By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“….the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think” – Tom Paine (Rights of Man)
Within seven years, the Rajapaksas conquered the government, occupied the state and subdued the society.
If Ranil Wickremesinghe did not exist, the Rajapaksas would have had to create him. Since he does, and Sajith Premadasa is no better in terms of effectiveness, the Siblings do not have to be overly concerned about the UNP. The JVP is too busy waiting for its own Godot – another ‘Indo-Lanka Accord moment’ – to seize the socio-economic issues with requisite vigour.
It is thanks to this oppositional impotence that Keheliya Rambukwella, the spokesman of a cabinet of welfare kings and queens who pay just Rs.2000/- per month for electricity in their free official residences, would dare to say, “People expected to eat without paying for it…. People expected everything free. They ask for subsidy for everything. When the country has to be taken forward we cannot tolerate people who ask for subsidies”.[i] And get away with it.
Logically, the Rajapaksas have more cause for concern about the SLFP than about the Opposition. The party which serves as the necessary vehicle for the Rajapaksa dynastic project was founded not by the Rajapaksas but by the Bandaranaikes. Though Mahinda Rajapaksa is one of the senior-most SLFP leaders, Basil, Gotabhaya and Namal Rajapaksa are relative newcomers. Mahinda Rajapaksa worked his way up to the top; the other Rajapaksas parachuted there, straight from California, US and St. Thomas’, Mt.Lavinia. This wholesale elevation of the Rajapaksa family to the zenith of power cannot but cause discontent, humiliation and resentment among party leaders of long standing, who had spent decades defending and promoting the SLFP.
The Siblings used various stratagems to deal with this problem. They axed the cardinal potential-troublemaker, Mangala Samaraweera. They used managed–elections to increase the proportion of Rajapaksa-loyalists in the parliament, the provincial councils and local government bodies. They also commenced rewriting the history of the SLFP. The purpose was to crease a new collective memory according to which the SLFP was founded, nurtured, protected and defended by Rajapaksas – fathers and sons, brothers and uncles, nephews and cousins.
Take for instance, an article by ‘Senior Journalist’ Dharman Wickremaratne on the 1989 parliamentary election: “Going through my old diary I came across the date March 4, 1988. Place: IRED Institute, Horton Place, Colombo 7…. There is no doubt that the discussions there laid the seeds of all the victories of the present President…. All plans were prepared for the 1989 General Election. It was Basil Rajapaksa who predicted that some day a President will emerge from the South. Basil was the brains behind all the strategies…. Gotabaya Rajapaksa regularly gave advice from abroad[ii]” (The Sunday Observer – 21.11.2010; emphasis mine).
In a familial party, kinship ties form an unbreakable glass ceiling. In 2005, many leading SLFPer may have believed that Mahinda Rajapaksa would do for the SLFP what JR Jayewardene did for the UNP: free it from dynastic-shackles and turn it into a modern political party. Instead President Rajapaksa commenced his own dynastic project. Had JR Jayewardene not included the term-limit provision in the 1978 Constitution or had Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga possessed a two-thirds majority, the SLFP would have remained a Bandaranaike-fiefdom. It was the term-limit provision which enabled the creation of the first non-Bandaranaike (by birth/marriage) leader of the SLFP. One of the first tasks of the Rajapaksas, post-2010 Presidential Election, was to close that democratic loophole with the 18th Amendment.
Arguably the most potent impediment to the success of the Rajapaksa project, nationally, is that non-family members hold the key positions of SLFP General Secretary and Prime Minister. The appointment of Basil Rajapaksa as the National Organiser is clearly intended to work around the problem of an ‘untrustworthy party secretary’. His task would be to do to the SLFP what brother Gotabhaya did to the military: forge it as a Rajapaksa preserve and instrument. The new National Organiser will use every ounce of state power and resources to ensure that the SLFP becomes as incapable as the post-impeachment judiciary in mediating/checking Rajapaksa power, let alone challenging it.
Once the SLFP is turned into a full-fledged Rajapaksa party, President Rajapaksa would be able to appoint a Sibling as the PM, ensuring the continuance of familial rule after him.
The Politico-ideological Glue
The Opposition seems to be depending on a split in the Ruling Family to bring about a regime-change. Currently there is a powerful negative bond which keeps the family together, despite indubitable personal differences and competing ambitions – the knowledge that the fall will be a generalised one, endangering all family members alike.
Plus, so long as Mahinda Rajapaksa is president, familial-differences will be managed successfully.
The real weakness of the Rajapaksa project is that it lacks the cohesive power which an integral ideology can provide. ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ cannot fit the bill; which is why the Rajapaksas have adopted Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism as their leitmotiv. The Rajapaksas are depicting themselves to the Sinhala South as the true heirs of 1956. In 1956 the SLFP presented itself not as the champion of the poor but as the champion of the Sinhalese. Its appeal was not class-based but premised on language/ethnicity/religion. The Pancha Maha Balavegaya was a Sinhala-Buddhist bloc from which the minorities were viscerally excluded. Poverty was an issue only if it could be depicted as an outcome of the anti-Sinhala exploitative activities of the rich and greedy minorities. The SLFP’s populism was of the backward looking, reactionary variety, part majoritarian-supremacist, part feudal-socialist, anti-modern and anti-pluralist. Consequently the ‘1956 Revolution’ did not succeed in bringing hitherto marginalised segments of society into the democratic mainstream[iii]. What it did was to radically transform the character of democratic mainstream – from a pluralistic one to a mono-ethnic one. This is best evidenced by the fact that within ten years of that ‘revolution’ all Southern parties – including the old left – had become strident backers of Sinhala Only.
Under Rajapaksa Rule, the 1956-1987 commonsense, which permitted, excused and even justified naked, unbridled Sinhala/Buddhist chauvinism, has made a triumphant return. Today racial/religious slurs are once again comme il faut. Not even the thought of another Black July scares the Sinhala-South because it no longer fears another war; the belief is that the Rajapaksas can win a new war just as they won the old one.
This Rajapaksa commonsense is not just majoritarian-supremacist; it is also triumphalist and militarist. The Rajapaksas have their own version of the Pancha Maha Balavegaya, in which the army (rana- viruwo) is second only to the monks (sanga).
Since the glue of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism needs enemies and threats for best effect, the Siblings allow their acolytes to ignite small racial./religious fires. These they then put out, gaining relevance as indispensable guardians of the nation and conflict-managers safeguarding order and stability.
Thus they keep an economically-flagellated majority and a politically-persecuted minority in thrall.
[i] Sri Lanka Mirror – 19.4.2013
[ii] Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s career did not seem to have suffered despite his family connection to one of the most strident opposition leaders. According to Mr. Rajapaksa’s official biography on the Defense Ministry website, “During his military career Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was awarded the President’s Commendation Letter by former President JR Jayewardene and decorated with the Rana Wickrama Padakkama and Rana Sura Padakkama…by former Presidents R Premadasa and DB Wijethunga”. He seemed to have enjoyed his full quota of foreign training as well, including stints inPakistan,India and theUS. He was in charge of Matale in 1989-90, Weli Oya in 1990-91 and the Deputy Commandant ofSirJohnKotelawalaDefenceUniversity in 1991-92. He retired in the midst of the Second Eelam War. Since he obviously was not victimised by the UNP, the question as to why he chose to retire in the midst of the war and leaveSri Lanka for financially greener pastures cannot but arise. The obvious interpretation is that he retired upon completing 20 years of service, got his pension and commenced a second career in America – a conduct somewhat unbefitting the Rajapaksa notion of ‘patriotism’.
[iii] In 1956 voter turnout was 5% lower than in 1952 (1952-74%; 1956-69%); it was also the lowest turnout in a national election held under conditions of normalcy.