Jul 01, 2021

This much is all I know of Rajapaksas

Basil Rajapaksa returned to the island yet again, and with a baggage load of hot and juicy news. He is said to sit in parliament from the SLPP National List on 06th July. There is said to be about 04 SLPP National list MPs competing to resign for Basil to take the seat. Basil would also be sworn in as the Finance Minister with few other portfolios to position him as a powerful personality in government. Some even think he would be sworn in as Prime Minister, while there are also loud whispers about Namal Rajapaksa being sworn in as PM. Meanwhile there were those who called me to have confirmation, or as some said to have “better or more” news.

What should be told at the very outset is that, Mahinda and Basil are two, who would not aimlessly cross the road without looking around. Nor would they cross from anywhere at any time, merely because others would want them to. They are two of the most senior career politicians in our national politics. And Basil’s political career is as long as that of Mahinda’s parliamentary political history.

Basil entered politics as private secretary to Mahinda, after Mahinda was elected MP of the Beliatte seat at the 1970 parliamentary elections. He thereafter became a close associate of Anura B. When Anura broke off from the SLFP with Maithripala Senanayake to form their own party, Basil was made the General Secretary. Before long, Anura gave up on his own party to re-enter SLFP on Madam B’s invitation, followed by Maithripala Senanayake. Left alone, Basil moved under Gamini Dissanayake, Minister of the accelerated Mahaweli Development programme and one of the three most powerful men after President Jayawardne, As one of the subordinates of Gamini, he became familiar with sub-contracts in Mahaweli construction.

Opportunity to learn practical politics under giants like Gamini Dissanayake, Maithripala Senanayake and Anura B was no little luxury.

In early 80’s when Rajapaksas were voted out of the electoral map of Hambantota, Basil contested Mulkirigala electorate at a by-election as UNP candidate and lost. Opportunity to learn practical politics under giants like Gamini Dissanayake, Maithripala Senanayake and Anura B was no little luxury. Yet at every election, Basil was with Mahinda, running Mahinda’s election campaign as his manager. In short, Basil Rajapaksa is one of the most versatile “political animals” one would come across in our present political scenario.

Though a Rajapaksa, he has a distinct political colour and flavour of his own that does not merge too well with popular Rajapaksa politics. He remained a powerful character in Mahinda’s regime without claiming any public credit for the war that was declared victorious over the LTTE by President Rajapaksa. He was not openly identified with any Sinhala-Buddhist campaigns during Mahinda’s regime. He was not seen in the “anti halal” campaign, did not share sympathy with BBS or with any such violent anti-Muslim group either. Basil in fact was more like an extension of “Ranil-Mangala” brand of neo liberalism in Rajapaksa politics. His type was closer to Mangala’s than Ranil’s, but was better able to organise the Sinhala Buddhist grassroot than Mangala, though not in Mahinda’s very attractive populist manner. That too is one reason for gossip on Basil’s return.

Yet a close friend of mine who keeps his ears close to the political ground told me, Basil entering parliament on 06 July, the day the parliament is next convened, is not as certain as most keep guessing. He had good reason for that. Basil he said, would not want to get involved with the “no confidence” motion against Gammanpila brought to parliament by the Opposition, either voting for or against it. Therefore, he would manipulate to politically invalidate it by shifting Gammanpila to a different portfolio, when he is sworn in as Finance Minister. I accepted that reasoning as possible, knowing Basil as well.

Popular belief that Basil is stealthily manipulating himself to be the next Rajapaksa candidate for 2024 presidency and his return taken as for that purpose, does not fit in with “Rajapaksa family politics”.

But the popular belief that Basil is stealthily manipulating himself to be the next Rajapaksa candidate for 2024 presidency and his return taken as for that purpose, does not fit in with “Rajapaksa family politics”. Basil’s political calculations on cost – benefits of taking direct responsibility keeping him at a distance from main positions, adds more to it. Most importantly, none in the Rajapaksa family would trespass on Mahinda’s political decisions and Basil I knew, was no exception.

Though Mahinda as PM is seen very much less active than his usual self, Mahinda’s silent and undeclared planning of future politics can be seen in how Namal is being promoted in national politics. Recently Namal was sworn in as State Minister of Information Technology and Enterprise Development in addition to his cabinet portfolio, leaving no time for even the media to “leak the news” in advance.

As of late, there is no issue and no subject that Namal is not involved with. He intervenes in micro-credit tragedies especially in the Vanni, promising solutions. He was reported discussing issues in apparel industry with JAAF. He was commenting about using digital currency in Colombo Port City. He had discussed with Custom officials, SLSI and with national institutes related to import and export in establishing a “single window” to fast track trading. He participates at the “World Sea turtle Day” events. He joins Minister Bandula Gunawardne to inspect the Australian aided Trading hub at Welipenna. He also met with State ministers to see how resources could be pooled to accelerate the national vaccination drive. He then comes to parliament to stress the necessity of releasing Tamil youth held under PTA without charges for many long years, just two days before the scheduled Presidential pardon of prisoners on Poson poya day.

Would Namal be promoted and projected a national leader from the Rajapaksa family for Basil to be the presidential candidate in 2024?

My reading says “no”. There is good reason for Mahinda to fast track Namal’s presidential candidacy from 2030 to 2024. If as previously touted, Namal is to be groomed for presidency in 2030, it would have to be after two consecutive Rajapaksa presidencies. No one knows better than Mahinda, for a third consecutive term to be secured after two Rajapaksas is one of the most difficult and unpredictable results in a presidential election. Thus, to keep Namal for the 2030 presidency is to risk his presidential stakes. Mahinda also knows he would not be able to play a worthy role in an election campaign by 2030 almost 09 years hence.

Namal is therefore being clearly groomed for 2024. What Mahinda also know is that Namal needs a strong and trustworthy mentor who could level the playing field for Namal to kick the ball to the corner flag and run behind. I am therefore convinced, Basil’s return and him to be made a powerful minister with the finance portfolio is for Namal’s benefit and not purely to pull this government back on to the tracks as some frustrated ministers wish to believe.

In a Sinhala Buddhist constituency that feels badly let down and is grumbling, Mahinda knows the North-East Tamil and Muslim votes have to be approached to guarantee a presidential victory in 2024. This cannot be achieved with infrastructure development carried through the military.

It is obvious Namal needs a government he could represent before the 6.9 million voters the SLPP leaders are proud of. This government, despite all financial constraints and growing massive debts, will therefore have to make adjustments that would pacify the people. That not only needs a populist economic programme, but a State machinery that can pull it through. Politically that also needs the SLPP local, village level activists and supporters to come back strong and confident. One they have for all that in the family is Basil and no other.

In a Sinhala Buddhist constituency that feels badly let down and is grumbling, Mahinda knows the North-East Tamil and Muslim votes have to be approached to guarantee a presidential victory in 2024. This cannot be achieved with infrastructure development carried through the military. Namal’s intervention in the micro credit tragedy in the Vanni and his plea for release of Tamil youth detained under PTA is clear sign of Rajapaksas distancing themselves from the Sinhala-Buddhist rhetoric of Weerawansa-Gammanpila group. Rajapaksas it seems have made up the mind to gradually change course to accommodate projects the Tamil and Muslim politicians in the North and East would want for their people. Basil comes in there too, capable of re-establishing political relationships with Tamil and Muslim leaders. He would begin planning projects for North-East, that Namal can participate in launching with Tamil and Muslim politicians of N-E.

When I first wrote this in Sinhala, those who wanted me to do an English version, asked why Basil should please Mahinda working for Namal, instead of establishing himself as the next candidate. A website that used my Sinhala piece asked, “what if Basil goes on his own?”

My answer to that is simple and straight. Basil is one who prefers a harvest with least efforts in cultivating. That said, he has been in politics for far too long and carries a baggage to his disadvantage. He has continued and lingering opposition to him within the SLPP itself. His social image is not one meant for elections. He knows all that for sure.

Next “Rajapaksa face” therefore has to be new and youthful. Has to be seen as inclusive and without ethno-religious biases. The best Rajapaksas can afford to promote accordingly is Namal. IF Namal succeeds, Basil knows he would still be the most powerful person in that new regime too.

And that much is all I know of Rajapaksas.

Kusal Perera
28 June 2021

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