By Malinda Seneviratne –
Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t have a ‘persona’ problem when it comes to ‘presidentiality’. He’s been doing that job for nine years now. He ended a war. He presided over an ambitious development program and even if one has issues with the development paradigm he subscribes to, there’s stuff to be seen. And if anyone has complaints about the economy it is more about relative disparities than impoverishment. After all this is a country where undergraduates protesting the lack of facilities take selfies and post them on Facebook almost immediately using expensive smart phones. If one were to compare his track record with that of his immediate predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga, he’s way ahead. She’s got nothing to show by way of presidential footprint.
Presidentiality is not a constant. Things get added to track records and things are subtracted from the same as well. In this respect, Mahinda Rajapaksa has suffered. The entire country knows his face. But it’s as though the President and his backers are not sure that they do, if one were to think of the countless hoardings, cut-outs and posters that carry his face. The in-your-face nature of it all defaces more than prompt memory about the positives associated with the face. Someone remarked wryly ‘Wherever you look, there’s a picture of Mahinda Rajapaksa – and he’s laughing at you people, do you realize this?’ It has come to a point when people are joking about a new distance-unit: the number of “Mahinda cut-outs” between A and B.
Overkill is just one kind of defacing. The man is loved. His brothers are not loved, but neither are they hated. By and large, they are viewed as hands-on hard workers. It’s the rajapaksawarun or the larger family of non-related hangers-on that are despised for their high-handedness, thuggery, thieving ways and scant regard for the law. He has suffered them all and that robs from rather than enhances image.
For all this, Mahinda Rajapaksa stands tall. Taller than Maithripala Sirisena. As of now. That’s because this is about picking THE LEADER. Strength (whether used for good or bad) matters. Mahinda’s got that and he’s done a lot that people can be grateful for. Maithripala is relatively untried. Personality counts. Mahinda’s got that too. He’s way ahead of the field among national leaders the common people can identify with. Maithripala, in this respect, is untried.
Mahinda has baggage, sure. He has surrounded himself with individuals who are not exactly saluted by the people. Maithripala also has baggage. He’s got brothers too. They’ve got wealthy during the Mahinda Rajapaksa years. But that’s still nothing. His heaviest baggage at this point are those who treat him like a proxy and a serf rather than presidential candidate and would-be king. If Mahinda’s presidentiality has been dented by his negatives detailed above, Maithripala’s presidential credentials appear stillborn.
It all began with the candidate being overshadowed by his former boss. Chandrika Kumaratunga stole the show not so much with vigor and vitality as with venom. She was in his face and in his ear as well, prompting the candidate who appeared to have lost his script 10 minutes into the press conference where he announced he would be challenging Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is still to come out of her shadow. A puppet on a string manipulated by The Chaura Regina (Queen of Deceit), as Victor Ivan describes her, doesn’t look presidential at all. When he genuflects before this discredited politician clearly consumed by hatred and revenge-intent on the one hand and the Leader of the Opposition, another individual who has earned the tag ‘loser’ (for very different reasons), on the other, he looks more pawn than king.
Maithripala states, ‘I will abolish the executive presidency’. He also says ‘I will make Ranil the Prime Minister with executive powers’. Together, he is essentially leading us to conclude that he’s Ranil’s proxy (when he’s not lip-reading Chandrika). That’s not presidential. That’s pawnish.
But Maithripala has shown signs that this state of affairs is temporary. When he echoed the words of Champika Ranawaka with respect to war crimes investigations and the possible trying of the President in a kangaroo court put together by the USA and its allies, he scored. He showed humility. He showed humanity. He showed generosity. He showed that he could be everything that Chandrika is not. He’ll have to do a lot more showing to look as presidential as Mahinda. He would not only have to ask Chandrika to leave the stage but get her to retire from the campaign as well. ‘Task done, thanks’ he could tell her.
It must be mentioned that it is Ranil Wickremesinghe and not Maithripala Sirisena that has saved the latter the blushes after the ‘executive premiership’ faux pas. It is the United National Party and its leader that have spoken of a ‘national government’ and salvaged a campaign that threatened to be about distributing posts in the event of victory. What this means is that Maithripala is being ill-advised. And it is dwarfing the man vis-à-vis Mahinda Rajapaksa, self-effaced and defaced though the 2009 image of the man may be.
When will Maithripala come out with a manifesto? Who will be his key allies? Who will run his campaign? Answers to these questions will tell us how presidential the man can be. It will reveal his true political height. This election will be about two individuals, no disrespect intended to other candidates of course. Mahinda was quite tall to begin with. He’s lost a few inches. Maithripala has a few inches to grow. Some can lift him while others are busy bringing him down by getting him to bend over.
There’s only so much one can grow in a matter of four to five weeks. Shedding inches, on the other hand, is easier than shedding kilos. Both candidates have backers more than capable of crippling them. Maybe it will boil down to who gets cut down less.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com