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 Post subject: Mahinda Rajapakse the political animal
 Post Posted: Sun Oct 23, 2005 12:02 pm 
Is Rajapakse campaign riding on rhetoric?

@ ST / Sunday, October 23, 2005

About two weeks ago, viewers tuning into the state run Independent Television Network (ITN) at prime time were afforded a rare glimpse of a day in the life of Percy Mahinda Rajapakse. There was the Prime Minister in his bedroom, choosing his clothes for the day and then, literally tightening his belt while wife Shiranthi lovingly draped the ‘saatakaya’ for him. Then, Rajapakse explains for the benefit of the viewers, why he wears the ‘saatakaya’ and why it is of a purplish hue: “It is the colour of Kurakkan which is the lifeblood of Giruvapattuwa where I come from”.

What followed was more of the Prime Minister as the family man, watching television with his three children and then Rajapakse the villager at ease at a ‘peduru party’ hobnobbing with the hoi polloi of Beliatte. A rare glimpse indeed, minus perhaps only the morning ablutions of the Premier.

But this is also so typical of the theme of the Mahinda Rajapakse campaign: a man for all seasons, a man for all people, a family man, a father, accessible, friendly and at ease with the masses and before the cameras. And, if you haven’t realized it yet, so different in all these aspects from Ranil Wickremesinghe, the United National Party candidate for the Presidency.

But if the two candidates have anything in common, it is that they have remained faithful to their respective political parties: Wickremesinghe stood by the UNP in its darkest days during the 1991 impeachment of President Premadasa and Rajapakse has always been a true blue faithful of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), a distinction that neither Chandrika Kumaratunga (who helped found the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya with husband Vijaya) or Anura Bandaranaike (who was Minister of Higher Education in a UNP government) can claim.

We do not know whether the young Mahinda Rajapakse, just 24 years of age when he was elected Member of Parliament for Beliatte in 1970 and then the youngest MP, harboured presidential aspirations at that time. But he has got to where he is simply by staying the course and asserting himself at just the right time.

Rajapakse did lose at the 1977 general elections, being swept aside by the tsunami-like tidal wave of the J.R. Jayewardene inspired UNP victory, losing to Dr. Ranjith Atapattu, this being a second generation battle between the heirs of D.A Rajapakse and D.P. Atapattu in the ‘thattu maaru’ electoral politics of the Beliatte constituency in the Hambantota district.

The defeat was compounded by having been sent to remand prison for an election offence, an attempted murder charge, of which he was later acquitted. So, he could boast the fact that he too has his share of ‘hira buth’(prison food), like the great Nelson Mandela, except that the offences were of a different degree.

Rajapakse was in the political wilderness from 1977 all through till 1989, when a slice of good fortune in the shape of the proportional representation (PR) system enabled him to return to Parliament from the Hambantota district.

Since then Rajapakse has tenaciously held his Hambantota seat in the House and bided his time while his intra-party rivals fell by the wayside: Anura Bandaranaike, sulking about losing the post-Sirima Bandaranaike leadership battle to sister Chandrika and walking into the waiting arms of the UNP and both Anuruddha Ratwatte and S.B. Dissanayake both eventually falling out of favour with President Kumaratunga.

That is not to say there ever was a lot of love lost between Kumaratunga and Rajapakse. Kumaratunga apparently never forgave Rajapakse for not supporting her in the leadership stakes of the SLFP and siding with Anura instead. And the fact that Rajapakse has been able to claim for himself, in quick succession, the positions of Leader of the Opposition (February 2002), Prime Minister (April 2004) and presidential candidate (July 2005) despite this says something about Rajapakse the crafty politician.

We see signs of Mahinda Rajapakse the political animal emerging in 2004 when he clinched the Premiership over the dark-horse at the time, Lakshman Kadirgamar who then had the backing of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and some of those now deeply engrossed in the Rajapakse campaign trail.

The JVP faxed their request to the President to make Kadirgamar the Premier of their Alliance-led government and the Foreign Minister was anxiously waiting at home for the telephone call from Janadhipathi Mandiraya summoning him to become the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

But elsewhere, sections of the Buddhist clergy were unleashed, calling Kadirgamar a ‘Tamil-Christian’ and many quarters now hailing him as a great patriot and saviour of the Sinhala-Buddhist nation shot him politically dead at that time, to his great sadness, not so much because he did not win the Premiership but for being chastised as being unfit to lead this country because of the accidents of birth. Rajapakse meanwhile sat at President’s House and literally did not budge until President Kumaratunga relented, which she eventually did, fearing a backlash from the nationalist elements in the majority community.

Whether Rajapakse has forgiven the JVP for this is a moot point, but he certainly hasn’t forgotten the issue. Recently at a meeting with the US Ambassador, the envoy spoke to him about the purchase of a coast-cutter gun-boat but Rajapakse thought this was a reference to the Coast Guard — this being a subject under the Ministry of Fisheries which was handled by the JVP. An annoyed Premier asked the Ambassador why the US is giving the ship to "those bastards". Taken aback, the Ambassador cleared the air, saying the gun-boat was actually for the Sri Lanka Navy and not the JVP run Fisheries Ministry, but it showed the resentment at the time.

But then, that is Rajapakse the politician. His campaign strategists have advised him that hitching his wagon to the well-oiled political machinery of the JVP is the safest bet for the Presidency and he couldn’t care less about party policies, principles or personal preferences.

We see Rajapakse, the political animal, again in early 2005 when Ranil Wickremesinghe, with pressure from his party cadres mounting, at first reluctantly, then with the full force of the grassroots UNP behind him, called for Presidential elections this year in the Jana Bala Meheyuma. In his speech at the conclusion of the campaign in July, Wickremesinghe made one of his finest public orations arguing his case. The President’s inner circle laughed at it, and the JVP made no comment, keeping their options open.

But it was Mahinda Rajapakse who realised that if he was to be the Alliance candidate, 2005 was better than 2006 for him, because life, especially the economy, was only going to get worse — and if he was to run the race, it was better sooner than later. So, he too publicly called for polls in 2005 even though it meant antagonising President Kumaratunga. And we have to assume that it is co-incidence that the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) which went to courts asking for an election this year, is now supporting Rajapakse!

Having decided that the JVP would be his main ally, Rajapakse has tried every method from the mundane to the mercurial to woo each and every vote. He has opted for a nationalist platform gambling that the swing from the Sinhala Buddhist majority will more than compensate for any minority votes that he will necessarily have to alienate.

His campaign tactics have been a mixed bag: mass tamashas at Temple Trees for teachers, three-wheeler drivers and technocrats alike, a poster on every wall, having children interview “Mahinda maama” on national television, ‘personal’ letters addressed to all public servants and as many as three to four public rallies every day.

In the interim, there have been many blunders that have been grist to the rumour mill. Relations between the Rajapakses and the Bandaranaikes are not at their best and there has been some expectation that Kumaratunga would upset the campaign apple cart. Rajapakse’s move to stop the ‘Helping Hambantota’ investigation has further eroded his credibility, or should erode his credibility, the minority votes appear to have been irrevocably forfeited and he may have also forsaken some SLFP votes because he appears to be dictated by the JVP rather than vice versa.

The Rajapakse manifesto that saw the light of day after many false alarms this week is short of specifics though being grandiose in its vision for a unitary state and economic prosperity. It is called “Mahinda Chinthana” (“Mahinda’s Thinking”) and is prefaced by the words of another Mahinda — Arahat Mahinda — saying that he would be a caretaker of the country’s heritage rather than its owner. Clearly, the campaign aims to market the man as much as his mission, more so because the mission is rather mediocre in its content and not least because they are aware that the UNP has difficulty in marketing its own man.For instance, Rajapakse’s solution to the ethnic question is a unitary state, a call to the terrorists to disarm, renounce separatism, embrace democracy and negotiate within a set time frame.

Easier said than done, one might say. But the point is: who reads the small print of manifestos anyway, except for columnists, analysts and rival politicians? The line that sells is the concept of a unitary state and the “Ranil aawoth rata bedei” fear that goes with it. And Wimal Weerawansa and his comrades will see to it that this message filters through to the masses. And so, against all odds, Mahinda Rajapakse keeps himself in the race.

With regard to the economy, Rajapakse boldly espouses a “balanced economy” — whatever that means to him — and promises not to privatize the banking, power and transport sectors — a demand of the JVP. There aren’t any startling economic policies announced but there are promises of protecting jobs and promises of relief measures for various industrial and agricultural sectors, so different from the private sector that had a human face and was the ‘engine of growth’ as proposed by Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994.

The discerning will detect that the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ is full of rhetoric, but perhaps has little realistic potential. But the Rajapakse campaign knows that it is the rhetoric that counts and that the issue of delivering on promises arises only after winning the election — and that in reality, even the people don’t bother about what was in manifestos thereafter.

This is probably why the Premier is reported to have even invited Rauff Hakeem and Arumugam Thondaman to his grand coalition asking them to ignore the pledges made to the JVP and JHU claiming they were mere ploys to get their support. True, Hakeem and Thondaman didn’t join him, but the fact that he dared to do so is a reflection of the campaign philosophy: the end justifies the means.

This is not necessarily a negative attribute; what Rajapakse has shown is that he is capable of being the rallying point to many political forces. Never mind the fact that it is a motley crowd: Somawansa Amarasinghe, Athuraliye Rathana Thera, Dinesh Gunawardena, Ferial Ashraff, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and D.E.W. Gunasekera to name a few — though Anura Bandaranaike cannot safely be included in the list just yet!

There is nothing to be surprised about. This is a man who went to Parliament before he went to Law College, the man who is seen to be the epitome of the Sinhala Buddhist but shares a Christian environment at home, a man who was awarded the ‘Sri Rohana Janaranjana’ for his services to the Buddha Saasana but who also founded the Sri Lankan Committee for Solidarity with Palestine. This then is the real ‘Mahinda Chinthana’: knowing that he can play the quintessential politician, that he can appear to be all things to all people, even at the same time. And if the past two months are anything to go by, Rajapakse is quite good at it too.

The obvious question is: in the event of a Rajapakse victory, will everyone live happily ever after? Privately, the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ on this aspect is that he will deal with both the JVP and his detractors in the SLFP ‘at the right time and in the right way’.

As for the JVP, it is not that they love Mahinda Rajapakse much, but that they hate Ranil Wickremesinghe even more. Stranded as they are, they had one other option: allow Rajapakse to lose and return in a post-Wickremesinghe regime as the alternate government, a Marxist strategy of one step back, two steps forward.

But the red revolutionaries did not want to take chances with Wickremesinghe in power and place with the state machinery and the executive presidency in his hands. So, they seem to have taken a second option — and not a bad one as far as they are concerned: immerse themselves in the Rajapakse campaign and win and gobble up the weakening SLFP from within — another Marxist if not Maoist ploy of assimilation.

Mahinda Rajapakse must be seeing through this virtually inextricable current of political events where the prospect of the JVP jettisoning the SLFP as the left-leaning nationalist alternate to the right-wing, pro-western UNP looms large.

But there is nothing he can do about it right now other than to swim with the anti-UNP tide and defeat Wickremesinghe. Who knows, he may even be harbouring thoughts of restoring the SLFP to its pristine glory of the 1956 era. But for the moment, he is happy to have the red comrades to paste his posters and make up the numbers — albeit with red flags — for his rallies.

For Percy Mahinda Rajapakse — as it probably is for Ranil Wickremesinghe — this battle will be a watershed. Defeat at the poll will surely weaken his political career; the Bandaranaike camp will see to that.

But the real question is, even if he does win the election, would it mean the beginning of the end of the SLFP — the SLFP that Mahinda Rajapakse himself painstakingly nursed and nurtured through long years in the opposition, the SLFP which since 1956 has been the alternative political force in the country? Or, will it merely be the end of the beginning, the demise of the Bandaranaike dynasty, and a shifting of headquarters from Horagolla to Hambantota? Either way, the man from Giruvapattuwa has many miles to go and more promises to keep.

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