■ Assessments made by Sinhala media provincial journos have proved to be correct
■ Some of his initial directives show the new President means business
■ Political families and families in politics have become a way of life in Sri Lanka
■ ‘Ruhunu Rajapaksa’ clan that was down but not out has achieved remarkable political renaissance
■ Rajapaksas of yore were not born with the proverbial silver spoons in their mouths
The 2019 presidential election is over and Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been elected as the seventh Executive President with a thumping majority. The result seems to have upset the calculations and predictions of many a commentator and analyst writing in English both in Sri Lanka and abroad. It has indeed been amusing to see some of them “blaming” the voters for going against the grain of their assessments. What they fail to realise is that the fault, if it could be termed that, was theirs alone and should not be attributed to the voters. It was the so-called political pundits – including many with impressive academic credentials – who erred in gauging the voting trends in this election.
I was also the recipient of several messages (this goes with the territory) conveyed through telephone, e-mail, Twitter and Facebook criticising some aspects of my previous two-part article appearing in the Daily Mirror of October 19, 2019 titled “Gotaphobia – Who’s afraid of Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa?” And its sequel on November 2, 2019in Daily Mirror headlined “Presidential race: Ordinary people expect better economic prospects and national security.”
The chief area of disagreement was about my opining that Gotabaya the early bird was the frontrunner in the presidential race and that he was likely to be the winner at first count of votes though late entrant Sajith Premadasa was catching up fast. Their contention was that it was a neck-to-neck race between Gota and Sajith with no possibility of anyone mustering 50% plus one. There would be a recount with second preference votes being taken into account resulting in a victory for the Swan.
An illustrative example of this viewpoint came from a parliamentarian in the pro-Sajith camp who asked me: “How can you say Gota will get more than 50% when our estimates say both are fifty-fifty with Sinhala votes.” He further added: “Sajith will win with Tamil and Muslim votes.” Another highly-qualified political scientist mentioned the names of some eminent political analysts who had written it would be a tight race and the final decision would be determined by second preference votes. He asked me: “Do you know more than these people?” I pointed out that I was relying mainly on the assessments made by provincial Sinhala language media personnel in saying so. He laughed derisively and said: “So you think those “Yakkos” know more than the finest political commentators of this country?”
“Let us wait and see”
My reply to both persons cited above and to others critical of the articles was simply “let us wait and see.” Now that the results are out , it is clear that the so-called Yakko Sinhala media personnel from the outstations have a better grasp and understanding of contemporary Sri Lankan politics than the elitist know – alls from Colombo. I too have been vindicated in my effort to assess the political mood of the Sinhala polity by drawing on the collective wisdom of provincial Sinhala scribes.
Interestingly, not one of those who rushed in to find fault with me before the election have communicated with me after the results were announced (this too goes with the territory). Understanding how these “critics” must be feeling now, I too have not communicated with them. It is against this backdrop therefore that I reproduce some extracts from my earlier two-part article. I am sure the readers will understand why I am doing so. Here are the relevant excerpts:
“This writer devoted several hours in the past fortnight to communicate with a cross-section of Sinhala media personnel in the Southern, Central, Sabaragamuwa, North Western and North Central Provinces of Sri Lanka. A few journalist colleagues in Colombo helped to put me in touch with them. Our discussions were focused on the upcoming presidential election and about how the chief presidential candidates were likely to fare. I was very much interested in their assessment of the ground situation in predominantly Sinhala areas as opposed to those of the Colombo-based journalists.”
“What I learnt from the Sinhala provincial media persons in essence was that... Gotabaya Rajapaksa was riding the crest of a popular wave. Gota who had started campaigning very early seems to be having a head start over the others. Following Gota as the next popular candidate is United National Party’s Sajith Premadasa. Sajith, contesting as the New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate, was comparatively at a disadvantage as he had begun campaigning late. Many opined that Sajith’s campaign could gather greater momentum after the release of his manifesto. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake trails Gotabaya and Sajith as a distant third.”
Race between Gota and Sajith
“While many analysts in Colombo speak of a neck-to-neck race between Gotabaya and Sajith and predict that neither of them would get 50% plus one on the first count, the provincial media wisdom was quite the opposite. These journalists felt that as of now, Gotabaya Rajapaksa would muster over 55% of the vote at first count. At the same time, they qualified this assertion by not ruling out the possibility of Sajith Premadasa’s campaign gaining ground in the days to come and transforming the situation in his favour.”
“The provincial Sinhala media personnel opined that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the foremost favourite in the hearts of those living in the Sinhala heartland. This was very much due to the immense popularity of elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa too. If Sajith and his supporters effectively conduct a well-coordinated campaign, it may be possible to narrow the gap and even perhaps reverse matters, they said. But so far, Sajith’s campaign does not exude the confidence of a “winner.”
“A specific question I raised with them was about “Gotaphobia” (Gota-baya) and its potential impact on the voter. The answers varied according to each person, but there was an underlying common thread running through them all. What they said in essence was this: The ordinary people expect only two things from their rulers or government. Firstly, they want better economic prospects for themselves and their families. Secondly, they want security to live in peace without harm befalling them. Under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government, the economic life of people in the provinces has deteriorated. After the April 21 bombings, their sense of insecurity has worsened. So many feel that Gotabaya in association with Mahinda can ensure their security as well as provide them with economic prosperity... Therefore, they said, the ordinary people have no fear of Gota as is being portrayed by his political opponents. “Their fears are about other important things, not Gota fear,” one of them quipped.”
“Against this backdrop, what I inferred from conversations with the Sinhala media provincial journalists was that the political strategy of invoking “Gotaphobia” does not seem to have met with the desired results as far as the Sinhala polity at large is concerned… What I gathered from the views expressed by provincial Sinhala media journalists was that notwithstanding the “Gotaphobia” generated by his political adversaries, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political fortunes have not been greatly affected as far as the Sinhala voting constituency is concerned. In fact, it may even have increased support for him as many feel a tough, strong man is needed at the helm at this point of time. Sadly, all negative black marks against him pale into insignificance in this scenario.”
Tamils, Muslims and ‘Gotaphobia’
“Where political investment in “Gotaphobia” is likely to pay greater dividends is in the case of minority ethnicities, the Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils and the Muslims. Regardless of positions adopted by various political parties representing the minorities, people at large are more inclined to vote against Gota at this juncture. Even here, the demarcating lines are blurred…”
“The assessments made by the Sinhala media personnel were certainly not based on any acceptable scientific methodology. They are also not derived from any recognised opinion poll. However, they were of great value to me in my efforts in trying to gauge Sinhala opinion regarding the forthcoming presidential poll. These are journalists who live in the provinces and interact greatly with people of different backgrounds. As such, I always feel they have a better grasp of prevailing political realities than their Colombo-based counterparts. Furthermore, they are better-equipped to reflect the actual situation far better than the hordes of foreign journalists who are likely to descend upon Sri Lanka as Election Day draws near.”
The assessments made by the Sinhala media provincial journalists have proved to be correct. Although they opined Gotabaya would garner more than 55% of the vote at first count, Gota got only 6,924,255 or 52.25% of the votes. Sajith Premadasa got 5,564, 239 or 41.99% of the votes. Since these scribes did say the late entrant Sajith Premadasa could gather momentum as the campaign progressed, the final tally of 52% as opposed to 55% is understandable. In any event, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is firmly in the saddle now. Some of his initial directives like the cutting down of ministerial staff and expenditure, reduction of personal security personnel, removal of politician portraits from government offices, restrictions on traffic curtailment on roads for VIP movement, appointment of a small Cabinet and so forth show that the new President means business.
First brothers to be Presidents
An interesting aspect of the recently-concluded presidential election was its “family dimension.” Whatever the final result, it was going to be a significant milepost in Sri Lanka’s presidential election history. If Gotabaya had won, then he and elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa would have made history as the first duo of brothers to become Presidents of Sri Lanka. Had Sajith won, he and his late father Ranasinghe Premadasa would have gone down in history as the first father–son duo to be Sri Lankan Presidents. Gota was successful at the hustings and the Rajapaksa brothers have become the first pair of brothers to be Presidents.
Furthermore, the appointment of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister has created another related record. Gotabaya and Mahinda are the first set of brothers to serve as President and Prime Minister simultaneously. In that context, one must also recall that Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Sirimavo Bandaranaike also created history by being the first (and only?) daughter and mother to serve as President and Prime Minister simultaneously. Of course, the Bandaranaikes have also created a unique precedent where father SWRD, mother Sirimavo and daughter Chandrika have served as Prime Ministers of a country.
The references to family related records in the sphere of presidential and prime ministerial posts in Sri Lanka highlight the fact that political families and families in politics have become a way of life in Sri Lanka. The election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President and appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister along with that of eldest brother Chamal Rajapaksa being made Cabinet Minister demonstrate very clearly that the Rajapaksa family hailing from the Southern region “Ruhunu” are back in power. The “Ruhunu Rajapaksa” clan that was down but not out has achieved a remarkable political renaissance.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has spearheaded a return to power of Ruhunu Rajapaksas. Currently, there is much interest in the Rajapaksas and there have been several requests to write about the rise, fall and revival of political fortunes of the family at this juncture. It is indeed a fascinating subject and of great relevance in the current context. Therefore, I shall be writing a two-part article though I have written on this topic extensively on earlier occasions.
Rise and growth of political families
The rise and growth of ‘political families’ are a common occurrence nowadays in Sri Lanka. Ever since the island known formerly as Ceylon gained limited forms of representative democracy through Legislative and State Councils during British rule, the practice of members of the same family seeking posts through elections became widely-prevalent. The advent of parliamentary elections coupled with freedom from colonial bondage saw the political dynasty phenomenon gain further mileage. Political families began proliferating at multiple levels from local authorities to the supreme legislature.
Family politics is now a familiar feature of Sri Lanka’s political landscape cutting across race, religion, caste and creed. A perusal of a list of Sri Lankan political families in alphabetical order starting from the Abdul Majeeds of the East and going down to the Yapa Abeywardenas of the South would reveal that ethnicity is no bar to family bandyism of a political nature in Sri Lanka.
There are various types of political dynasties at different levels from the national, provincial, district and electoral division levels. There are also different degrees of pedigree and vintage in these dynasties. While there are many regional and sub-regional political families, there have been only three major family formations dominating politics at a national level so far in Sri Lanka.
The first is the ‘Bothale Dynasty’ of D.S. Senanayake, his son Dudley Senanayake and nephew Sir John Kotelawala along with extended family members J.R. Jayewardene and Ranil Wickremesinghe. The next is the ‘Horagolla Dynasty’ of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, his wife Sirimavo Ratwatte Bandaranaike, daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and son Anura Bandaranaike. Interestingly, Chandrika’s husband Vijaya Kumaratunga though an actor was also a politician. Both the Bothale and Horagolla dynasties have been paramount in 20th century Sri Lankan politics since Independence.
However, a third political family that came into its own in the 21st century has dethroned one dynasty and threatens to send the other into virtual extinction. This of course is the ‘Medamulana Dynasty’ comprising the family members of Don Alvin Rajapaksa – Sons Chamal, Mahinda, Basil and Gotabaya along with grandsons Namal and Shasheendra.
‘Ruhunu Rajapaksa’ political family
Although the ‘Ruhunu Rajapaksa’ family has been in politics for several decades starting from the days of the State Council, its ascendancy to the pinnacle of power came only in the new millennium. This became possible only after Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa, known to his country and the world at large as Mahinda Rajapaksa, became Sri Lanka’s fifth Executive President on November 18, 2005. Thereafter, the Rajapaksas established themselves rapidly as the ‘numero uno’ family in Sri Lankan politics.
Apart from Mahinda Rajapaksa as President, family members and extended family members monopolised plum positions. Various posts in different spheres – from Defence Secretary to diplomatic representative – were held by the clan. Some were elected to office while others were appointed. Some proved their capability by efficiently discharging their duties while others failed miserably demonstrating the negativity of nepotism.
During the days of the Rajapaksa regime, it was an open secret that no major enterprise or project could be undertaken in the island without the blessings of at least one Rajapaksa. In those days, most movers and shakers in Sri Lankan society derived their power and energy from the Rajapaksa ‘generator.’ Opposition members alleged then that nearly 70% of the national budget was controlled directly by the Rajapaksa siblings. Family bandyism in the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government of 1970-77 was aptly pinpointed through a UNP publication ‘The Family Tree.’ If a similar exercise were undertaken about the Rajapaksa regime, it would not have been a mere family tree but an entire grove. It remains to be seen whether the same scenario would prevail under the new dispensation or whether new beginnings would be made.
The Rajapaksas of yore were not born with the proverbial silver spoons in their mouths. A number of factors resulted in their rise to power. How the Rajapaksas of Ruhuna achieved pride of place as the foremost political family in contemporary Sri Lanka is a fascinating story.
‘Vidane Arachchi’ Don David Rajapaksa
The rise of Rajapaksas as a formidable political family in Ruhuna began with Don David Vidanarachchi Rajapaksa, the grandfather of Mahinda, Gotabaya and siblings and great grandfather of their offspring. Don David Rajapaksa hailed from Buddhiyagama at Weeraketiya in the Southern Hambantota District. The ancient RuhunuKingdom of the Sinhala Kings consisted of what are today the Administrative Districts of Galle, Matara, Hambantota and Moneragala. Don David or D.D. Rajapaksa was the hereditary ‘Vidane Arachchi’ or village headman of a cluster of villages and hamlets known as ‘Ihala Valikada Korale.’
The semi-feudal practice of village headman adopted by the British has now been replaced by the Grama Niladhari system. The Grama Niladharis of today are toothless government employees whereas the Vidane Arachchi of colonial vintage was a potty despot of his area of authority. The area inhabited by the Rajapaksa family was the division known as ‘Giruweva/Giruwapattuwa.’ It was an agricultural region where the growing of crops and vegetables, coconut cultivation and buffalo/cattle rearing were the basis of the local economy. ‘Slash and burn’ chena cultivation was a fact of life. Cultivation of ‘Kurakkan’ or millet was widely prevalent and the region was regarded generally as ‘Kurakkan Country.’
In the latter half of the 19th century, an enterprising southerner from Sapugoda, Galle arrived in Giruwapattuwa. Don Constantine de Silva Mohotti Ralahamy was his name. Known generally as Mohotti Ralahamy, this entrepreneur purchased lands in Giruwapattuwa and began adopting comparatively-modern techniques in agriculture. One of his new methods was to hire agricultural workers on a daily wage basis. Mohotti Ralahamy needed a trusted and able man from the locality to supervise the workers and oversee cultivation. The reality of prevailing caste and regional differences meant that only a man from the area could handle the task. What better man than the Vidane Ralahamy of Ihala Valikada Korale?
Thus began a partnership where Mohotti gave a share of the profits to D.D. Rajapaksa as remuneration. Invigorated by this project, DD too began leasing farmlands in the region owned by some rich Muslims from Galle. DD and his sons were models of incorruptibility. They were diligently honest and did not fleece the absentee partners or landlords. Over a period of time, the Rajapaksa family acquired more paddy lands and coconut plantations of their own. The family also ventured into dairy farming and raised cattle and buffaloes.
Three sons and a daughter
D.D. Rajapaksa had three sons and a daughter. The eldest was Don Coronelis Rajapaksa or D.C. Rajapaksa, who served as coroner of the area. The daughter was Dona Carolina Bandara Weeraman. The second son was Don Mathew Rajapaksa while the youngest son was Don Alvin Rajapaksa. The direct entry into electoral politics was made by Don Mathew Rajapaksa or D.M. Rajapaksa who was elected State Councillor during British times. He was succeeded as State Councillor by younger brother Don Alvin Rajapaksa or D.A. Rajapaksa, who later became a Member of Parliament after Independence.
D.M. Rajapaksa’s sons Lakshman and George Rajapaksa became MPs in the post-Independence period. George Rajapaksa served as a Cabinet Minister too. His daughter Nirupama also became an MP and served as a Deputy Minister. D.A. Rajapaksa’s sons Chamal, Mahinda and Basil also became Parliamentarians like their father. Gotabaya never became an MP. The sons and grandsons of D.A. Rajapaksa held powerful positions when the family enjoyed the zenith of political power. As is well known, Mahinda was President, Chamal was Speaker and Basil a Cabinet Minister. Mahinda’s son Namal was an influential MP while Chamal’s son Shasheendra was the Chief Minister of Uva Province. Mahinda’s younger brother Gotabaya did not enter active politics at that time. However, he held the post of Defence and Urban Development Ministry Secretary and was regarded as the second-most powerful person in the country then. Today, he has been elected Executive President and is now the most powerful man in the country.
The disproportionately-powerful expansion and rise of the Rajapaksas during Mahinda’s presidency created an impression in some circles that they were ‘Johnnies-come-lately.’ This impression was not correct. The Giruwapattuwa Rajapaksas had been involved in politics from the time S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike entered the State Council in 1931. The Rajapaksas are an old and respected Southern Province Govigama family. They have deep Buddhist roots and were wedded to the land. Unlike some other eminent Sinhala families that obtained posts and perks from colonial masters, the Rajapaksas of Giruwapattuwa remained sturdily independent.
‘Lion of Ruhunu’ D.M. Rajapaksa
The finest example of that sturdy independence and anti-colonial spirit was D.M. Rajapaksa, known popularly as ‘Lion of Ruhunu.’ When universal suffrage was introduced and elections to the State Council were held in 1931, D.M. Rajapaksa supported V.S. Wickramanayake in the Hambantota constituency. Wickramanayake was elected. In 1936, D.M. Rajapaksa himself plunged directly into politics and faced hustings. In those days, candidates used different colours for their respective ballot boxes. DM chose brown, the colour of Kurakkan, to symbolise ‘Kurakkan Country.’ He won with a majority of 12,097 votes.
Don Mathew Rajapaksa was a man of the people. He gave voice to the oppressed and stood up for the underprivileged. He did much for the emancipation of the ‘Rodiya’ community. Although the British were the rulers at that time, the ‘Ruhunu Sinhaya’ would brook no nonsense from pompous bureaucrats. Once he slippered the English Government Agent for being callously-indifferent. It was D.M. Rajapaksa who first started the practice of wearing a Kurakkan-coloured shawl to symbolise Giruwapattuwa. This was followed by his brother DA and his sons later. The ‘Sataka’ worn by the Rajapaksas of today is not merely due to notions of sartorial elegance. The practice has deeper meaningful roots.
Unfortunately, D.M. Rajapaksa died at the age of 49 in May 1945. His eldest son Lakshman born in July 1924 had not even reached the voting age of 21 then. The mantle therefore fell on his unassuming younger brother Don Alvin Rajapaksa. Their father D.D. Rajapaksa had died in 1912. While D.M. Rajapaksa had taken to social service and politics, his brother D.A. Rajapaksa had tended to look after the family occupation of farming and livestock breeding. The elder brother lived at the ‘Mahagedara’ in Kondagala and the younger at MedamulanaMahagedara.
After D.M. Rajapaksa’s demise, the people of Giruwapattuwa wanted D.A. Rajapaksa to step into his brother’s shoes. D.M. Rajapaksa’s sons Lakshman and George were too young then. The simple DA, content with his agriculture, refused. Finally, a deputation of notables went in procession to the paddy field where DA was engaged in ploughing. The delegation had with them the nomination papers and pressed DA to replace his brother in the State Council. Finally, Don Alvin agreed. He washed the mud off his hands and legs and signed the nomination papers, whereupon one person removed his shawl and wrapped it around D.A. Rajapaksa in a symbolic gesture. The Kurakkan Sataka tradition continued.
‘Kurakkan Sataka’ of Rajapaksa family
Today Mahinda, Chamal, Basil, Namal and Shasheendra sport the national dress on official occasions. They also wear the Kurakkan-coloured shawl frequently. The Kurakkan Sataka has become a hallmark of Rajapaksa family politics. However, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has maintained a distinct difference in this. He does not wear national dress like his political family members. Gota does not sport the Kurakkan Sataka too. He does wear Kurakkan-coloured shirts and tee-shirts. By doing so, Gota has preserved his authentic individuality.
NEXT: Executive President Gotabaya, Prime Minister Mahinda and Cabinet Minister Chamal
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com