By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“An hereditary governor is as inconsistent as an hereditary author.” – Tome Paine (Rights of Man)
Does the ascension of Maithripala Sirisena to the leadership of the SLFP mark the definitive end of hereditary rule in Lankan politics? Will Maithripala Sirisena and Nimal Siripala de Silva succeed in doing what Mahinda Rajapaksa should have done – transform the SLFP from a semi-feudal entity into a modern democratic party?
For more than half a century, the SLFP was headed by three members of one single family – the Bandaranaikes. When Mahinda Rajapaksa took over the party leadership from Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, he had a unique opportunity to do for the SLFP what JR Jayewardene did for the UNP: end the monopoly rule of the founding-family and break the mould of hereditary leadership.
Mahinda Rajapaksa ended the monopoly rule of the SLFP’s founding-family but he did not break the mould of hereditary leadership. He de-Bandaranaikised the SLFP and turned it into a Rajapaksa party.
The first clear signs of this transformation, like that of hailing Mahinda Rajapaksa as ‘High King’ (Maha Rajaneni), appeared soon after the victorious end of the war. At the November 2009 SLFP Convention, two main themes predominated: Mahinda Rajapaksa is the Leader-Hero-Saviour of the nation; the SLFP is a Bandaranaike-Rajapaksa party. According to this revised history DA Rajapaksa was the political-sibling of SWRD Bandaranaike and his natural successor. The Rajapaksa right to SLFP leadership was established by drawing a line of descent from DA the father to Mahinda the son.
By 2014, the transformation of the SLFP into a Rajapaksa party seemed almost complete. Basil Rajapaksa was the National Organiser. It was an open secret that he, and not General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, was in control of the party machinery including the nomination process. Namal Rajapaksa controlled the youth wing. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was planning to enter electoral politics. Rajapaksa-loyalists were favoured when picking candidates for regional/national elections. Recent defectors from the UNP were given important positions; since they lacked a base within the SLFP, the Rajapaksas correctly considered then ‘safer’ than long standing party stalwarts.
Narrative changes paralleled organisational changes. In the new official party history, DA Rajapaksa was first depicted as being second only to SWRD Bandaranaike; then he was made coeval with Mr. Bandaranaike. By late 2014, he had almost replaced Mr. Bandaranaike as the paramount founder-leader. A symbol of this change was the gradual substitution of the Bandaranaike Commemoration with the Rajapaksa Commemoration as the SLFP’s chief memorial event[i]. When a museum dedicated to DA Rajapaksa and his wife were opened in Medamulana just a fortnight before the Maithripala-rebellion, the list of main attendees (President Rajapaksa, Speaker Rajapaksa, Minister Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, Chief Minister Rajapaksa and Parliamentarian Rajapaksa) demonstrated how fast and far the new dynasty has grown[ii].
Though the Rajapaksas managed to dominate the SLFP, they could not hegemonise it, as subsequent events demonstrated.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa took over the reins of the SLFP from an obviously unwilling Chandrika Bandaranaike, he was backed by most senior SLFPers. This support stemmed not from a desire to replace the old dynasty with a new one but from the belief that finally, the top leadership of the SLFP would cease to be a family affair. When that hope shattered with the creation of the Rajapaksa dynasty, it caused much hidden discontent within the upper echelons of the party.
The new dynasty was even more enveloping and abrasive than the old one. Party seniors were sidelined; veterans were compelled to kowtow to newcomers; grizzled men had to bow before beardless youths. Some seniors were reduced to the humiliating position of having to take their grievances to the obviously unsympathetic/uncomprehending Namal Rajapaksa. For instance, soon after the Maithripala-rebellion, Minister Janaka Bandara Tennekoon told a public gathering, “Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa came to our house. I told him, ‘Son, SLFPers have a problem. Attend to it. But he said nothing will happen’”[iii]. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa revealed his family’s contemptuous dismissal of ranking SLFPers when he told a Sinhala publication, “I can do much better than many of these politicians currently holding office” [iv].
In response to the Sirisena-rebellion, Rajapaksa relatives became less visible in the media while the images of SWRD and Sirima Bandaranaike were returned to their former prominence. Despite these outward changes, the Rajapaksa grip on the SLFP remained unleavened. It would end only with election defeat.
A More Liberal Future?
In his first post-defeat interview, Namal Rajapaksa, instead of looking critically at his family’s disastrous attempt to create a new dynasty, actually defended it by claiming that the war was won because of familial rule: “The war was ended because of this bond within the family…. the leader needs someone they can trust.” When the interviewer asked ‘whether this was a feudal argument in a modern democracy’ Namal Rajapaksa gave a reply which revealed both his feudalist mindset and his paucity of understanding, “We always trusted each other….”[v]
In his hour of defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa revealed the nature of his true interests and loyalties. Nominations for himself and son Namal, immunity for his brothers and sons, an official residence for Brother Gotabaya, getting son Yoshitha out of the Navy – these, and not the fate of his political or military acolytes, were his concerns.
American sociologist Daniel Lev seems to have been right when he said that “there is no such thing as charismatic power…only charismatic situations”[vi]. The charismatic situation caused by victorious end of the Eelam war decided the 2010 election. But by 2015, it has been eroded by a number of factors, especially the obvious Rajapaksa inability to deliver the peace dividend.
So the Rajapaksas’ long moment in history is gone. The Family may dream of a triumphant return; but piggybacking on the SLFP is no longer possible as Rajapaksa-control over the SLFP is over. Most remaining Rajapaksa loyalists are recent defectors from other parties, like Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila. Most of the millions who voted for the Betel Leaf are party voters and not Rajapaksa-voters.
The only real danger is that the Rajapaksa use of the racist card may gain some traction if the new government fails to deliver on its economic promises fast.
The triumph of Maithripala Sirisena is also the triumph of Chandrika Bandaranaike. But this does not mean the SLFP will return to its Bandaranaike past. Chandrika Bandaranaike must be credited with not trying to bring her offspring into the SLFP – so far; her children are professionally successful and seem uninterested in active politics.
And the new SLFP leaders act as if they want to go forward and not back.
The SLFP has a real chance to make an epistemological break with its familial-past and step into the 21st Century. Its new leaders, such as Maithripala Sirisena, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Anura Yapa, are self-made men; they gain their political relevance from their own efforts and not from family-ties. Some of them may have ambitious offspring. Hopefully the Rajapaksa failure to create a new dynasty will suffice to teach other fathers and other sons/daughters that hereditary leadership is a holdover from a dead past sans life or relevance in the 21st Century.
[iii] Lankadeepa – 1.12.2014 – the translation – a literal one – is mine.
[iv] Daily Mirror – 2.7.2014
[vi] Quoted in ‘The Demigods – Charismatic Leadership in the Third World’ by Jean Lacouture