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Mahinda Rajapaksa's road to power and the crossroads ahead

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Mahinda Rajapaksa's road to power and the crossroads ahead
A President from the South
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"Someday a President will emerge from the South", was Basil Rajapaksa’s prediction twenty years ago according to environmental journalist Dharman Wickremarat... article in the Sunday Island (21 November 2010) to mark President Rajapaksa’s swearing in for the second term. The article is a recount of the 1989 general elections in which Mahinda Rajapaksa won back his southern seat after losing in the UNP landslide of 1977. The 1989 victory was achieved against the JVP terror and UNP power. Mr. Wickremaratne’s article is an exposition of the man behind the politician, and revelation about a dedicated group of family and friends who not only made sure of the victory in 1989 but also charted Mahinda Rajapaksa’s path to the country’s ultimate political prize.

The article came across as unaffected and authentic among other commentaries, notably,the delightfully tongue in cheek take of the (London)Economist, that managed to pass the customs checkpoint despite calling the swearing-in a coronation;the now routine (Chennai) Hindu interview providing ritual validation of Mahinda Rajapksa’s political-life-cycle events; and the grand perspective penned by Sri Lanka’s ambassadorial commentator, characteristically smothering his country’s painful realities in a haze of effervescent scholarship.

The pith of Dharman Wickremarat... (DW) news story is that the 1989 election was the calculated start of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political rise and eventual fulfilment of his brother’s promise, not prophesy, to produce a president from the south. There would have been no story if Mahinda Rajapaksa had not kept on winning, but now that he has won the presidency not once but twice,and set to win again and again, the story of 1989 becomes an important backdrop to his political ascent. It offers a few insights about the man, his personal circumstances and his political organisation and their interplay with the country’s political forces and circumstances. I will use them in this article to locate Mahinda Rajapaksa in the evolution of Sri Lanka’s political leadership after 1948 and to extrapolate what the coming years might hold for his presidency and the country’s politics.

Personal matters

The insights offered by DW are two fold, the personal side of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the organizational aspect of his political family and friends. On the personal side, DW highlights the extent of Mr. Rajapaksa’s rootedness to his place of birth and upbringing, stapled on the enviable southern food - rich red rice, kurakkan, curd, melon and honey. No, fish buns are no palatable substitute. He seems to have escaped the cultural uprooting that used to be the lot of many a scion of rural landowning families who were packed off to big city boarding schools as the rite of passage to Colombo’s elite stratum.

Much has been made about Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) being an outsider to Colombo’s elites, but it seems to have played, and he has used it, to his political advantage. Like D.S. Senanayake, MR could boast of his rustic roots, although by the time he became Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake had become the elite of the elites – successor to the departing colonial power and father of the new nation. Unlike DS, however, MR completed his education and qualified himself as a lawyer, attributes that were also lacking in Ranasinghe Premadasa. The latter was Colombo-based but he was not a Colombo elite. Although Premadasa successfully built a political constituency, he lacked a corresponding social constituency, and at the height of his political power Premadasa found himself socially isolated. Not so with MR. He has both and he has them where the electoral numbers are. His bases are mutually reinforcing and are therefore more durable, but in the vicissitudes of the political world constituencies that appear strong today can disappear tomorrow.

DW details MR’s work habits and routines and his energy to put in over 12 hours of work daily during the 1989 election campaign – meeting with constituents, taking up their problems with state officials, small town lawyer work, voter canvassing and political campaigning. Premadasa too was noted as an early riser and energetic worker. So was D.S. Senanayake, who was, as Colvin R. de Silva described in a political diagnosis way back in 1938, "possessed of a primitive energy and abundant drive … (and) clarity of immediate objective accompanied by a complete disregard of the methods employed in achievement."

The regard for method and process was the hallmark of only two leaders, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake – although the latter was the beneficiary of paternal induction into politics. Sir John was a blunderbuss, while J.R. Jayewardene tried to do the impossible – a revolution of the Right, disregarding the saner counsel of the constitutional Leftist, N.M. Perera, not to keep "jumping from one constitutional structure to another", when the Sri Lankan people "have got inured to many Anglo-Saxon institutions, the most important of which is the Anglo-Saxon Parliamentary system."

Both D.S. Senanayke and Sirimavo Bandaranike have been lampooned for their family bandyism, for respectively creating the Uncle Nephew Party (UNP) and converting the SLFP into Sri Lanka Family Party. What appears to be the difference in the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers is that they did not simply come together to enjoy the spoils of power but they purposely worked together to win power and are determinedly staying together to exercise it with no term limits. Power spoils, even if it does not corrupt, especially the immediate and extended families, and the Rajapaksas are no different in that regard from previous first families. The two men who again stand out are S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake – they knew the difference between the kitchen table and the cabinet table and did not substitute one for the other.