Rajapaksa's choice: Statesman or politician?

Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa to almost everyone, is a lucky man. Last week, he won a resounding mandate from the people of Sri Lanka who gave him a 143 or 144 seats in a 225-seat Parliament, a few MPs short of the two-thirds majority (150) he had asked for, but a more than comfortable working majority in the House, nevertheless.

It would be naïve to attribute to luck, all of Rajapaksa's achievements. That he emerged from being yet another MP and a minister in charge of an insignificant portfolio in the PA-led government just nine years ago to become the Head of State after a brief stint as a nondescript Prime Minister is evidence that his rise was not due to serendipity alone. As he embarks on his stated objective of rebuilding the nation, it is a journey worthwhile reflecting upon.

He did cut his teeth young. He was just 24 -- and the 'baby' of the seventh Parliament of Ceylon which he entered in 1970, defeating the amiable Ranjith Atapattu in the Beliatta electorate. Rajapaksa's first stint as an MP was not spectacular, but then he was a mere backbencher at a time when all in the ruling party were not made a Minister or Deputy Minister.

Rajapaksa was not elected to the next Parliament, having lost out to Ranjith Atapattu by 6,300 votes in the 1977 United National Party (UNP) landslide and thus he was out of the limelight during the most difficult days of the SLFP. The highlight of his political activity at that period was him being locked up in jail on a politically related shooting case largely seen as an attempt to neutralise his growing influence in the south. His cell-mate was an Australian smuggler.

The Aussie had asked the youthful politician what he would be doing when he left prison, to which Rajapaksa had said "go back to politics". When Rajapaksa asked the Aussie what he would do, he had told him "go back to smuggling". And so, he spent his time in the University of Life.

That was when the SLFP bore the brunt of J. R. Jayewardene's Machiavellian machinations. Jayewardene installed himself as Executive President, deprived Sirima Bandaranaike of her civic rights and engineered a power struggle within the SLFP so that Anura Bandaranaike and Maithripala Senanayake were fighting with 'Methini' for the keys of the Darley Road headquarters of the party.

In Parliament, JR entrenched his five-sixth majority by holding the infamous referendum in 1982 and the SLFP, for the most part was reduced to eight MPs: Maithripala Senanayake, Lakshman Jayakody, S. D. Bandaranayake, Anura Bandaranaike, M. Haleem Ishak, Richard Pathirana, Amarasiri Dodangoda and Ananda Dassanayake. In those hopeless years in the opposition, Rajapaksa was not among those present. He was a close friend of Anura and was therefore only in the periphery of party politics.

When he returned to the legislature in 1989 he was Rajapaksa the activist, who had busily organised 'jana gosha's and 'pada yatra's. Yet, the country was in the throes of a southern insurgency, Ranasinghe Premadasa was displaying authoritarian tendencies and the SLFP itself was in the midst of a succession struggle between the Bandaranaike siblings, Anura and Chandrika. Rajapaksa backed his good friend, Anura.

It was a decision that cost him dearly. The masses, after seventeen years of UNP rule yearned for change and Chandrika Kumaratunga parachuted from being a political nobody -- not even a parliamentarian --until her election as Chief Minister of the Western Province in May 1993 to President of the Republic in November 1994. And perhaps she remembered that Rajapaksa did not support her when it mattered.

That was one reason that Rajapaksa's rise to power was not as meteoric as Kumaratunga's. Kumaratunga often referred to a 'reporter' in her cabinet and there was general agreement that the reference was to Rajapaksa. She rewarded him not with plum portfolios befitting his senior status in the party but with more menial ministries: first, Labour and then, Fisheries.

When Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament in 2004 ousting the United National Front government, the SLFP-led coalition, now styled the United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won the ensuing elections. By then, Rajapaksa had built for himself a coterie of supporters within the SLFP. So, Kumaratunga had no choice but to cave in to pressure from the party and appoint Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister.

The Premiership had been described as a 'peon's job' by former incumbent Premadasa but like him, Rajapaksa used the largely ceremonial position to win friends and influence people. When the tsunami disaster struck in December 2004, Kumaratunga was on one of her frequent visits to London. Rajapaksa grabbed the opportunity and made headlines, visiting the affected regions and directing relief operations.

That attempt could have turned into Rajapaksa's own political tsunami and washed him away: he was accused of mismanaging tsunami related aid in the Helping Hambantota fund. Rajapaksa was hauled before the Supreme Court on accusations of corruption but a bench headed by Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva held in his favour even fining those who brought the action against Rajapaksa.

It was also Chief Justice Silva who paved the way for Rajapaksa to win the presidential poll in 2005, by allowing the poll to be called one year earlier than when Kumaratunga wanted it held. In that instance though, Rajapaksa watched from the side-lines as another of his allies, the nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) challenged the period of Kumaratunga's second term of office in the Supreme Court.

The 2005 presidential poll gave the country a first glimpse of Rajapaksa, the consummate politician. He was all things to all people. He had, on his campaign platform the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a party he simply hated, former Tamil rebels (Douglas Devananda), Sinhala nationalists (the JHU), traditional leftists (the Communist party and the Lanka Samasamaja Party) and even disgruntled UNPers. And all felt at home.

Rajapaksa will probably be the first to acknowledge that he won the contest with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe narrowly only because the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) enforced a ban on voting in the areas it controlled, minority votes that would have gone to the pacifist Wickremesinghe rather than the nationalist Rajapaksa. He also learnt an invaluable lesson that Wickremesinghe hadn't: the LTTE could never be trusted and should be dealt with in that context.

If Rajapaksa the presidential aspirant beat the war drums against the LTTE to win support in the Sinhalese south and thereby win the election, Rajapaksa the President did so with a dogged determination that left many, friend and foe, astounded. Most believed that he would endanger both his political career and his life itself in the process. It is not that the LTTE didn't try to do just that but in the end it was Rajapaksa who prevailed.

No matter what Rajapaksa achieves -- or does not achieve -- in his second term of office as President, he will be remembered as the man who rid this country of terrorism, the LTTE and Velupillai Prabhakaran. That is the strength on which he won the presidential election in January and arguably it is a reflection of that reflected glory that set up last week's unprecedented triumph for the UPFA at the general election.

If Rajapaksa has gone through some hard times to get where he is now, to climb the greasy pole of politics as it were, there are great expectations. He had pledged to rebuild the nation and deliver the 'miracle of Asia'. There are many who mock such claims as being empty rhetoric and say that he has neither the men nor the motivation for such a task. But then, they would have pooh-poohed any suggestion of a military victory over the LTTE two years ago too.

Rajapaksa now enjoys power in Jayewardenian proportions. The executive is his for the next seven years and the legislature is at his beck and call for the next six years. However, unlike J. R. Jayewardene before him, he is untrammelled by the war against terrorism. He therefore has an unprecedented opportunity to usher in economic development on a scale that would make even Jayewardene blush.

Does he have the equivalent of a Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali or Gamini Dissanayake in his ranks to make it really happen? Yes and No. The 2010 elections brought in a handful of fresh faces but it all depends who gets which job. At the time of writing there is heavy lobbying for portfolios, national list slots and of course, the Premiership. Understandably Rajapaksa is under a lot of pressure, but then, that's his job.

A lot of what happens over the next six years will depend on picking the right man for the right job. A case in point is Rohitha Bogollagama. The UNP defector was made Foreign Minister by Rajapaksa when Mangala Samaraweera departed. Debonair he was and dexterous in the languages Bogollagama may have tried to be, but he was a liability to the government both financially and in his job. The cost-benefit of his existence was a negative factor. For once, Rajapaksa got it horribly wrong.

Bogollagama provided an easy way out for Rajapaksa : he didn't make it to Parliament though he is still trying to make a wild card entry through the National List. Not so, Mervyn Silva though. Obtaining only 2000 preferences in 2004, he has now polled over 150,000. We all know whether he is suitable to hold cabinet rank or not, but whether he does will tell us about Rajapaksa's commitment towards a high-functioning government. He seems to be implementing his own law in the Kelaniya electorate in the fresh flush of victory and the country will see what IOU Rajapaksa has to Mervyn Silva, and why so.

There are other ministries where the ministers may have been well intentioned but equally impotent. The portfolios of health, education and trade are ready examples. Six years on, when the gloss of the war victory has faded, these are the sectors that will come into focus, and the UPFA should have delivered by then. People will want not only jobs, they will demand higher wages and better services as well. For how long will we be able to depend on foreign remittances from Sri Lankan workers toiling abroad, and when will we see the end to Sri Lankans wanting to flee the country ready to take on the seven seas for a better tomorrow in foreign lands despite all the punditry of the financial wizards of the government that the economy is doing well at home.

Some would argue that those holding key portfolios in the Rajapaksa administration are mostly 'imports' from the UNP and that the old guard of the SLFP is slowly but surely being marginalised. In the recent election campaigns those in the frontline were Wimal Weerawansa, Johnston Fernando, Champika Ranawaka, Keheliya Rambukwella and the like-- and a true blue SLFPer was a rarity indeed.
Moreover, there is also the infiltration of Rajapaksas into every rung of the administration: Rajapaksa obviously feels secure with his kith and kin in power and place and it is a strategy that has served him well in his first term of office and especially in prosecuting the war.

Dynastic politics is nothing new to the SLFP anyway, the first fifty years of its existence being under one Bandaranaike or another. Still, there could be some dissent -- even if it is not overtly manifesting now -- at the pace of 'Rajapaksakaranaya' of the system and it is a factor that Rajapaksa should be mindful of, especially when doling out portfolios and other privileges for dissent within can have its drawbacks.
But what of the vision to make Sri Lanka the 'miracle of Asia'? One possible pitfall is to assume that this could be achieved by the development of infrastructure and the economy alone. Indeed, J. R. Jayewardene too believed that if he could convert Sri Lanka into a Singapore on a larger scale, all other problems-- such as the then nascent Tamil terrorism -- would be overwhelmed and obliterated. We all know what happened.

Velupillai Prabhakaran called Mahinda Rajapaksa a 'pragmatic politician'. Rajapaksa must know that while the rest of Sri Lanka is with him when Ban Ki -Moon chides him for alleged human rights abuses in the latter stages of the war, the country also expects him to maintain some standards in the electioneering process, media freedom and in accommodating dissent; that all dissent is not mala fide .
By so doing, Mahinda Rajapaksa has nothing to lose. We would dare say that, given the state of disarray that the opposition is now in, the UPFA could safely bet on being in power for an extended run: the UNP has been in self-destruct mode for some time now and the JVP has been given the 'karapincha' treatment (to be discarded after being used) cleverly by Rajapaksa.

In such a docile political climate, it pays to subscribe to the tenets of good governance. Right now, independent commissions governing the police, the conduct of elections and the judiciary may appear to be dirty words but they may not appear that obscene if Rajapaksa recognises that no matter what he and his party are in power until 2016 -- and that they could well be in the opposition one day ; and that modern democracies and their citizens prosper because of strong institutions.

Another case in point is that of General Sarath Fonseka. There will always be some debate about Fonseka's candidature but the votes he polled at the recent election indicates that many feel he is the victim of a witch hunt. And, purely from a political perspective, it would have been better had Fonseka been allowed to die a political death, instead of resurrecting him and making him a hero once more.

The ultimate challenge that awaits Rajapaksa though is settling, once and for all time, the ethnic grievances in the country. An encouraging note was sounded last week when the UPFA polled more than the traditionally minority friendly UNP in most regions of the North and East even giving rise to speculation of a 'fix'. But that alone is not enough. Now that Rajapaksa has won the war he must ensure that he wins the peace as well.

Rajapaksa's greatest strength is that the majority community in the South will buy whatever he sells vis-à-vis the ethnic question. It is up to Rajapaksa to cash in on this trust -- before the seeds of mistrust take root. Some say Rajapaksa has shown little inclination for this but to be fair, it is early days yet, as he has had to dispose of the twin elections first, before setting his mind on resolving ethnic grievances. He seems mindful of majority fears and knows that he is the best person to 'sell' whatever solution to the majority, whose trust he now has.

A note of caution is appropriate here. The two previous Presidents who served full first terms of office --JRJ and Chandrika Kumaratunga, although winning convincing mandates for re-election, tarnished their legacy by mismanaging their second terms of office. One suspects that the underlying motive, in both instances, was toying with the idea of further extending their hold on power.

Rajapaksa, we hope, will not let history repeat itself. The temptation is there though. The opposition is decimated and much like the days when the SLFP was reduced to eight seats in Parliament. The way elections were conducted by some UPFA politicians and the manner in which the state media and the Police are being abused, there are already rumblings of a 'one party state' in the offing.

Obtaining a two-thirds majority and then utilising it for the greater good of the nation -- to settle long drawn-out ethnic issues or to abolish the proportional representation system of voting, for instance --is laudable. But invariably, other items on the agenda -- such as winning the next election-- will be touted as being more important, especially by hangers on who would want to extend their tenure in power.

President Rajapaksa, we must hope, will have the courage to say 'no' to such suggestions. By winning the war against terror within four years of assuming office, Rajapaksa has set high standards for himself. And, now the country waits for him to deliver on his promises of an economic re-awakening and a resurgent, united nation. And, because his pedestal is so high, he cannot afford to fail and fall. Things can go wonderfully right, or horribly wrong.

In the last four and half years that he was President, Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa has amply demonstrated that he is a political animal who combines the cunning of J.R. Jayewardene, the ruthless determination of Ranasinghe Premadasa, the easy-going demeanour of D.B. Wijetunga and the effortless charm of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The time has now come for Mahinda Rajapaksa to be his own man and make a lasting impression for posterity. And, it would be a great tragedy for the country if that impression is confined to defeating terrorism. That would mean that he too, like JRJ and CBK before him, has failed at his final hurdle, that of making his second term of office count for the betterment of the next generation -- not only his, but that of his country's as well.

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