By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
Any critical assessment of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must take into consideration the salient characteristics that make him stand out from the run-of-the-mill politicians who had occupied the peaks of power.
The first notable characteristic is that he is the first head of state to come from the Sri Lankan diaspora. Initially it was a disadvantage tangled in legalities of citizenship. Later it smoothened out and has been an invaluable asset to him. His existential experiences as an expat in America had widened his horizons and opened up new vistas in his thinking and strategizing. He has acted so far as a leader who had seen the future and is bent on taking the nation in that direction. It has all the signs of being influenced by the American efficiency in delivering goods and services. The new breed of intellectuals he had recruited to run his state indicates clearly that he is in a hurry to modernise the sluggish nation and usher it into the 21st century. His first hand knowledge of an advanced nation would hasten him to mix tradition with modernity without deracinating the nation – a critical issue in modernising Afro-Asian countries.
Second: In no other election before – not even in “1956” which is considered the Great Revolution of the Sinhala-Buddhists — had the minorities ganged up against the majority with such determined force to defeat a candidate of the majority. In 1956 Badiuddeen Mahamood and C. A. S. Marrikkar were staunch lieutenants of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. In that landmark year the contest was essentially between the North and the South with the rural Muslims siding with Bandaranaike. It was mainly the rich, business-oriented Colombian Muslims that voted for Sir. John Kotelawela. As opposed to this the Muslim phalanx ganged up with the Tamils to vote against Gota in 2019. Only a fragmented section of the Indian Tamils joined him. The Muslims in particular threw their lot with Ranil-Sajith combo making the opposition of the minorities a formidable front. The Muslim intellectual, Ali Sabry, was the only outstanding Muslim maverick. An exception to the rule. The “Sinhala Marikkar” of our time. And when the final result exploded the post-electoral map defined this division of minority vs. majority without leaving any grey areas of doubt.
Third: Gota’s expatriate background enables him to talk the talk of the new generation attuned to technology and meritocracy. Mark you, he was in IT industry in America and this gives him the ability to speak the language of IT visionaries shaping the new future. He appears to be a man of the Fourth Revolution who is attempting to break away from the outdated past and make the great leap forward.
For instance, he is not promising farmers any computers like the way Ranil Wickremesinghe did in his election campaigns in the past. Instead Gota is talking of centralising data bases to consolidate information into one coordinated and convenient point to eliminate bureaucratic blocks that lead to corruption and frustrate the public. He is cutting into a dysfunctional system to make state institutions a viable source for the people to use it without time-consuming bureaucratic red tape. Making the bureaucracy a servant of the people is a prime necessity in Afro-Asian countries stuck in the old colonial mode of centralising power in the hands of public servants who assume the role of demi-gods in deciding the fate of helpless citizens. When President Ranasinghe Premadasa launched the “Gam Udawa” he used it as a force to make the panjandrums in the bureaucracy to leave their air-conditioned offices and go down to the village level. Gota is making a bid to implement that principle in his own way through modern technology. It is a quiet revolution without much fanfare.
Fourth: Gota is less of a politician and more of a hands-on administrator seeking pragmatic solutions to the grinding, day-to-day problems faced by the people. This comes not only from his American experience but also from his time in the Army where he had to deliver goods and services to the soldiers fighting to save the nation. Soldiers march on their bellies, as the old saying goes. So do the politicians in power. Both are doomed if the prime necessities are not delivered in time to the places where help is needed most.
Besides, making the state work for the people takes the burden and the blame away from the political masters. Politicians have been paying heavily for the stupidity, lethargy, inefficiency and corruption of the bureaucracy. Example: Easter Sunday attack by the Muslim terrorists. Ranil Wickremesinghe paid dearly for the failure of his hand-picked IGP.
Fifth: His style of governance. It’s a pragmatic approach where he gets down to brass tacks not only to keep the bureaucrats on their toes but also to get to the root of the problems to find out solutions. His approach is not that of cheap populism to win votes. Or of appointing committees to avoid responsibilities and take the easy way out. His is committed to make the system work. Most leaders have failed because they could not make the system work for the people.
Sixth: His sound grasp of the ground realities rooted in history. The current system of political bargaining at the highest level before elections is to sell the family silver to the minorities to get their votes in return at the polls. For instance, promises will be extracted by the minorities to get (roughly) (a) five ambassadorships (b) four heads of departments (c) at least two governorships (d) government land in selected areas to strengthen their vote bank (e) funding for the money-making minority projects (f) protection and pardons to their criminals engaged in illegal and criminal activities etc., etc. Gota didn’t have to cut such deals because he was, going it alone. He was banking primarily on the downgraded historical forces to rise and save the nation. It was the forces of hidden history that rushed to crown him with the victory he scored on November 16, 2019. No doubt, the victory was pre-planned with precision long before he launched his final lap in the electoral campaign. But his strategy was based on tapping into the dynamic forces of Sinhala-Buddhist history that was awaiting a new leader. And Gota played that role strategically and delicately without over-stepping the decent boundaries of electoral politics.
Seventh: The Presidential crown was his second great victory. The first was on the banks of Nandikadal in May 2009. The second victory consolidates the political gains of the first. It points to the fact that arrogant and dictatorial minoritarianism must adjust its unrealistic political agenda aimed at dictating terms to the majority. Gota’s victory has delivered an unmistakeable lesson to all political theorists who concluded that the minorities have the upper hand in determining politics within a divided majority community. Gota’s victory has blasted this political myth. In fact Gota’s victory has stunned the theoretical dodos that were consoling each other with their warped and convoluted psephological mathematics.
After Gota’s victory it is now clear that minoritarianism cannot avoid the realistic politics of numbers that would help them to co-exist without treading on the toes of the majority. This election is ringing loud bells declaring that there are limits to which the minorities can push the majority. In this election only a limited combination of the majority beat the minority. What would be the fate of the minorities if one fine day the two major parties gang up to corner the minorities? Or what would happen if a popular majority should adopt Modi’s legislation of excluding one particular community? Minorities might react claiming that it would lead to violent extremism. As things stand now it is only a remote possibility. But before they go down that path they must also consider what benefits had they derived from the extremism of Prabhakaranism and Zaharanism. In the case of the Tamils it is the leaders who fomented extremist minoritarianism that were eliminated by the political children they bred. In the case of the Muslims it is their businesses, mosques and leaders who had to face the brunt of Muslim violence. Ultimately it is people at the ground level who were misled by the minority leaders that had to suffer most.
Minoritarianism, which can be as corrosive as majoritarianism, must know its limits. It has to acknowledge that numbers can play a decisive role in determining the future of peaceful co-existence – the indispensable priority in mapping the destiny of all communities. Among other critical factors, it is the weight of numbers that won the first and second victories of Gota. For instance, when Prabhakaran put out one boat to sea Gota put out ten. No one can beat that in any war. Political calculations that fail to recognise the power of numbers are doomed to fail sooner or later.
Eighth : This is perhaps the most significant characteristic of Gota’s electoral victory. It is that November 16 will go down in history as a fine defining moment as great as his first victory on the banks of Nandikadal. No other political leader has had such indelible and illustrious victories, lined up in a row, in the post-independent era. Both victories have rescued the nation’s threatened history. Both will reinforce the historic power of received legacies from the over-determining past. Both victories go beyond meretricious triumphalism to give meaning to the future. Both victories mean that the nation has been saved from two of the deadliest forces – 1. from the North and 2.from the West — that could have easily destroyed the legacies of the historic journey traversed down the ages by our pioneering ancestors. Gota stood up for them all and assured them that they had not journeyed in vain. That is what goes to make great leaders. They make history for generations to remember.
His electoral victory came at a critical time when the nation was teetering on the brink surrendering to the minorities who were boasting that their 30 per cent combined with the Ranil Wickremesinghe’s percentage can make them kings again. Ranil had no qualms about selling the Sinhala-Buddhist heritage to the West and to the minorities to remain in power. He was appeasing both dismissing the angst of the Sinhala-Buddhist who were reeling under the alien pressures of the combined forces of NGOs, the West and the minorities. Ranil was tying ropes of pirith nools round his wrist to protect himself and not the nation
In the presidential campaign the opposition consisting of the minorities ganging up with Sajith Premadasa provoked the majority to react defensively. Their threatening political rhetoric and alliances made it clear to the majority that they had no alternative but to rally behind Gota, the only alternative. The dividing line of “them vs. us” was never so clear in other elections as in this one. It was the minority that threw the challenge to the majority driven by Ranil’s divisive and anti-Sinhala-Buddhist politics. Example: Mangala Samaraweera’s self-destructive statement “This not a Sinhala-Buddhist country” virtually sealed the fate of the UNP. In this background Sajith failed to convince the electorate that he was not Ranil’s puppet. The Gota-led campaign didn’t have to do much to convince the majority that behind Sajith was Ranil’s anti-Sinhala-Buddhist forces. He was still the leader of the Party who was the chief patron of Mangala Samaraweera arbitrarily launching international resolution in Geneva against the soldiers who saved democracy from the Tamil tyranny of Prabhakaran. Ranil and Mangala were a couple married to the ideology of undermining the basic interests of the majority. Besides, Ranil’s appointing Sajith as Parliamentary leader only, retaining the critical and overall policy–making decision of a leader in his manipulative hands, confirmed that he could make Sajith dance to his tune.
But the electorate, including the UNPers, was not in the mood to accept Ranil’s failed leadership. The people were looking for an alternative to Ranil. And they found that alternative in Gota. They saw Sajith merely as a ventriloquist acting as the mouthpiece for Ranil. Rightly or wrongly. the people rejected Sajith because they saw him as Ranil’s puppet. Sajith’s strategy should have been to provide a convincing and radical alternative to Ranil.
In November 2019 the people who were frustrated by the failure of the Yahapalanaya to protect their heritage were demanding their heritage back. In 2015 they voted for Ven. Madulowawe Sobitha and Maithripala Senanayake because these two were presented as credible Sinhala-Buddhist leaders. Yahahapalanaya gained credibility as the protector of the threatened Sinhala-Buddhist heritage under their combined leadership. They emerged as Buddhist leaders who would restore their lost moral kingdom. But after winning Ranil hijacked the state with his 19th Amendment and his FCID and went in the opposite direction to the West and the minorities who were out to cut down the majority. Not until the people knocked him senseless in the last election did Ranil realise that he had alienated the Sinhala-Buddhists.
Most reluctantly Ranil let Sajith contest Gota hoping that, if Sajith wins, he could manipulate him like the way he did Maithripala Sirisena. But with the ghost of Ranil haunting Sajith he could not win. The electorate had seen how Ranil had hijacked the Yahapalanaya regime. Maithripala Sirisena was putty in his hands initially. Sajith too would have caved in with Ranil manipulating the numbers, particularly the numbers of minority MPs, together with his compliant partner in Parliamentary crimes, Karu Jayasuriya who holds the strategic position of Speaker..
In the election Sajith had to fight not Gota but Ranil ‘s rejected politics. His struggle to project a different / nationalist image did not go down well with the people. In the end, he had nothing to offer except seeni-bolas to boys and tampons to girls. None of them worked.
There is no doubt that in the last election the minority got what they deserved. They asked for it and they got it. They can’t blame anyone else. The defeated forces were deprived of even the usual tactic of crying foul because it was one of the cleanest elections. So they have resorted to the tired old game of scare-mongering. They are projecting the Rajapaksa brothers as the ogres out to destroy democracy, freedom, liberty, human rights – you name it! But the stunts they have pulled so far – the Swiss embassy farce, Rajitha Senaratne’s bahu-bootha tele natya, and Ranjan Ramanayake’s tapes – have boomeranged on them.
Rajapaksa brothers are sailing smoothly to the biggest victory in their lives if they win comfortably in the Parliamentary elections. They are on their way to the second historic victory of a combination of brothers. The fist was in Poland. Prime Minister Jaroslaw Aleksander Kaczynski and President Lech Kaczynski are twin brothers who were the first siblings to be the President and the Prime Minister simultaneously.
Both brothers are necessary to complete the mission they began. Gota is giving a new image to the Rajapaksa rule. He is acting cautiously to wipe out the old image and build a people-oriented, trustworthy regime. He has been are acting cautiously to counter the scare-mongering used by NGO-UNP gang to discredit Gota in particular and the Sinhala-Buddhist forces he represents in general. Gota is signalling that the Rajapaksa brothers have learnt from their mistakes of the past to move forward into the future. The opposition bowlers are making a desperate bid to force the batsman at the crease to make mistakes. Gota is bound to make mistakes. He did not score his victories in the past without making mistakes. But he has shown the capacity to bounce back from his mistakes.
One positive sign is that the coming Parliamentary election has all the signs of the people willing to give him the legislative strength he needs to lead the nation to a higher moral and material ground. Then he will have all the opportunity he needs to make good the promises he made to the nation. He is now on his third mission to save nation. It is going to be his Third War. His primary mission is to lift the nation from the depths to which it has fallen and lead it to the great heights expected by the people who voted for him.
The people who were promised the purity of a moral heaven by the Yahapalana-ya-kos were let down mercilessly, disgracefully. Gota can’t do that again. Gota has to stand by the people who trusted him. If he does that the people who trusted him will undoubtedly stand by him. He has to do it because he is the last hope for the nation to come out of the moral and material mess left behind by the immoral vandals who promised a pure Yahapalana-yak.
Every bad thing must come to an end and it is Gota’s chance to do it.