02 December 2011

Who is the Real Mahinda?

[This article first appeared in the 'Sunday Lakbima News' of November 7, 2010]

Mahinda Rajapaksa is a dictator.  The Rajapaksas are running the country as a family business.  They are a clan.  They are into dynasty-building.  They are robbing the treasury.  They are ruining the economy.  They’ve turned Sri Lanka into a ‘failed state’.  The Rajapaksas, led by Mahinda, are the worst news that Sri Lanka has heard post-Independence.  He is a disaster when it comes to foreign relations and has angered the big players in the international community, the USA, Britain and the rest of the European Union. He is vindictive; incarcerating his political opponent and one time Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka while befriending those who are guilty of massacring hundreds of people (Karuna, Pilliyan) or else creating conditions for such blood-letting (KP) as well as known racketeers preying on people’s helplessness (Devananda). He’s a racist, anti-Tamil and is not interested in resettling the IDPs, who by the way he’s treated very shabbily. He stole an election.  There is wide-spread discontent. He will be ousted soon.

That’s one school of thought. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa is the best thing that happened to Sri Lanka post-Independence.  He ended a 30 year war and vanquished terrorism without conceding one square inch of territory, ideological or otherwise, to Eelamists, tiger-striped or otherwise including the devolution-fixated slaves of the worst elements of Indian hegemony.  He has given Sri Lankans back their dignity, a sense of purpose and created the conditions for people to better themselves in spite of the machinations of politicians. 

He has a close-knit set of advisors, chief among whom are his brothers Basil and Gotabhaya, this is true, but given history of betrayal and pursuing of self-interest to the detriment of national-interest, it was imperative that he surrounds himself with people he could trust in order to fight the war to a finish. Moreover, they are competent.

The economy is on a sound footing.  There’s development, mega and otherwise. Infrastructure is coming up.  Inflation is under control.  State enterprises have not been sold, asset bases have expanded and those who make wild claims about sell-outs are hard pressed to substantiate allegation.  As for foreign relations, he seems to have unshackled himself from the myth that the Long American Century is not yet done.  He understands that the balance of global power has shifted and his thinking on international affairs has taken this into account.

During his tenure, he saved hundreds of thousands of Tamils from the grip of a terrorist, oversaw the greatest ever hostage rescuing operation in history and although not keeping to self-set deadlines, has treated the IDPs in ways that no other nation or leader has treated people in similar situation and has ensured that resettlement is as swift and as smooth as is humanly possible. He won an election, fair and square.  He is secure in power.

That’s another school of thought. 

I believe that Mahinda is no saint. I don’t believe he’s a devil either. He’s just a politician being political, doing what is necessary to retain power, twisting the rules when he has to using what powers are at his disposal. He is not subtle and he’s not crass.  He’s a middle-ground player.  He can unite polar-opposites.  He is a pragmatist. He knows there are no permanent enemies or friends in politics and knows that the edifice of national prosperity cannot be constructed on quicksand called political instability. For this reason he puts his arm around despicable people, forgiving and forgetting as convenient to his political stability as well as to the nation’s wellbeing. 

The Rajapaksas are having a good time, of this there’s no doubt.  Are they making money?  Well, considering what people in power usually do, one would be persuaded to say ‘yes’ or at least ‘probably’.  Are they dynasty-fixated? Yes and let’s add here that so too are the other ‘political’ families, the Senanayakes, Bandaranaikes and Wijewardenas; all Colomboan in mind-set and acculturation whereas the Rajapaksas are distinctly village-born and rural. 

I doubt the figures trotted out by Ajith Nivard Cabraal but don’t subscribe to the horror-scenarios articulated by his detractors in the UNP.  I don’t think the UNP’s traditional power-base, the business community, is unhappy with him because no regime has been this friendly to the private sector.  He is not poor-friendly but neither is he their sworn enemy. He’s a consolation prize. For instance, I have no doubt that if Ranil Wickremesinghe were in Rajapaksa’s shoes, we would have lost the People’s Bank, Bank of Ceylon and the National Savings Bank.  As things stand, we still have these entities, got back the Insurance Corporation, Sri Lankan Airlines and control of gas.  Could be better run, yes, but we are now less susceptible to being screwed.  I am thankful.

I don’t think he’s anti-Tamil, but I think decent as his treatment of IDPs has been, he could have done better.  He’s not a democrat in spirit and neither is he a statesman; he’s just a politician who is using to good effect to further his interests a constitution made for someone else. He didn’t steal any elections but neither did he win fair and square.  The outcome, however, was not changed by the unfairness. 

Is he about to be kicked out of power or is this impossible?  Neither.  I don’t believe in ‘forever’ and neither do I believe, given realities, in ‘imminent’.  There is dissent, some discontent, but there is also huge popularity, a distinctive and disturbing absence of credible opposition and a bunch of objectors so despicable on so many counts that make the man look positively benign. 

The West is down but not out and even if it were, it is silly to annoy people, especially the ill-willed and ill-intentioned. Some might say you can’t have the cake and eat it, but there’s balance to be struck and this is something which Mahinda Rajapaksa has time and again tripped over. 

As for those who are salivating about the story that Mahinda didn’t go to London because he was scared he would be arrested for war-crimes, they should do a re-think.  That’s the kind of thing that helps boost the man’s popularity at home and helps him consolidate power-hold.  It takes something from Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, sure, but that’s ‘besides-the-point’ when it comes to politics and political longevity.  A seasoned politician knows this and there’s no one more seasoned than him around these days. 



Shaik Ahamath said...

I agree, Mahinda Rajapakse is not infallible and I sometimes despair at the advice he is apparently given. E.g. The ceasing of granting Dual Nationality was like taking a sledgehammer to crack a small nut. I represent a group of retired Sri Lankans in UK and Canada - 100% of whom are behind the Rajapakses and rejoice at what he has done for Sri Lanka. 80% of my members are serious professionals and a majority of them would like to retire to Sri Lanka and impart their knowledge, experience and skills for free. They also have substantial capital and lucrative pensions which would be expended in Sri Lanka. These are the pros, I would like to hear the cons for denying Dual Citizenships to these people.

G. de Silva said...

What most Rajapaksa-bashers do not understand is that it is not question of who is better at ruling the country but simply who can rule this country without being a pimp to the West or any other nation.

Irrespective of all the shortcomings, what Rajapaksa has been able to do is to instil confidence in our people that we too can stand on our own feet and that we can still be friends with any and every foreign nation without having to lick their boots.

This is what separates Rajapaksa from the rest of the politicians, his predecessors and contemporaries.

Ramzeen said...

People at the grassroots still root for Mahinda but there's no reciprocation. He still practices the usual political sleight of hand: pre-budget increase of fuel and post budget increase of essentials. Sure people grin and bear but as a ruler he should be more benevolent. Kissing babies still carry some aura of sincerity but he shouldn't take advantage of our demographic weaknesses (read "nava gilunath band choon" syndrome)

Ramzeen said...

I still stand by my comment but now feel that the BBS/Muslim development has put him in a quandary. I know for a fact that he had a lot of Muslim friends at "machan level" but has not yet found the best path out of this morass. His advisors being mainly sycophants can do no better. Sticking fervently to culture, history and religion (CHR) while striving to keep pace with the world is like driving a vehicle with the brakes engaged. CHR has its place in the hearts and minds of people and should act as a bond towards peace and harmony.