By Rajan Philips –
Basil Rajapaksa is back in cabinet. He was made a Minister even before he could become an MP. Parliament had to wait for the Executive to swear Brother Basil as Minister before the Speaker could take him in as the new National List MP. SLPP MP Jayantha Ketagoda vacated his spot on the list to make way for his political master. The actor-turned politician was preordained to make this sacrifice, and he will be rewarded, the gossip goes, with a posting down under, as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Australia. Not bad at all for an Actor. Too bad for Academics permanently on the waiting list for an Aussie posting. As postings go, the one who came from Australia is now in Beijing. No one wants to go to Delhi, apparently. Everyone wants to go the US, but some want the US Ambassador in Colombo to mind her business. Especially when it comes to presidential pardons.
Basil Rajapaksa is a roving dual citizen of the US and Sri Lanka. He alternates between two homes and two countries. Basil flies east, Basil flies west, and Basil flies over the ocean. But Basil is not “My Bonnie lies over the ocean,” the Scottish folk song that apparently was sung by the supporters of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” (Prince Charles Stuart) who went into exile after losing a battle with the English in 1746. As nursery rhymes go, we are sure to hear another adaptation in short order: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, and all the President’s brothers and nephews could not put him together again. Already, the government as a whole is flying over the cuckoo’s nest.
Basil Rajapaksa is being brought in to change everything that is going untoward and stop the great fall. But the fall has already started. Triggered not so much by the virus as by the government’s incompetence and ineptitude. Nonetheless, the virus is still hugely out of control. The government is not out of control as such; only, it is not in control of anything much. The frustration among government supporters is palpable. The government’s critics are gloating. Even sedate editorial writers are unsparing in their mockery.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is known to have weaponized the rhetorical question: “Dan Sepada?” That was to rhetorically remind voters that they made a huge mistake in defeating him in 2015 and electing instead the ill-married Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The SLPP turned it into one of its campaign slogans. Now it is boomeranging the new government. A few weeks ago, Dan Sepada? was the title of The Island (June 21) editorial. After the arrest of a person who had phoned the Mayor of Moratuwa to ask “Dan sepada?” Everyone has heard about the Mayor of Moratuwa and his vaccine antics. He is the SLPP type who got caught. But there are Mayors of other persuasions who are known to have organized special vaccine audiences. Then you hear of the GMOA and its jabs. And you ask, Dan sepada?
There is another political meme doing the rounds, this one printed on the back of a three wheeler by its owner, apparently a supporter of Sajith Premadasa. The message is that it is good Sajith Premadasa lost, otherwise the country would still be thinking that Gotabaya Rajapaksa “is a genius.” Hopefully, no one is thinking Sajith Premadasa is a genius. The country doesn’t have to think of, or look for, ready-made geniuses anymore. It has seen it all. And so quickly. Not even two years after the last presidential election, or one year after the parliamentary election that produced a two-thirds majority hoping for absolute geniuses.
The Rajapaksa elders settled on Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their presidential candidate for the 2019 election because he was still a new political commodity whom they could sell as a fresh face. But no one checked his fitness for the job, except, may be, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is full of political instincts. And the system as a whole – election officials, the courts, the media, chose to ignore, or question, GR’s citizenship credentials, because they did not want to stand in the way of a genius. One destined to bring deliverance to the country. Now, the clamour is for an alternative genius from the family. It will not be long before Mahinda Rajapaksa’s weaponized question is flung out again: Dan sepada?
Basil Rajapaksa is the new Finance Minister, ending heated speculations whether he would be given Finance, the portfolio held by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Actually, he has been given more. BR’s Finance portfolio includes Economic Policies and Plan Implementation, all of which were under Prime Minister Rajapaksa. Mahinda Rajapaksa was Prime Minister before he became President. Now he is Prime Minister after being President. MR is also now without Finance. BR has got Finance. And GR has got everything under 20A. Nothing is working – either for the President or for the government. Don’t mention the country.
For a highflying dual citizen, Basil Rajapaksa doesn’t want to lose the common touch. So, it seems. “Though I may serve as a minister, the farmers, fisherfolk, labourers, professions, civil servants and others in this country should think that a colleague of theirs is the minister of finance,” he is reported to have said. There you go, in one fell swoop Minister Basil is all things to all men – farmer, fisher, worker, doctor, clerk! The trouble is every one of them has one grievance or other caused by the government and they are all protesting against the government. Unlike during the yahapalanaya days, the current protests are not orchestrated by political long arms. They are spontaneous responses to unbearable situations that people in all walks of life are now facing.
The country is on a split screen. In one half of the screen, you can see protestors. The other half has been showing government supporters hanging banners and lighting firecrackers to welcome the new Minister of Finance. As if they were not happy with the old Minister of Finance. It is not a new government. They are all in the same government. And as Pieter Keuneman used to say, there is no point in shuffling cabinets when you have only jokers and no aces! And two state ministers were shuffled the same day after Basil Rajapaksa was sworn in as the new Finance Minister and Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-sworn as Prime Minister minus Finance & Economic Affairs.
The two state ministers are Shasheendra Rajapaksa, a nephew, and Mohan de Silva, not identified as part of the family. As the Economy Next noted, Sheeshandra Rajapaksa, the son of the president’s brother Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, might be holding “the longest ministry title in Sri Lanka’s history as State Minister of Organic Fertilizer Production, Supply and Regulation and the Paddy and Grains, Organic Food, Vegetables, Fruits, Chillies, Onion and Potato Cultivation Promotion, Seed Production and Advanced Technology for Agriculture.” I thought Nivard Cabraal has the longest title, but the Rajapaksa scion is beating Cabraal easily by a mile. Mohan de Silva is given a short title – Coast Conservation and Low-Lying Lands Development. To keep the average title length manageable. Isn’t it curious, that Sri Lanka should have not only a large cabinet, but also each Minister should be padded with multiple portfolios? There is nothing to be curious when you see how much of the cabinet is padded with Rajapaksa family members.
The four Rajapaksa brothers carry seven portfolios, three state ministries, and chief of two Task Forces – Gotabaya (2 – Defence and Digital); Mahinda (3 – Home Affairs, Urban Development, Buddhist and Cultural Affairs); Basil (Finance; he is also ‘Chief’ of two Task Forces); Chamal (Irrigation; he is also Minister of State for Defence, Disaster Management, and Home Affairs). Below them are the next generation – Namal, Yoshitha, Shashindra (with the longest title). And affinal families are also looked after: Namal’s father-in-law and Yoshitha’s mother-in-law are both Directors at the Airport and Aviation Company.
There is no point in going into an analysis of the taxonomy or typology of the state-family system that is now unfolding in Sri Lanka. The point is – it is a non-system pretending to be a system. The reprehensible Saudi state-family system has a long tradition. There is no such tradition in Sri Lanka. And you cannot create one by constitutional chicanery. There are no clever-enough lawyers to do even that. There is power, but there is no government. There are ministers, but there is no competence. There are supporters, but there is no satisfaction. But there are people, and they are suffering. That is the stark reality.