Image from: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

“Terror continuous dark terror

against the fragile human land…”

Zbigniew Herbert (To Marcus Aurelius)

Had Sri Lanka a parliamentary system of governance, the Rajapaksas would have been out by now. Thanks to the executive presidency, a political resolution is impossible despite the churning crises, and the national nightmare is unlikely to end this side of 2024. As Nihal Jayawickrama reminds us in his recent piece, a presidential election is constitutionally impossible until November 2023 and a parliamentary election until March 2023. 

Even if the impossible happens, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigns, his successor will be chosen not by the electorate but by the parliament. Since the 20th Amendment retained the term-limit provision, Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot be the president again. In a parliamentary vote, the SLPP’s nominee is likely to win, especially since the bitterly divided opposition will field at least two candidates. If so, Basil Rajapaksa – not Sajith Premadasa or Anura Kumara Dissanayke – will be the next president. 

This unbreakable constitutional logjam raises questions about oppositional tactics. Is this the time for massive public demonstrations? Other than one-upmanship and pleasing the faithful, what is the purpose of such demonstrations? You don’t need to tell a nation of queues that the government has failed. And transporting tens of thousands of people to Colombo using hired buses when the ordinary voter is waiting in a queue for a few litres of fuel is not the most empathetic, or politically savvy thing to do, is it?

The collective public temper is frayed. The safety catches are off. The slightest accidental incident can give rise to an explosion. An outbreak of violence will not bring down the government; it will merely add another layer of pain onto an already suffering populace. If there’s a shooting, the victims will be ordinary people, the leaders will be whisked to safety.

Instead of theatrics, the opposition should use the opportunity afforded by the unprecedented multiple crises to chart a new course for Sri Lanka. This is not the time for stirring slogans, but for workable ideas. How can the economy be resuscitated without heaping more burdens on the poor and the middle classes? How can democracy be restored, together with values necessary for its survival, starting with tolerance and rational thinking? How can ethnic and religious wounds be healed, and a Lankan identity created on the basis of equality? Perhaps most importantly, how best to use this moment to make a majority of Sinhala-Buddhists understand that the country became stranded in this socio-economic desert because they chased the mirage of a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist paradise? 

The emergency Indian loan will not resolve the economic crisis but it can provide an ephemeral respite, even create the impression of a kind of stabilisation. Whether the Rajapaksa’s shift towards the Indian orbit outlasts the loan is uncertain; they may get what they can from Delhi while sending out feelers to Beijing. But if conditions compel the Rajapaksas to cleave to India, a provincial council election is likely this year. If a PC or PS poll is held and the SLPP manages to scrape through, the current oppositional surge will collapse into a damp end. And the Rajapaksas, despite everything, will gain a new lease of life, at least until 2024. 

They knew what they were doing

Call them Delphic Oracle moments. In his one and only media conference, more baby pool than wind-stirred sea, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was asked two questions on the economy, about funding his generous election promises and about the debt crisis. He had no answers to give. That failure should have served as a massive red light about the emptiness of the man.

The adults at that media conference, who intervened to field the many questions the candidate couldn’t handle, obviously knew of the blankness beneath the glitzy makeup. Yet they persisted in depicting a political placebo as a panacea for all Lankan ills. Fearful of another no-show or worse, they barred the candidate from making any impromptu remarks confining him to a teleprompter for the campaign’s duration. 

A word about Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s managerial skills, another qualification that was much touted during the 2019 campaign. The UDA never made a loss in its existence, until Gotabaya Rajapaksa took it over in 2006. From 2006-2011, under his command, the UDA suffered a colossal loss of Rs.1.23 billion.

Elections involve hyperbole, presidential elections especially so. But the con that was perpetrated by the Rajapaksa family and their political and business acolytes during the presidential election of 2019 was unprecedented in Lanka’s election history. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s handlers did not exaggerate the good and downplay the bad. They created a whole new myth. Our Hero who Labours was no different from the Cobra who came from the Nagalokaya bearing Sacred Relics. 

In this political pageant of lies and deception Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila played a star role second only to Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksas perpetrated the con because they needed to keep power within the family. Their political and business acolytes participated because they too wanted a share of the political and financial pie. If anyone of them now claims that he/she was honestly deceived, such persons must be placed under restraint as non compose mentis. They certainly cannot be trusted to show the Right Path to the Whole Country.

The Weerawansa-Gammanpila duo was not mad. They just didn’t understand that in a feudalist mental universe, kings are kings and underlings, however trusted or even beloved, are underlings, with an unbridgeable social gap separating them. With dual citizens barred from electoral politics and Basil Rajapaksa refusing to give up his American citizenship, the duo might have seen a space at the very zenith of power for themselves, if they display total fealty to Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. With that hope, they helped Mahinda Rajapaksa sell his singularly unsuitable brother to the country as peerless presidential material and helped the Rajapaksas gain a near two-thirds majority at the parliamentary election. 

By the time the parliamentary election was held, the seeds of the current crisis were sown and the first shoots visible to the naked eye. The massive tax cuts came in November-December 2019 and the money printing binge commenced in February 2020. The results were set down in black and white in the Mid-year Fiscal Position Report 2020, presented to parliament by Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

According to 2000 first quarter figures, tax revenue decreased by 26% (143 billion rupees), fiscal deficit increased by 24% (88 billion rupees), and public investment decreased by 44% (95 billion rupees). Recurrent expenditure, inflation and money supply increased while private sector credit growth decreased. Revenue collection too declined by 20% (Rs. 121 billion). To anyone with an iota of intelligence the danger signals would have been clear. Yet it was after this dismal performance, and after the regime reduced health expenditure in the midst of a pandemic, Wimal Weerawansa compared Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Mahathir Mohamad.

With the election won, the Rajapaksas moved swiftly to ensure familial succession. The Weerawansa-Gammanpila duo probably realised their error when they read the draft of the 20th Amendment. Their opposition to the Amendment was focused not on its anti-democratic core but on the dual citizenship clause. Despite their cacophony, Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa stood firm. The malcontents rescinded their opposition after a meeting with a ‘sensitive’ Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

Did the president hint that Brother Basil had no interest in entering parliament? We will never know. What is knowable is that the Weerawansa-Gammanpila duo’s open discontent once Basil Rajapaksa entered parliament and was made finance minister. Even so, they didn’t willingly sacrifice their portfolios. They crossed the Rubicon unknowingly when they launched a broadside against Basil Rajapaksa in public. It was Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, who explained why Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave these two loyal underlings their congé. The pair worked hard to form the government, the premier admitted; but that didn’t give them the right to break the government. Since government is familial rule, the message was clear. 

The duo will not be taken back unless they grovel. Since principles are as unknown to them as they are to their erstwhile political masters, the pair might yet take the low road back, redefining servility as patriotic necessity, again. Such reconfiguration is the better outcome. It would be far worse if the pair enter the oppositional space (within and outside parliament), carrying with them the plague bacillus of ethno-religious racism.

Keeping the oppositional space safe

The recently exposed plan to arrest former CID director (and the man considered by the president as his bête noir) Shani Abeysekara demonstrates, once again, that the current function of the PTA is not keeping the country safe but punishing those who incur Rajapaksa ire. In this context, comments by Justice Menaka Wijesundara in Hejaaz Hisbullah’s bail application makes interesting reading. “…four decades have passed and the PTA has strayed far away from its historical context. The PTA, if in its application and implementation creates a vicious cycle of abuse, the very purpose of the statute will be defeated…” (The Sunday Times – 20.2.2022).

The time to get rid of the PTA is here. Sajith Premadasa’s public pledge to do so is an important – and an extremely positive – development. No less seminal is the fact that none of his competitors within or outside the SJB tried to score racist political points by criticising his stance. The composite demonstrates one of the most heartening facts about the opposition today. It may not always be anti-racist, but it does not peddle in racism or engage in outrage-stoking as the Rajapaksas did during their four and a half years out of power. 

Ethno-religious racism was the main plank of the Rajapaksa comeback platform. Here an outsized role belonged to the Weerawansa-Gammanpila duo, with one playing Alfred Rosenberg and the other (a facilely more sophisticated) Steve Bannon. An excellent case in point was the witch hunt launched against Dr. Shafi Sahabdeen in the perilous time between the Easter Sunday massacre and the 2019 presidential election. 

Wimal Weerawansa entered the fray by claiming that Dr. Shafi had waged ‘A War of Wombs’ (gharbasha uddaya) against Sinhalese. Addressing the media from the new Ground Zero of the ‘sterilisation wars’, the Kurunegala Hospital, he accused Dr. Shafi of committing ‘ethnic-extermination’ by waging a war on the wombs of Sinhala mothers. Udaya Gammanpila repeated these accusations, claiming that Dr. Shafi performed ‘forceful sterilisations’ akin to ‘genocide’. He also stated that laws should be brought to impose death penalty for this crime, claiming that many people consider Dr. Shafi to be a ‘more brutal terrorist’ than even Zahran Hashim.

If this duo enters the oppositional ranks, they will use their gift-of-the-gab to gain a prominent place and colour the anti-Rajapaksa space in their noxious hues. Their egregious influence may spread even further, injecting deadly doses of nativism and economic irrationality into oppositional discourse and even policies. 

As economic pain heightens, the Rajapaksas will have no choice but to resort to outrage stoking and minority bashing to retain their Sinhala-Buddhist base. In their current Modi-friendly phase, Muslims might form the likeliest target. The Rajapaksas may look at the recently concluded Indian state elections and see a path forward for themselves in the BJP’s worryingly successful performance (especially in the UP led by the Yogi Adityanath). They would also note that the BJP achieved these successes despite grossly mishandling the pandemic and despite growing economic woes such as high unemployment. Incidentally, India’s Lankan High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda paid a call on the current head of RSS at that Hindu alt-right organisation’s headquarters last month.

Given the possibility of a new round of minority-bashing by the government, keeping the oppositional space safe from the pollutants of racism assumes added importance. As Prof. Rajan Hoole points out in the Audrey Ribera Memorial Lecture (a woman of rare courage, compassion, and grace who gave shelter and help to the persecuted in a dangerous time), politics of anti-minoritism (in the form of the Citizenship Act which disenfranchised Upcountry Tamils of Indian origin en masse) was the original sin of the Lankan state, a sin committed while still unborn. We now have a chance of ending the resultant vicious downward spiral. If that historic opportunity is abandoned in favour of narrow and unenlightened self-interest, it will be a tragedy of epic proportions, no less than electing Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019 and enabling the SLPP gain a near two-thirds majority in 2020.