Photo via Al Jazeera
Notwithstanding his rise to ultimate power as a politician in this country, Mahinda Rajapaksa retains the mindset of an uneducated peasant , in this instance from Giruwapattuwa. Despite being one of the most shrewd, and one of the most successful political manipulators in the short independent history of this country, he opts to place his faith in necromancy, soothsaying, the casting of bones and the reading of entrails, rather than in the intelligence of his political sense. This is absolutely no reflection on the Giruwapattuwa peasant who, under all normal circumstances, would be a splendid individual and a decent , honest, law-abiding citizen; that is, until he becomes the President of Sri Lanka.
Like most politicians in this country, Rajapaksa permitted a pathetic belief in the black arts to guide his conduct in the most important matters of state. His decision to hold a presidential election two years before schedule is said to have been prompted by the palace astrologer’s predictions on a favourable configuration of the planets. His trips overseas to Hindu kovils to undergo cleansing rituals, the extravagantly crafted amulets that decorate his person, are all testimony to a primitive obsession with the occult, the unreal and the unproven.
Apart from this abject reliance on heavenly interventions, there was also the hubris, nurtured through a decade of successful subjugation of opposition and dissidence. He believed that by eliminating a dissident, one could also make dissent disappear. Political challengers were incarcerated. Judicial opposition was dismissed summarily from office. Journalists who wrote unpleasant truths were assassinated in daylight with perpetrators never being traced. Some critics simply disappeared in to thin air whilst political loyalty was purchased, as and when required.
Rajapaksa began to believe his invincibility, his own glib untruths, his own rhetoric and the lies of the sycophants, the collaborators, the accomplices , who fed off his generous table. He believed that continued aggression was the key to success, even in peacetime. When no more enemies were left, he invented them because the apprehension of enemy action permitted him to carry out repressive strategies in peacetime, which would be barely permissible in war.
He was strong in withstanding foreign interference in the affairs of the country , but he also lied to the international community and made promises that he had no intention of honouring. Despite a minimal comprehension of international diplomacy, he believed that he had the statesmanship skills to play one regional power against the other. Behaving exactly as the head of any criminal syndicate would, he permitted his family and servitors to steal from the nation with total impunity guaranteed, in return for unquestioning loyalty to him, personally.
This , then, is the man who ruled the country for a decade and, when thwarted in a third term presidential bid, assayed to return to power through a different route. Despite the total rejection by the minorities in successive Presidential Elections and in the North/East Provincial Elections in 2013 , he continued to fan the flames of ethnic discord to woo the Sinhala /Buddhist voter. In an inexplicable display of political obtuseness, he failed to add up the numbers on the wall.
As a preliminary to his last bid for power, Weerawansa, Gammanpila , Nanayakkara and Dinesh Gunawardana, together created the myth of Rajapaksa’s undiminished allure to the voter, assisted by the pair of discredited Chief Justices, Silva and Pieris, and the other legal luminary always lurking in the background, the erudite but unprincipled Professor Pieris, indefatigable apologist to successive national leaders. This unscrupulous cabal was supported by occasional visits to the podium by Dr. Dayan Jayatillaka , who appears to have discarded all concern for personal credibility. Another scholar, Rajiva Wijesinha, a man who ardently championed the Maithripala Sirisena defection, has also now found reason to somersault back in to the arms of the man he castigated a few months ago.
“ Mahinda Rajapaksa has much more to give the country “, confidently mouthed Dayan Jayatillaka, in one of the numerous TV interviews he participated in, in support of a Rajapaksa third term. Despite Rajapaksa’s defeat in January, DJ continued to reinforce his arguments for a Rajapaksa revival , describing in ecstatic terms, the ‘Nugegoda Rising “ and other theatrically choreographed public assemblies , as incontrovertible proof of Rajapaksa’s continuing marketability. He failed to qualify that what Rajapaksa had to offer was the same old rhetoric, convincingly rejected by the majority of the voting population for the second time in eight months.
In the January 2015 Presidential Election Rajapaksa polled 5.7 million votes. In the just concluded General Election ,the UPFA, fighting under the MR pennant, polled a total of 4.7 mn votes. That deficit ,surely, was entirely from the Sinhala/Buddhist vote bank which, for more than a decade, Rajapaksa had manipulated so successfully. This erosion in numbers reflects the degree of disenchantment of the voter with the divisive sentiments which was the foundation of the Rajapaksa thrust, echoed and reechoed, island-wide, by his faithful lackeys, as well as by brother Gota, on the latter’s infrequent visits to the podium.
Rajapaksa’s personal campaign paid scant regard to major socio-economic dimensions, such as health, education, agriculture, plantations and instead, concentrated on the alleged threats to “ National Security” through a revival of the LTTE , combined with the renewed articulation of minority aspirations. He failed to see, or refused to concede, that the aggression in the minority approach was a direct response to his hard line and uncompromising attitude.
Rajapaksa declared from several pulpits , that the youth of this country had forgotten, or were unaware of the bloodshed that this country had suffered for three decades. This is absolute fact; the youth of this country, the first time voters, are not interested in past tragedies. Their focus lies in possible improvements to the educational system and advances in higher education, improved job opportunities and the potential for a better quality of life as adults, thereafter. Even if the UPFA election manifesto did address these issues, the average voter listens to speeches but does not read such documents.
The UPFA campaign , from the beginning , was grievously flawed in that it focused on reviving the declining political fortunes of one man, instead of addressing urgent national issues which had a direct impact on the lives of ordinary people. It was simply, all about making Mahinda Rajapaksa , Prime Minister, a project which , clearly, was not a priority to the average voter.
Similarly, unusable airports , minimally used sea-ports and eight lane highways where the roaming cattle outnumber the vehicles , several fold, have no appeal to the rural voter. This was clearly reflected in the Hambantota election result, where Namal Rajapaksa polled 15% less than he did in 2010, despite a 13% increase in voter turn out as compared with 2010. Notwithstanding Rajapaksa’s massive presence in Kurunegala, the UPFA majority in the district over the UNP, declined from 210,000 to 32,849 between 2010 and 2015. In Gampaha, long considered a bastion of the SLFP, possibly for the first time, the UNP secured a close-run victory.
Whilst the latest win for the UNP over the UPFA is quite narrow, the reality is that between 2010 and 2015, the UNP has increased the number of seats from 64 to 106 and the total vote from 29% to 46% of the total polled, whilst the UPFA has been reduced to 95 seats from 144 , and the total vote from 60% to 42%.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat is due to his reliance on personal charisma, faith based politics, factionalist rhetoric and the inexplicable failure to read the mounting evidence of unfavourable numbers in successive elections. The reality is that the cold, hard , arithmetic of voting patterns was not etched in the ola leaves of Rajapaksa’s well thumbed horoscope.
Essentially, as things are at present, Rajapaksa is dead, politically. A two term presidency, a failed third term attempt, immediately followed by a thwarted tilt at Premiership, culminating in relegation to a parliamentary backbench with his son, is not a story of upward political mobility for a man of seventy one. He has always been rejected by the minorities , with good reason. This time, the majority of the majority community has turned its back on him. Pathetically, Rajapaksa is still roaming his fantasy world, attributing his loss to the Norwegians, USA, unnamed NGO’s and international conspiracies and possibly to unfavourable planetary configurations, whilst refusing to concede that the spectre of renewed ethnic strife, a re-awakened LTTE and the possible division of the country, all of which he declaimed from platform to platform, have failed to excite the majority.
This refreshing rejection of extremist rhetoric was demonstrated elsewhere, as well. In the South the abject failure of the Bodu Jana Peramuna, the electoral incarnation of the despicable Bodu Bala Sena and , in the Tamil North, the minimal response to the Tamil National Peoples’ Front – which obtained less votes in Jaffna than the UPFA- are welcome manifestations of a more mature outlook in the voting community. This suggests the nascent emergence of a pluralistic mindset, from the ethno – religious morass created by Rajapaksa and allied factions as well as the LTTE and its fellow travelers.
That said, the scoundrel, the corrupt, the criminalized and the morally discredited seem to still hold a fascination for the Sri Lankan voter.
In Colombo, Wimal Weerawansa polled over 300,000 whilst Mohanlal Grero barely scraped through and Sunil Handunetti in Matara did not even qualify. Gutter oratory and alleged involvement in illegal practices triumphs over a decent man with a genuine vision for the improvement of higher education . Bombastic, divisive rhetoric supersedes reasoned, courteously and intelligently articulated political truths. Alleged criminal associations notwithstanding, Nimal Lanza is elected with 94,000 votes. Premalal Jayasekera, despite languishing in remand custody on a charge of murder for the entirety of the campaign, receives the highest preferential votes in the Ratnapura district. Lohan Ratwatte, implicated in murder, first in 1997 and again in 2001, the latter the politically motivated assassination of ten Muslim Congress supporters, is elected to the Kandy seat with over 120,000 votes. Rosy Senanayake, despite representing principled politics and promoting serious social issues islandwide, fails to win a seat. In these distressing anomalies lie a serious “moral disequilibrium”, which needs to be remedied.
If the UPFA/SLFP is to become a party worthy of re-election, it must disentangle itself from the stranglehold of the maroon noose and totally reconstruct its political platform, which includes establishing confidence amongst the minorities by creating a space for sincerely addressing minority grievances. The latter objective will never be achieved in the shadow of Rajapaksa’s menacing presence, which means that the UPFA/SLFP will have to discount a million votes at every election carrying the Rajapaksa baggage. Until that fault-line is cemented the party will always be faced with a no-win situation in any close run contest.
Recently, in a gesture that was both symbolic and meaningful, President Sirisena handed back to its rightful owners in Sampur, over 800 acres of land expropriated by the Rajapaksa regime on behalf of the BOI, immediately on conclusion of the war, relegating 825 families to refugee camps for the entirety of the in-between period. A similar restitution of about 400 acres took place in Valikamam, a few months ago. In the context of the totality of the land lost to its original owners these represent only a small beginning , as Chief Minister Wigneswaran took great pains to point out but is still a sincere initiative for reparation and compensation. It is unlikely that such would have taken place under a Rajapaksa regime. For minorities in the North and the East, with genuine grievances , Rajapksas departure from the political landscape offers real hope for reconciliation and restitution .
Personally , for me as a concerned citizen, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second defeat within a year means that I will , apart from seeing other welcome changes in governance , at least for the next five years, also be spared the unappetizing sight of a plethora of massive cutouts of Rajapaksa striding confidently in to the future, fatuous smile wreathed in the “kurakkan satakaya”. I am absolutely certain that this is a sentiment shared by a few million fellow citizens of this country.