In the early weeks of November 2014, it seemed somewhat clear that Mahinda Rajapaksa was set to rule the country for at least another six years. But on January 8, 2015 when he finally went to cast his vote with the media surrounding him, even Mahinda appeared to have realized what the final verdict was going to be. Never before, during the past decade, had he looked so defeated; especially on the day of an election. Clearly, his political spark was flickering. For the first time in years, something strange had happened to this man who was perhaps the most accurate political reader of the Sinhala mindset. The Sinhalese had now begun to read him.
"In short, the great irony is that Mahinda provoked some politicians (especially of a nationalist bent) to seek ways of preventing his return with the same kind of energy and zeal with which they seek the prevention of the return of another Prabhakaran!"
Immediately after the defeat, Mahinda did try to suggest that all was not over yet, that he was ready to return, which may have caused some anxiety within the victorious camp. The ease with which he interacted with his ardent supporters in his home-constituency showed that the old ‘people’s politician’ was still in him. Interestingly, in this brief engagement with the people and his return to Colombo (SLFP-headquarters), there were two distinguishing features.
The first was that in hindsight, it now seemed as if Mahinda had absorbed the possibility of his loss even before the election (which explained his body language during the campaign), which in turn made his post-election recovery swifter than expected. The second was that it appeared he had finally acknowledged one of the fundamental reasons for his post-2009 downfall – his family; for in his engagements with the public, Mahinda was by himself, with his sons and brothers absent. It was almost as if the Mahinda of the pre-2005 era was making a slow comeback, which surely, should have raised serious concerns for the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe camp.
But all this was too sudden; and in the process, Mahinda made the mistake of trying to play the racist card, by telling his supporters that Maithripala Sirisena, the new President, had won as a result of ‘Eelam’ votes. This simply confirmed the doubt that the Mahinda who seeks to re-enter active politics is even worse than the Mahinda who would have returned after winning the presidential election. Mahinda, then had made the cardinal mistake of clarifying to the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe camp his intentions and therefore what the counter-strategy should be; hence the intensification of the ‘coup’ allegation; the swift change in the SLFP leadership; the levelling of corruption charges against him and his family; the moves to further denigrate and isolate the Rajapaksas.
In short, the great irony is that Mahinda provoked some politicians (especially of a nationalist bent) to seek ways of preventing his return with the same kind of energy and zeal with which they seek the prevention of the return of another Prabhakaran!
Reducing Mahinda and the Rajapaksa-regime to this helpless state is a remarkable achievement of the political forces that opposed him, the culmination of an extremely bold and dangerous political effort. Two factors to be remembered here are the following:
The first is that while the Tamil and Muslim people of the North and East did contribute immensely to the defeat of Rajapaksa, the victory wouldn’t have been possible had it also not been for the Sinhala population, including the Sinhala-dominated police/military forces and the public sector, which resisted Rajapaksa-rule. In other words, Tamil votes don’t become a decisive factor in a vacuum, but rather in the presence of a significant shift in the Sinhala vote base (and vice-versa). And this latter shift, to be sure, was not a result of the Tamil critique of the Rajapaksas; rather, it was a clear consequence of the critique generated in the South by Sinhala politicians.
The second is that Mahinda’s defeat shattered the myth of invincibility that surrounded and guarded him (and his family/regime). In constructing this myth, he was greatly assisted over the years by the media, the cronies around him, and a number of political groups and analysts who were duped and drugged by the very myth they were engaged in constructing. Their support for Mahinda (and much that came with him) was at times purely guided by the arrogant view that there was simply no way in which Mahinda could be electorally defeated. That the myth of invincibility does get shattered in gruesome ways, as it happened in May 2009, was perhaps something that they were aware of. But they were foolishly blind to the possibility of this happening through more democratic means.
One of the significant political questions arising now, however, is that of how power could be consolidated during these uncertain times. This does affect the politics of the future and the possibility of political reform so essential to the country.
Firstly, the moves made by Mahinda (with the help of a few backers within the UPFA) will need to be resisted. This won’t be easy, not only because there is no strong will to take action against him but also because such a move might be counter-productive, if rushed. Under these circumstances, the present administration will seek to delegitimize his identity by keeping him in doubt about possible legal action – which is what’s happening now.
The second related move is to take stringent action against some of his closest political associates, through proper legal means, based on credible evidence (pertaining to the numerous charges ranging from an attempted coup to corruption). This is essential, both as a legal necessity and a political one, to delegitimise nepotistic authoritarian rule.