The new year week witnessed the drama surrounding the press conference of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe MP and ven. M. Aanada, followed by the subsequent publicising of the news of a heated conversation between President Nandasena and Wijeyadasa. As many analysts and citizens have highlighted, this drama has all the characteristics of an orchestrated critique of the legal status of the Port City – a critique that the government can control, and also prevents a genuine and organic critique from emerging. This spectacle points at a number of realities of Lankan politics that are of interest to the discerning observer.
The Domestic Front
Domestically, this episode demonstrates the low level to which the political class has sunk. Wijeyadasa, as many people have pointed out, was the primary persona who protected Nandasena Rajapaksa during the Yahapalana regime. Wijeyadasa is also a quintessential conservative – his conservatism bordering on the fascist. In his own admission with regards to his role in preventing Nandasena’s arrest, it is clear that he deployed his role as Justice Minister to obstruct the course of justice. He was also one of the individuals who put barriers in the Yahapalana government’s meagre efforts to improve Sri Lanka’s woeful human rights record. He was among the most vocal critiques of the EU’s recommendation to do away with Sri Lanka’s archaic and oppressive laws that marginalise non-heteronormative citizens, and to implement protections to citizens of all SOGIESC. His brand of homophobia equals that of closeted LGBTQI+ people who try desperately to identify with cis-het society and suppress their true selves. His positions, be it on SOGIESC rights, ethnonational politics, reconciliation, transitional justice or any other matter, have never been constructive.
Overall, it can be clearly established that Wijeyadasa is a political gamer, not an actual politician with a clear political discourse, a political agenda, and a political vision. His brand of politics is what this writer may refer to as ‘peeping tom politics’ – of indiscipline, tremendously lacking in ethics and a clear political strategy, of a markedly perverse disposition in his political praxis, politics built upon ‘deals’ and pandering to ethnonationalist, sexist and patriarchal extremisms, and a politics of being clueless of where one is at/headed.
This internal feud also brought in another dimension – that of caste politics. As some analysts have pointed out, the intervention of yet another failed politico pointed at some of the caste fault lines in the politics of southern Sri Lanka. The caste-related calculations, concerns, and triangulations of Lankan politics provide clear testimony to the fact that Sri Lanka is by no means a country with a democratic tradition. Despite universal franchise before many in the region, Donoughmore, Colebrooke-Cameron, the Constitutions of the 1st and 2nd Republics, and more, we still have not succeeded in laying the foundations of what could even remotely be termed a modern democracy.
The International Front
Internationally, this entire saga points at the absolute disaster that the Rajapaksa rule has wrecked on Sri Lanka’s standing on the world stage. As of day one [or perhaps from the day on which Mangala Samaraweera left office as Foreign Affairs minister during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term of office as president], the Rajapaksas have monumentally failed in foreign policy management. The Port City, for its part, was an ‘unsolicited proposal’ imposed upon Sri Lanka by China. By that time, the Rajapaksas had taken Sri Lanka well into the direction of the Chinese debt trap. The present issue over the legal status of Port City points at the fact that at its inception, the geopolitics of such a highly sensitive initiative had not been adequately analysed. It points at the fact that the Rajapaksas had considerably weakened Colombo’s ‘negotiating acumen’. Good diplomacy could have led to a clear-cut, nuanced negotiation with Beijing on the clauses of the legal status of Port City, in such a way that they do not involve major infringements on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa cabal is back in power. The all too familiar salient feature of their rule – a weakened foreign policy [or rather the lack of one] – is once again the status quo. To negotiate the legal status of Port City, it may well be way too late.
Principal Opposition in Slumber: Wasting Talent and Time
In the midst of such a volatile situation, the principal opposition led by Mr. Premadasa is even more pathetic than the Nandasena government. Soon after the 2020 general election, this writer wrote an article making a case for the leadership of the parliamentary opposition to be given to someone who combines high-level academic credentials, a proven electoral base, an internationally respected profile, proven skills as a strong negotiator, strong language skills to deal with the world, and a track record of outstanding performance while in ministerial office. It is this kind of leader that Sri Lanka needs today, in terms of setting an alternative a) to the fascist nightmare of the Nandasena regime and b) to set a new precedent in Sri Lankan politics, markedly different from its long-standing caste-based, dynastic, ethnonationalist, sexist, ageist, racist, doltishly conservative, head-in-the-sand, political ‘buffoon-creating’ nature. Point b) would have helped inject a much-needed new lease of life to Lankan politics. This, in turn, could have helped increase the younger generation’s interest in politics. It could have facilitated the task of projecting a ‘genuinely positive’ image of the principal opposition as a place of opportunity to educated Sri Lankans across the ethnonational divide home and abroad. Most importantly, such a strategic decision would have helped guard the opposition from drifting towards a stance verging on ethnonationalist majoritarian inanities. Most importantly, it would have enabled the international community to clearly see someone in a leadership position who they can speak to, ‘connect’ with and productively work with.
Instead, we have a man of the people, or rather the progeny of the man of the people, who does not correspond to the aforementioned ‘profile’ that Sri Lanka so badly needs right now. This, however, is not in any way a critique of Mr. Premadasa as a public figure. He may be a loved leader among the masses, just as his late political mammoth of a paterfamilias. He may be a kindly gentleman, an entertaining pianist, and a gentleman who is great for a conversation. This writer reiterates what she said in August 2020: if the principal opposition were to emerge as a viable opposition to the Rajapaksa regime, it needs a multi-pronged strategy. This involves a model of co-leadership, with one leader holding the mast in the legislature as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, and as the international face of the principal opposition. The other leader is the one who needs to rally the masses, work with the maha sangha and all other elements in local politics, to break the Rajapaksa stronghold over the sub/semi-urban and rural [especially Sinhala] vote base. If the principal opposition were to avoid such meticulous strategizing and continue to articulate its domestic and foreign policy on the advice of opportunistic Premadasa hagiographers, those who owe their stints of office in high politics and diplomacy to Mahinda Rajapaksa, and to advocates of continuing the sexist, homophobic, inherently casteist, and absolutely out-of-date mode of governance we have, the [Sino-]Rajapaksa status quo will continue to thrive.
Disclaimer: The writer writes in a strictly personal capacity. The views expressed in this article do NOT represent the views of any other individual, organisation, natural or juridical person.