For Mahinda, politics is art of the possible

God's Kingdom, they say, is not a democracy for He does not stand for re-election. Mahinda Rajapaksa was often accused of fostering a kingdom, but Sri Lanka being a democracy, he did have to stand for re-election and it was billed as one of the closest contests ever.

Now, after a lot of hype, it is finally over: In what was billed as the Jana vs. Gena clash of the titans, the Jana Raala has beaten the Gene-Raal. The statistics ought to be convincing as much as it was surprising: 57 percent to 40 percent and a majority of more than 1.8 million votes. Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa, known to Sri Lankans simply as Mahinda Rajapaksa has been elected for a second term of office.

If most Sri Lankan read the mood of the electorate wrong, they would have marvelled at the resilience of the man. But Mahinda Rajapaksa never had it easy; he always had to fight his way to the top and now that he is there he is still fighting in his own inimitable way.

During the last presidential election campaign much was made of the fact that Rajapaksa has forty years' experience in politics. Indeed, Mahinda Rajapaksa, at twenty four years, was the youngest MP in the Parliament elected in 1970. He made his maiden speech at the opening of that Parliament as the "Baby of the House'.

But we almost forget that 12 of those forty years — from 1977 when the United Front government of Sirima Bandaranaike was routed by the J.R. Jayewardene juggernaut until 1989 — were spent in the political wilderness, not even being a member of Parliament. In fact, a brief period was spent in remand on charges of possessing unauthorised weapons, allegations which were later dropped. In jail his cell-mate had been an Australian drug smuggler. When the Aussie had asked him what he would do when he leaves jail someday, the young politician from Beliatta had said he would continue in politics. When asked the question in return, the drug smuggler had said he too would continue what he has always been doing. The future President was doing his studies in the University of Life.

Rajapaksa did make it back to Parliament in 1989 as a member of an opposition that had to take the brunt of the autocratic Premadasa regime. It was then that he stood out from a pack of enthusiastic legislators striving to make their mark that included the likes of Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Nimal Siripala de Silva and C.V. Gooneratne, to name just a few.

He had the advantage of being from the Rajapaksa clan which dominated politics in the deep south. They were the alternatives to the United National Party stalwarts from the area. But he was his own man and got noticed as an activist, lobbying for human rights and organising 'jana goshas' and 'pada yatras', events that helped keep the spirits of a flagging opposition relatively alive.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rajapaksa had to contend with another factor: the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was in crisis. Although Sirima Bandaranaike had returned to politics with the restoration of her civic rights, she was ageing and the succession battle was on between the Bandaranaike siblings, Anura and Chandrika. And Rajapaksa backed the wrong horse, Anura, his long-time friend and 'partner in mischief'.

By the time the SLFP put together a coalition styled the Peoples' Alliance (PA) and formed a government with the then charming Chandrika Kumaratunga as its head, Anura too had backed the wrong horse and was in the United National Party (UNP). Rajapaksa survived in the SLFP but it was payback time for Kumaratunga: she rewarded Rajapaksa with the Labour portfolio, hardly a coveted job as she rewarded her allies with the plums of office.

Rajapaksa took this in his stride, worked on a 'Workers' Charter' and maintained a relatively low profile in a government where the major players were the Lakshman Kadirgamars, G.L. Peirises, Mangala Samaraweeras and S.B. Dissanayakes. After the 1999 presidential elections which Kumaratunga won again, it appeared that even if Kumaratunga had forgiven Rajapaksa, she had not forgotten: he was handed the Fisheries Ministry.

But Rajapaksa persevered within the SLFP, and set about cultivating support at various levels of the party. When a UNP engineered cross-over led to general elections with the UNP wresting the majority in Parliament Kumaratunga could no longer ignore Rajapaksa: in 2002, he was appointed the Leader of the Opposition.

The revolving-door style of Sri Lankan politics continued and by 2004, the UNP was out and a SLFP-led coalition was in and Kumaratunga was in the last lap of her presidency. She had been discussing a radical amendment to the Constitution to bring her back to Parliament at the conclusion of her second term (in 2005 or 2006) and there were plans to make Lakshman Kadirgamar the interim Prime Minister but there were murmurs of dissent from several corners, most notably from senior SLFP stalwarts who backed Rajapaksa and a section of influential Buddhist clergy.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which supported Kumaratunga's PA to win the election wholeheartedly backed Kadirgamar for the post, but Rajapaksa won the day eventually. Someone very important to Kumaratunga had convinced her to make the choice, which she quickly came to rue. Her way of giving with one hand and taking away with another was to give Rajapaksa, again, a relatively unimportant portfolio at least status-wise — Highways.

The premiership was the stepping stone from which Rajapaksa has never looked back. One year later, with the Supreme Court asking Kumaratunga to step down, Rajapaksa was aiming for the nomination to become the SLFP's presidential candidate. It was grudgingly given to him but many party stalwarts who are ministers today, aware of the little love lost between Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa and believing that Rajapaksa would lose the election anyway, fought shy of supporting him openly. One would see them bending backwards more than others to praise him to the skies while the man himself must enjoy a chuckle or two.

Unable to back the UNP at the time, the JVP had no alternative but to back Rajapaksa, ably brought back to the fold after their ruptured relations with Kumaratunga by that ace political power-broker Mangala Samaraweera. But Rajapaksa put together a rainbow coalition of all hues, promised to be all things to all people, promised a "gauravaneeya saamaya" (an honourable peace) to the LTTE issue, whatever that meant, and won with a narrow majority of 180,000 votes-one tenth of the majority he received last Tuesday thanks mainly then to the Tamils of the North been asked not to vote by the LTTE which wanted the UNP's candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe defeated.

If all this shows the never-say-die street-fighter in Mahinda Rajapaksa the politician, what of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President? Most definitely, his strength has been his bold perseverance where lesser men would have vacillated. That is why he was able to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to a finish which is arguably why the country re-elected him last week.

Many may not credit Mahinda Rajapaksa with the political acumen of a J.R. Jayewardene but he is as astute as they come. He correctly surmised both in this election and in 2005 that playing to the sentiments of the majority community and getting a massive share of their vote was a safer bet than trying to woo the minorities. He sensed that if he could get over 60 per cent of the majority vote purely on playing to their ethnic sentiments, he was home and dry. In this instance, he seems to have surpassed the bar and romped home, notwithstanding Opposition claims that the figures have been tampered with.

While Rajapaksa may have cut his political teeth mainly in Oppsition, and been an inconsequential Cabinet Minister for nearly a decade, the best in him is clearly as President. His political ploys are devastating today; the two major opposition parties, the UNP and the JVP are internally divided and in disarray only because he has politically seduced some of their frontliners to join him. Critics of Ranil Wickremesinghe blame him for the plight the UNP is in today, but Rajapaksa is equally culpable for its fate and even J.R. Jayewardene didn't play such games with the SLFP which was then in the opposition. Clearly, Rajapaksa's motto in politics is that it is the ' art of the possible '.

If Rajapaksa succeeded in climbing the famous 'greasy pole of politics' despite the odds stacked against him, we must revert to the original hypothesis, which was proved wrong on Tuesday: why was this presidential election purported to be the closest ever? Why did the media — excluding the state media of course! — even entertain the thought that Rajapaksa could be on his way out?

It is a question that we must dare to examine because in the after-glory of victory there will be many hosannas sung for 'MR' — or 'Maha Rajaneni' as the song goes — and all of Rajapaksa's shortcomings will be glossed over. This will not necessarily make Rajapaksa a better President, whereas some introspection may be more than helpful.

Why then was Rajapaksa considered vulnerable at the election? It could be because there are, there has to be, discrepancies and deficiencies in the first four years of the Rajapaksa presidency. It could be that pre-occupied with the war as he was, Rajapaksa was too distracted to deal with them. That really is not the case. Rajapaksa gave all his powers to his trustworthy brother Gotabhaya to prosecute the war engaging himself in making the important telephone call to another Head of State or meeting the visiting meddling Foreign Minister from the West and shooing him off with customary aplomb. In a worst case scenario, as the opposition would no doubt allege, it could be that he simply didn't want to deal with these discrepancies and deficiencies for reasons of political expediency.

The issues that stand out are allegations of collosul wastage of public monies and corruption in government contracts, nepotism, a lack of commitment to good governance, human rights and media freedom, poor management of the economy and, in the aftermath of the war, an apparent reluctance to enthusiastically pursue a political solution to whatever ethnic grievances.

There has been a lot of breast-beating about the largest cabinet in the world where virtually every government MP is a minister; Rajapaksa could counter argue that it was a political necessity for a government to survive when it could not even get its nominee elected as Speaker. This argument will be put to the test after the general election and if the President can then prune the portfolios, he will win a lot of respect.

The 'Rajapaksakaranaya' of the administration is another bone of contention. There is no doubt that brothers Chamal (the patriarchal figure), Gotabhaya (the defence expert) and Basil (the political point man) serve different purposes but the President needs to be careful especially when the next generation of Rajapaksas appear to be strutting the political stage as well: the resentment might come more from within the SLFP although such dissent is silent for the moment for obvious reasons.

An issue for which the President must take some flak is his hesitancy to rein in the lap dogs of his administration. Even supporters of the President are embarrassed about the antics and utterances of some of them. Rajapaksa might see that they have their uses, especially as campaign orators but their words and deeds often offend the sensibilities of the average citizen who wonders why the President doesn't draw the line at some point.

The lack of good governance is also a slogan that the opposition frequently uses to lambast Rajapaksa. They cite his lethargy in appointing the Constitutional Council as a case in point and claim that the process is being sabotaged deliberately.

Indeed, independent commissions overseeing the police, elections, the judiciary and the public service will be a boon to any democracy. The President has countered that there is a dispute about some nominees to the Council and the matter is in limbo. That is not a good excuse. We all know that he wants to control the Police, the appointment of senior judges etc. His approach is pure and simple " what use is the Presidency if I cant appoint the OIC of the Tangalla Police station".

Now that he has won a second term of office, this is an opportunity to look at the issue afresh: not because the Oppsoition is asking for it, but what is best for the country of which he is now the Leader. He must know that nations thrive on firm institutions and not on personalities who must one day go the way of all flesh.

Good governance does not simply mean having democratic institutions in place. It also means efficient management of government institutions, especially in the areas where the state plays an indispensible role such as health, education, power generation and trade-and Rajapaksa himself would blush at some of the blunders committed in these sectors.

It has become obvious that some ministers-especially those in charge of the Health, Education, Trade and Foreign Affairs portfolios — are clearly out of their depth and are causing problems for the President. Should he win the forthcoming general election, it would be an opportune moment to wipe the slate clean with a reshuffle of subjects for it is not that Rajapaksa does not have more competent men in his team to handle these vital sectors.

Next, as the Americans once said, 'it is the economy, stupid'. These are difficult times with a global recession impacting heavily on little Lanka's economy but the government's attitude towards the GSP (Generalised System of Preferences) issue for instance indicates a poor understanding of its economic implications in a country where thousands of jobs of rural people could be threatened in the garment sector.

The off-handish approach to this issue is disconcerting with high-level economists in the government rubbishing its impact and boasting that we are a nation that is no longer poor, no longer a third world country, that we are a second world country etc., With people jumping into boats and fleeing in shark infested seas to get the hell out of here and housemaids facing unimaginable hardhships to send some monies home, working as virtual slaves inWest Asia, how can we be proud of our economy.

At this election, Rajapaksa was able to tilt the scales despite the economic downturn because he had the war victory to trumpet about-and that is a luxury that will not last forever, so streamlining the economy is bound to pay dividends and must be a priority for his second term.

If the electorate was willing to forgive Rajapaksa for all his alleged misadventures in favour if his achievement of eradicating terrorism, thereby ensuring his re-election, the President will know that half of that task is yet to be accomplished: the man who won the war must now win the peace.

It is a sobering thought that Rajapaksa's inability to reach the minorities has been well demonstrated at the poll. He must question what led the voters in the North and East to prefer the man who led the military offensive on the ground, to him. Even in other regions of the country, in many areas where there is minority representation, (Colombo, Dehiwela, Puttalam, Mahanuwara, Nuwara Eliya, Galle electoral divisions for instance) Rajapaksa has been defeated.

It is an indication that, with his place in history assured as the man who defeated Velupillai Prabhakaran and the LTTE, Rajapaksa should now grab that opportunity to fashion a political solution to ethnic grievances for such opportunities have seldom come the way of Sri Lankan politicians.

In this respect, Rajapaksa finds himself in a unique position: on the one hand, he has eliminated the LTTE which was being intransigent in its demands; on the other hand, he enjoys the unparalleled confidence of the majority community and can therefore convince them to accept a reasonable solution that would also satisfy other communities. As a bonus, he is not seeking re-election too. This then could be Rajapaksa's moment in history-the only question is, does he see it as such?

If he does, one possible option is to align himself with the mainstream UNP — and that does not mean weaning away UNPers from that party by offering portfolios or offering Ranil Wickremesinghe the premiership — but working with the main opposition towards a common objective, that of uplifting the economic standards of the people and establishing a peaceful and politically stable Sri Lanka where all communities live in dignity.

Right now, such a suggestion might be viewed with disbelief, but it could be a thought for the President to ponder in his task of nation building in the years ahead simply because an Opposition is crucial in a democracy and one-party or one-man rule can quite easily turn to disaster. And anyway, involving the Opposition in nation building is no crime and is more appealing than having five non-cabinet ministers of 'nation building'! If arch-rivals the JVP could have joined the UNP in a common objective, the task for Rajapaksa to work with Wickremesinghe can only be that much simpler.

The UNP will of course extract a price for its co-operation: democratic reforms and a cessation of persecutory and confrontational politics, the kind of which we have seen in the past few days but we daresay that if the President is keen on long term objectives for his second term, it is a price well worth paying.

In his first comments after re-election, Rajapaksa told the small gathering at the Elections Secretariat at Rajagiriya that he is the President of not only those who voted for him but also those who did not vote for him. It is a sentiment to be appreciated. But it must be reciprocated: those who did not vote for him too should feel the same way.

The Americans like to say that their Presidents spend their first term of office trying to get re-elected. Then, they spend their second term of office trying to earn their place in history. Mahinda Rajapaksa has done both.

All that is left for him to do is to take the small step from being the politician who thinks of the next election to the statesman who thinks of the next generation (and not only his, too!). It could well be a giant leap forward for Sri Lanka as a country.

But for that to happen and for this nation to enjoy a 'suba anaagathayak' (a better future), there would have to be a 'vishvaasaneeya venasak' (a believable change) in the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa as well.

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