The election of Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the seventh Executive President has effectively demonstrated that the “Ruhunu Rajapaksas” have come to stay as a dynastic political force in the country. As stated last week in the first of this two-part article, the patriarch of “Medamulana Dynasty” was Don Alvin Rajapaksa (D.A. Rajapaksa), the father of Chamal, Mahinda, Gotabaya, Basil and five other children.
D.A. Rajapaksa was initially reluctant to enter active politics. However, he was compelled to do so by eminent residents of the then Hambantota constituency in the State Council legislature during British rule. They wanted him to fill the vacancy caused by the death of his elder brother Don Mathew Rajapaksa (D.M. Rajapaksa) dubbed “Ruhunu Sinhaya.”
In a bid to exert maximum pressure on the hesitant D.A. Rajapaksa, a delegation of notables went to meet him with nomination papers to contest the by-election while the prospective candidate was ploughing his fields. Bowing down to popular pressure, the reluctant DA finally agreed to contest the by-election. In a scene reminiscent of Robert Knox’s famous statement about “washing the mud off the farmer and placing him on the throne,” D.A. Rajapaksa washed the mud off his hands and legs and signed the nomination papers. There was however no by-election. D.A. Rajapaksa was elected unopposed to the State Council representing the Hambantota constituency on July 14, 1945.
Don Alvin Rajapaksa was an old student of RichmondCollege, Galle and was well-versed in English. He captained the soccer team and was vice captain of cricket. It is said the ground record he set in the match with Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa still stands. Yet, he had no qualms about becoming a full-fledged agriculturist. When he entered State Council and took his oaths on August 8, 1945, he became a member of the Executive Committee on Agriculture and Lands.
After independence from Britain, D.A. Rajapaksa represented the Beliatta seat in Parliament from 1947 to 1965 with a short break in March1960 when he lost to D.P. Atapattu of the UNP. D.A. Rajapaksa lost in 1965 to D.P. Atapattu again. D.A. Rajapaksa won Beliatta on the UNP ticket in 1947 and thereafter on the SLFP ticket till ’65.
An abortive bid last year to capture power through the backdoor ended in a dismal failure
Don Alvin Rajapaksa was a faithful deputy of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who crossed over from the UNP to SLFP on July 12, 1951. Five others – A.P. Jayasooriya, George R. de Silva, Jayaweera Kuruppu, D.S. Goonesekera and D.A. Rajapaksa – were supposed to follow suit, but when the moment came, only D.A. Rajapaksa crossed the floor behind Bandaranaike like his faithful shadow. The others got cold feet to cross over in the House but did so later.
On September 2, 1951, the SLFP was formed. DA was one of the 44 signatories giving notice of the formation of the SLFP. In the May 1952 elections, the fledgling SLFP won nine seats. D.A. Rajapaksa was one of the nine victors. In spite of these impressive credentials and loyalty, D.A. Rajapaksa was not a minister in the 1956 Cabinet or 1960 July Cabinet. This was due to his simplicity, lack of ambition, love of his roots and abhorrence for the trappings of power.
In 1956, SWRD offered DA any Cabinet post other than the one to be given to C.P. de Silva, but DA declined firmly and only wanted nephew Lakshman (DM Rajapaksa’s son) to be given a Deputy Minister’s post, so Lakshman was made Deputy to Trade and Commerce Minister R.G. Senanayake. But the people of Hambantota under the leadership of Tangalle lawyer Wickramasuriya protested strongly to SWRD and DA, so a reluctant D.A. Rajapaksa was forced to be Deputy Minister of Land, Irrigation and Agriculture under C.P. de Silva.
During Wijayananda Dahanayake’s short-lived Cabinet after S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s assassination on September 26, 1959, DA was appointed Agriculture and Lands Minister. He resigned in two weeks on October 10 to pre-empt dismissal by the eccentric Dahanayake who was sacking his ministers en masse and appointing fresh ministers. In July 1960, Mrs. Bandaranaike became premier and offered a Cabinet portfolio to DA who declined it. She then offered him the office of Speaker. This too was refused. It is believed that Rajapaksa said he preferred his home in Medamulana to “Mumtaz Mahal” – the official residence of the Speaker in those days. He continued to remain in a room at Shravasti when in Colombo.
On November 6, 1962, upon the death of Deputy Chairman of Committees Wariyapola MP A.M.A. Adhikari, DA was appointed to fill the vacancy. When Speaker R.S. Pelpola resigned on January 24, 1964 to accept a ministerial portfolio, the then Deputy Speaker Hugh Fernando became Speaker. D.A. Rajapaksa succeeded Hugh as Deputy Speaker which position he held until the defeat of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government in December 1964. DA lost his seat in 1965 and passed away in 1967.
Six boys and three girls
Don Alvin Rajapaksa married Dona Dandina Samarasinghe Dissanayake of Palatuwa, Matara. They had nine children – six boys and three girls. Their names are Chamal, Jayanthi (deceased), Mahinda, Tudor (deceased), Gotabaya, Basil, Preethi, Dudley and Gandini (deceased). DA who had lost elections in 1965 passed away on November 7, 1967. Meanwhile, eldest son Chamal Rajapaksa joined the police force as a Sub-Inspector. After DA’s death, Sri Lanka Freedom Party leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike offered the post of party organiser for Beliatta to Chamal. He however declined and recommended his malliMahinda instead.
Mahinda Rajapaksa who studied at Richmond College in Galle and at Nalanda and Thurstan Colleges in Colombo was then working as an assistant librarian at VidyodayaUniversity later to be made Vidyodaya Campus and now Sri Jayewardenepura University. It was during this time that Mahinda got enamoured of left-leaning politics. He became a card-carrying member of the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU).
Initially, Mrs. Bandaranaike was hesitant thinking Mahinda was too young and somewhat irresponsible. Later on, she relented and appointed Mahinda as Beliatta Organiser in 1968. This brought about a marked change in Mahinda. He buckled down to the task and strove to meet the challenge. He gave up his assistant librarian job and relocated to Medamulana. He began working with the people at the grassroots level.
The 1970 elections saw the United Front sweeping polls with SLFP getting ninety-one seats and LSSP and CP winning nineteen and six seats respectively. Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa, known as Mahinda, defeated his rival from the UNP, Dr. Ranjith K.P. Atapattu. Mahinda got 23,103 votes and Ranjith 16,477. In 1977, the roles were reversed with Ranjith Atapattu winning 24,289 votes while Mahinda got 17,896. Interestingly, Mahinda’s father D.A. Rajapaksa and Ranjith’s father D.P. Atapattu had been rivals contesting Beliatta in each election from 1947. Sadly, both fathers were not alive to see their sons become Beliatta MPs.
Those were the days when ministers were proportionately few and the fresher Mahinda remained a backbencher throughout the life of the 1970-’77 Parliament. Some changes made in the admissions criteria to Law College enabled Mahinda to enrol as a law student while being an MP. In July 1977, he lost the election but took oaths as an Attorney-at-Law in November that year. After becoming a lawyer, Mahinda moved to Tangalle and established a lucrative practice in the South. His politics too continued albeit on a lower scale.
In 1989, Mahinda was elected to Parliament from the Hambantota District under new election procedures. While in Parliament, Mahinda along with Matara District MP Mangala Samaraweera worked tirelessly in opposing the UNP Government of the day and reinvigorating the SLFP.
There will be both continuity and change in the new regime under Gota
The 1994 elections saw the People’s Alliance forming a government. Chandrika Kumaratunga became Prime Minister and later President. Mahinda was first appointed as the Labour Minister and later Fisheries Minister in a Cabinet reshuffle. In 2001, the UNP formed the government while Chandrika continued to be President. Mahinda Rajapaksa became opposition leader. In 2004, the UPFA formed the government and Mahinda became Prime Minister. In 2005, the presidential elections were announced. Despite many intra-party obstacles, Mahinda Rajapaksa secured nomination as the presidential candidate in the November 2005 elections. The LTTE-enforced boycott in the North and East in 2005 helped Mahinda defeat Ranil in the presidential poll.
What happened thereafter is now history! The Rajapaksa Government pursued the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with ruthless determination. After many deaths and much displacement, destruction and despair, the war ended with the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. The Rajapaksas cleverly converted the war-victory euphoria into political victories in the 2010 presidential and parliamentary elections. Ruhunu Rajapaksas perceived as the first family in Sri Lankan politics began ruling the roost in authoritarian mode. With the 18th Constitutional Amendment being passed, the two-term limit for contesting presidential polls was removed. It appeared that the politically-invincible Mahinda Rajapaksa was set to rule Sri Lanka for life as President.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” observed Scottish poet Robert Burns. When presidential elections were called ahead of time, party secretary and senior Cabinet Minister Maithripala Sirisena defected and became the common opposition candidate. The January 2015 presidential poll resulted in Maithripala Sirisena (51.28%) defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa (47.58%). A UNP-led coalition government was formed with Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and Maithripala Sirisena as President. The 19th Constitutional Amendment re-imposing the two-term limit for presidency was passed. With Mahinda being constitutionally-debarred from contesting the presidency again, it appeared that political fortunes of Ruhunu Rajapaksas were on the wane. A number of investigations probing the alleged corruption and abuse of power by various Rajapaksa family members were initiated. Cases were filed in court and a few Rajapaksas like Basil and Namal even imprisoned for short periods. Gotabaya Rajapaksa waged many legal battles to ward off arrest and potential detention.
In such a situation, many political observers felt the writing was on the wall politically for Ruhunu Rajapaksas. But that is not what seems to have happened. Despite adverse setbacks, the political stock of Ruhunu Rajapaksas continued to remain on par with ‘Medamulana Mahinda’ continuing to retain his position as the single-most popular political leader in the seven provinces outside the North and East. Moreover, the newly-formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which revolves around Mahinda got the better of both the UNP and SLFP and emerged as the leading victor at the 2018 local authorities’ elections.
However, an abortive bid last year to capture power through the backdoor ended in a dismal failure. Mahinda Rajapaksa who was unconstitutionally-appointed as Prime Minister on October 26, 2018 by former President Sirisena was forced to quit as “illegal premier” after 52 days. Despite this setback, the Rajapaksas gained another chance to recapture power when the presidential election drew close. Mahinda took over formally as SLPP leader and then announced the candidacy of his brother Gota for the presidential election.
Gotabaya contested the election and was elected as President with 52.25% votes. President Gotabaya then appointed his elder brother Mahinda as Prime Minister and also as minister in charge of several portfolios including finance. Furthermore, Gota appointed his eldest brother Chamal as Cabinet Minister in charge of agriculture and as State Minister of Defence. With Gotabaya as President, Mahinda as Prime Minister and Chamal as a Cabinet Minister, it is crystal clear that Ruhunu Rajapaksas are back in the saddle. If Mahinda led the Rajapaksas to power for the first time, his brother Gotabaya has spearheaded their return to power for the second.
Gota-Mahinda duo has a very good chance of progressing positively
The official website of the new President provides a profile of “His Excellency Gotabaya Rajapaksa the 7th Executive President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” It is excerpted here in full for the benefit of readers:
“Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa was born on June 20, 1949 to former Cabinet Minister D.A. Rajapaksa and Dandina Dissanayake Rajapaksa. He is the 5th sibling in a family of 9 and is the brother to 5th Executive President of Sri Lanka and incumbent opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chamal Rajapaksa, former Speaker of Parliament and Basil Rajapaksa, former Cabinet Minister.”
“He was educated at AnandaCollege, Colombo and joined Sri Lanka Army in 1971. During his military service, he earned a Master’s Degree in Defence Studies from the University of Madras and underwent advanced training in Pakistan, India and the US. Having commanded many anti-terrorist operations in the North and East of Sri Lanka, he was awarded the ‘Rana Wickrama Padakkama’ and ‘Rana Sura Padakkama’ medals for gallantry and excellence in combat. He also received commendations from the President of Sri Lanka and Commander of the Army for bravery in action. After retiring from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1991, Mr. Rajapaksa studied information technology at the ColomboUniversity where he attained a post-graduate diploma in information technology. He later emigrated to the US with his family where he worked as an IT professional at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, California.”
“Mr. Rajapaksa returned to Sri Lanka in 2005 with the election of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as the 5th Executive President and was appointed as Secretary to the Defence Ministry on November 25, 2005. He was instrumental in ending the three-decade-long terrorist conflict in Sri Lanka through an expertly-conceived and skillfully-coordinated military strategy. Following the end of the conflict, he swiftly restored normalcy to the country whilst taking steps to further consolidate national security.”
2019 triumph due to a protest vote against the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime
“In post-war Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajapaksa fast-tracked the demining of the Northern and Eastern Provinces affected by war and displaced civilians were resettled in their homes within a short span of time. He also initiated a globally-recognised de-radicalization and rehabilitation programme whereby approximately 13,500 former LTTE combatants were re-integrated to society.”
“In 2009, Mr. Rajapaksa received Doctor of Letters (Honoris Causa) from the Colombo University. On April 25, 2010, Mr. Rajapaksa’s responsibilities were enlarged to include the country’s urban development programme. As Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, Mr. Rajapaksa systematically and speedily implemented a range of initiatives that transformed Sri Lanka’s cities and improved the lives of people by fostering a more sustainable and attractive urban environment.”
“Following a change in government, Mr. Rajapaksa relinquished office on January 9, 2015. In February 2016, Mr. Rajapaksa formed “Viyathmaga” (professionals for a better future) a non-profit organisation comprising professionals, academics and entrepreneurs who wished to effectively contribute towards the development of Sri Lanka. Through Viyathmaga, Mr. Rajapaksa created a platform to engage with professionals in developing key policies to be implemented by a future government. Viyathmaga grew in strength and popularity across the country and globally and propelled Mr. Rajapaksa to be considered a potential leader for Sri Lanka.”
“In August 2019, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was declared as the presidential candidate by SLPP under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa and campaigned on a platform of a policy-driven government, based on sustainable development and an inclusive Sri Lanka. On November 16, 2019, Mr. Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected by a majority of 52.2% as the 7th Executive President of Sri Lanka.”
“Gotabaya Rajapaksa is married to Ioma who holds a Diploma in Business Management from NIBM and worked as a Medical Coder in USA. They have one son, Manoj, who holds a double major in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Duke University, North Carolina, USA and a Master’s in Systems Engineering from University of Southern California and works at Jet Propulsion Laboratories of NASA. Manoj is married to Sevwandie, a graduate in Cell and Molecular Biology from Winona State University, Minnesota and is working as Safety Manager at University of Southern California, Los Angeles.”
The second phase of Rajapaksa rule has commenced under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. There will be both continuity and change in this “new” Rajapaksa regime under Gota. The votes harvested by Gotabaya at presidential hustings were due to combined efforts of the Rajapaksa clan, the SLPP and its allies and also organisations like Viyathmaga and “Eliya” launched by Gota. If the 2010 success was due to war victory euphoria, the 2019 triumph is due to a protest vote against the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime and the yearning among ordinary people for security and economic upliftment. Gota has projected himself cleverly as both an agent of change and extension of Rajapaksa rule to achieve success.
19th Constitutional Amendment
Gotabaya has pledged to transform the political culture of Sri Lanka. He has been in power as President only for two weeks. Moreover, the powers of executive presidency have been clipped to some extent by 19A. That lesson is sinking in slowly. An exultant Gota said earlier he would be Defence Minister without realising perhaps the limits imposed by 19A. Subsequently, elder brother Chamal has been appointed State Minister of Defence.
Another aspect of 19A was in the appointment of ministers’ sphere. The role of the Prime Minister has been enhanced considerably in this exercise though the actual appointment is yet in the President’s hands. Initially, it was said Gota wanted a small Cabinet of Ministers. It was also said persons facing charges in court would not be made ministers. Sixteen ministers including PM Mahinda were appointed in keeping with the small Cabinet proposal.
However, thirty five State Ministers and three Deputy Ministers were later appointed. Then, the Deputy Minister trio was elevated as State Ministers. Moreover, some of those appointed are yet facing charges in court while a few of the appointees had behaved very badly in Parliament during the anti-constitutional crisis. This demonstrated that the new President had to compromise with the Prime Minister due to political compulsions notwithstanding his stance on discipline and reduced number of ministers. Since the President and Prime Minister are siblings and the Rajapaksa clan has a track record of working together despite differences, the Gota-Mahinda duo has a very good chance of progressing positively.
The presidential election of November 16 was held just a fortnight ago. Attempting to assess the new Rajapaksa regime under President Gotabaya would be a premature exercise. Some of the measures undertaken are quite positive while others seem to be negative. How the new administration would proceed remains to be seen.
President of all people
There is the question of the voter divide in elections. Although Gota has been elected President, the fact remains that he could not win six districts and also some areas in the Central and Western Provinces. It is also a fact that most of these regions and areas were heavily populated by Tamils, Muslims and to a certain extent Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. Gota himself has drawn attention to this reality and reiterated that he would act as President of all people including those who did not vote for him. Such words are indeed praiseworthy but it is imperative that Gota should “walk the walk” in the same manner in which he has “talked the talk.”
The new government described as an interim or caretaker government is in reality a minority government. The immediate priority of both President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda would be to hold parliamentary elections and win more seats by cashing in on the presidential election victory euphoria. The political paralysis of Sajith Premadasa after his defeat and resentment displayed towards Ranil by the so-called Sajith faction shows that the UNP is in no state to fight the SLPP. This is likely to help the SLPP-led front to gain even a two-thirds majority in Parliament. In order to achieve this objective, the current Rajapaksa regime will have to conduct itself in exemplary manner so as to garner the required number of votes. It is only after parliamentary polls that the nature and course of the new Rajapaksa regime could be properly gauged.
The “old” Rajapaksa regime under President Mahinda was rejected by the people at the 2015 election despite Mahinda remaining the single-most popular mass figure in the seven provinces outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Among the various acts of omission and commission that caused this downfall was the conduct of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Defence Secretary. It had both pluses and minuses.
To his credit, Gota has re-invented himself and succeeded in convincing a very large number of people to vote for him. Although his political adversaries invoked “Gotaphobia” as an electoral strategy to defeat Gota, the attempt seems to have succeeded only as far as minority community voters were concerned.
Old and new phases
The old phase of the Rajapaksa regime under President Mahinda Rajapaksa that began in 2005 ended in 2015. The new phase of the Rajapaksa regime under President Gotabaya has begun in 2019. The Rajapaksas who exited ignominiously in 2015 have made a triumphant entry in 2019. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has spearheaded that return to power. The Sri Lankan nation comprising those who voted and did not for Gotabaya expect the Rajapaksas to learn from the past, rectify their mistakes and embark upon a new political journey that would help usher in peace, progress and prosperity to the country.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org