal image independent of that of brother Mahinda, but without the latter’s political elan.
If nothing else, when the global pandemic and the lockdown hit the island nation, his military background gave President Gota the tact and tool to ensure even if a chaotic implementation of the Covid protocols, but without any clue on handling the engulfing economic-cum-forex crises. His bunch of pre-poll advisors from diverse fields, forming independent think-tanks to call their own, and some of whom had been inducted into parliament and also the ministry, had next to no clue to it all.
Gota’s compulsive trait to prove his mettle may have added to the national distress, as almost unilaterally he pushed the family first, the government and parliament later, to adopt his skewed economic policies, which were either regressive or plain or thoughtless, or both.
Ahead of the 2020 parliamentary polls, the government announced huge tax and duty cuts, which took away 25 per cent of the revenues, all in the name of helping people in the midst of Covid pandemic.
Of course, it added only to ‘legacy issues’ caused by successive governments since the 1970s, with economic reforms first ‘killing’ the nation’s mainstay agriculture and dairy industries, and a host of others, to be followed by China’s ‘debt trap’ development funding in the Mahinda era, which also denied all jobs and family incomes that should have come with such huge investments.
Adding to the Rajapaksas’s woes, Gota inducted Basil as finance minister, taking the portfolio away from PM Mahinda, as if the two were ganging up against the other — but ending up relieving the latter who was no more seen to be in pink of health, of all the current criticisms on fiscal management, leading to Basil’s sacking.
Of course, internal criticism about Basil within the ruling SLPP combine owed not initially to economic mismanagement or even his US citizenship, which radical allies still refused to accept, given their ever dwindling socialist background.
In reality, they did not like Basil’s organisational skills, which aimed at sharing as many seats with the allies as Mahinda had got them used to. In the end, these allies fired the first salvos against the Rajapaksas, leading to the present national demand for the exit of all Rajapaksas from government and politics, after Mahinda alone had mastered to manage troublesome allies with tact but at the same time chipping whatever vote base they still had.
Where does it all leave the Rajapaksas? Definitely in the dumps for now.
The family had not hoped to return to power for a long time after Mahinda lost the election in 2015, but their political rivals conspired to make it possible. In between, they had promoted Mahinda’s ever-willing son Namal Rajapaksa — whose mother Shiranthi was as ambitious as the father was reportedly sceptical — to be able to dig in deep for a future presidency 20 years or so hence.
Today, that dream may lie shattered, but the Rajapaksas are not incapable of picking up the pieces and putting together an act that their disparate opponents seem incapable of doing — or, retaining, as they alone had shown since Mahinda lost power in 2015.
Another problem for them all, starting with the Rajapaksas who are still in power just now, is that the nation as a whole lacks an economic vision, and more so a consensus, as neighbouring India achieved when faced with a similar forex crisis in 1991.
None of them has a competent economic administrator like Manmohan Singh to be elevated as finance minister, nor a prime minister like P V Narasimha Rao — with an ‘after-me-the-deluge’ politico-electoral philosophy — who had the tact to manage a majority that did not exist and yet carry the party and the nation with him, all the same.
But does the family have in it to hold together after taking all the blame for ‘family rule’ — which is not true in every which way?
In the past, the oldest of the four Rajapaksa siblings, Chamal, was known to be playing the family headman, even on political and administrative affairs, if the other three had differences. That was even when Gota and Basil preferred yielding to Mahinda’s instincts to their own analyses — that was until those instincts worked, until after the end of the ethnic war, so to say.
It was this role of the family elder that brought in Chamal to be parliament speaker in Mahinda’s time and a cabinet minister with additional departments to handle under President Gota. This, coupled also with the induction of Namal and Chamal’s son Shasheendra into the Gota ministry that strengthened the criticism of ‘family rule’, which now the street-protestors want ended, and for good.
It is anybody’s guess why the Rajapaksas wanted them all in the government, to the near exclusion of long-serving party colleagues in important governmental and organisational positions. Yes, they may have had their defence, if not justification, initially when it began in 2005.
Little known to non-Sri Lankans, the ‘Colombo Seven’ elite that used to control the government and polity since before independence had scant regard for anyone who was not a Kandyan, Hill Country Govigama by caste.
The so-called upper caste, the Govigamas, otherwise a village-based farming community, unlike their Brahmin equivalents in India, for instance, are also numerically the largest (nearly 60 per cent of all Sinhala-Buddhists belong to it). When the rest are relatively weak, jointly and severally, the majority has to cause internal divisions and hierarchy.
In this case, the Hill Country Govigamas would not accept the Ruhuna-based plains Govigamas, to which sect the Rajapaksas belong, whatever the political and administrative hierarchy. This meant that in their first term in office, the Rajapaksas kept inducting trusted friends in positions of importance, including foreign missions, appointing those who were not career diplomats as envoys and their deputies.
To an extent, this applied to the armed forces also, where Fonseka was not a Govigama of any kind and skipped seniority.
Whether justified or not, it may have made some personal sense in Mahinda’s first term, when he was determined to ensure political stability and administrative continuity, to ensure that the LTTE war was fought to the last bullet and the government forces won an unassailable victory, which the nation needed and deserved — independent of the cost in human lives and human rights that it entailed.
Yet, for them to continue with what became a habit, to have all Rajapaksas in all important positions of power and pelf, meant that when their stars are down and out, as it is now, the nation would conspire to chase them out of government, if not politics. And that’s what’s happening now!
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator.
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