30 December 2014

Let’s dissect the Sahodara Samaagama

This was first published in the Daily Mirror on December 15, 2009, just before the last Presidential Election.  I flagged certain issues that I believed Mahinda Rajapaksa need to take note of.  Today, five years later, the people will (in part) assess whether or not he took note.  

When President Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed Parliament for the first time after the war was brought to a close in Pudumathalan in May 2009, he thanked all those who he believed were deserving of appreciation, all those who contributed to the national effort to rid the country of the terrorist menace.  He mentioned also the strength he obtained from family, his wife and his three sons; mentioning that ‘family’ helped him understand the anxieties and struggles of those whose loved ones had put their lives on line for the country’s tomorrow.  He mentioned also his brothers and, with a smile that was both indulgent of his critics and critical of them at the same time, he said as an aside, ‘sahodara samaagama’. 

Sahodara Samagama (the appropriate translation would be ‘Brothers Inc.’) has for some time now been the catch-it-all epithet used by the President’s detractors to vilify the regime.  The implication is obvious as is the whine: Government is a family-run business.  ‘The family’ being the Rajapaksas.  Naturally, the epithet is frequently accompanied by charges of nepotism.

The term Sahodara Samagama struck a sympathetic chord among a certain section of the population, in particular die-hard UNP loyalists long starved of effective taunt to counter the ridicule showered on them on account of defeat after defeat after defeat in numerous elections.  It was also received well by the dogged tribe of ‘academics’ and ‘rights-activists’ championing liberal values (when they are not championing separatism and imperialism or campaigning to resurrect the UNP).  And then there are others who may not salivate about a neat taunt but would be concerned about the reality that it may be describing. 

There are far too many Rajapaksas in the political business, one can argue.  There is the President at the top.  His brother, Gotabhaya, is the Defence Secretary, arguably the most pivotal position in a country fighting a ruthless terrorist outfit.  Then there is Basil, a man without a proper ministry but reputed to be the key behind-the-scene guy for the President, owning the last word on development, resettlement and management of the overall political equation (i.e. executing parliamentary and other jostling to ensure there’s political stability).  Older brother Chamal has long been in politics but is clearly a ‘back-bencher’ compared to his younger brothers.  Then there’s Chamal’s son Shasheendra, now the Chief Minister of the Uva Provincial Council. There’s Mahinda’s son Namal heading ‘Tharunyayata Hetak’ (A tomorrow for youthfulness), which is the de-facto youth wing of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.   Of ‘lesser’ Rajapaksas and more distant relatives occupying lesser posts I know little, but what is known should suffice for comment.

One way to look at it is to assess competence.  I doubt if there’s anyone except the utterly malicious who would say that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is not a capable Defence Secretary.  We know that Sarath Fonseka goes around saying he was single-handedly responsible for the defeat of the LTTE (and that’s an admission of guilt for the crime he claims was committed in the deaths of Nadesan, Pulidevan et al), but a more sober individual would acknowledge that Gotabhaya was a key architect of the victory. 

Chamal.  Some would say ‘innocuous’.  That would make him one of many in the cabinet and indeed one of many among all ministers from across the political spectrum.  Basil.  Perhaps it is because of the Presidential green light that’s always ‘on’ for him, perhaps for other reasons, but Basil gets things done. That’s what’s known.  He is one of the most energetic among the top rankers in the regime if not the most. 

Two things need to be said.  It is wrong to appoint people to positions based solely on loyalty or blood-ties.  By the same token, it is wrong to sidelines the competent just because they happen to be relations and therefore the appointer can be accused of nepotism. 

There is another dimension to this sahodara samagama.  Mahinda Rajapaksa inherited ad administrative and political apparatus that was infested with people who hated him, hated what he represented and were ideologically and morally corrupt with respect to positions taken on handling the LTTE.  He could trust no one, that’s the simple truth.  Perhaps he was taking a leaf from the history books or just doing what seemed most logical when he appointed him brothers to handle two key areas, security and development.  He can’t be faulted for it. 

Sarath Fonseka’s latest antics alone is an adequate rejoinder to any objection to that strategy.  Just imagine: what if the war had not ended when it did?  We know that some people referred to Sarath Fonseka as the ‘Legal Prabhakaran’ but this does not mean that Prabhakaran could only be defeated by a military twin.  In hindsight the biggest security risk taken by the President and his brother was when they appointed Fonseka as Army Commander over several persons senior to the man. There is consolation in the fact that whatever damage he may do to the President, he cannot harm the nation now.  Given such realities and possibilities, there was sense in depending on his brothers. 

Academic issues over democracy and all related philosophical subtleties aside, there is a reason why the ordinary people in this country have no quarrel with the sahodarayas forming a samagama.  I have heard many people say that there was no other way and some who even wish that the President had more brothers.  Perhaps we are essentially a feudal society and maybe that’s what is more appropriate for us, I don’t know.  

Nepotism then is a tricky issue for me, unclear and un-compelling.  What I do worry about is the charge of corruption.  Basil Rajapaksa is referred to as ‘Mr 10 Percent’ in that he is accused of taking a 10% commission on all contracts and what not.  First of all, that sobriquet had been coined by none other than Chandrika Kumaratunga, a woman who was dubbed as ‘Chaura Regina’ (‘Thieving Queen’). She did close to 0% for the country, and she scored pretty high on mismanagement, treason and financial hanky panky.  The ‘Mr 10 Percent’ taunt has been chorused by a lot of Mr/Ms Zero Percents (in terms of ability), and many Mr/Ms. 100 Percent (traitors).  I don’t think such people have a right to point fingers.

However, as a citizen, I can point a finger and so can others.  I can point a finger at those who make these claims: substantiate!  I can point a finger to the President too: investigate!  Competence cannot be weighed against corruption.  There are ordinary people who are not too happy about the corruption charges.  Not all of them are knee-jerk UNPers or JVPers or Fonseka –junkies.  They are the types who see the plus side of the sahodara samaagama.  They are the types who will campaign on behalf of the President. They are the type who would be willing to go along with the dismissal of allegation, but only up to a point.  They are the types who are likely to be the biggest thorn in the regime’s flesh in time to come if the air is not cleared about these allegations. 

Our people are not one-dimensional.  They are not ready to do the black-or-white number. They will, however, be conscious of the shades and the ‘shady’.  They will forgive certain things but not all transgressions.  Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother must understand that there is no such thing as permanent political immunity.  Today they are worried about Fonseka.  Tomorrow he could be past-tense.  Tomorrow, like today, there will be people. And people ask questions. They want answers.  This is something that the sahodara samagama ought to keep in mind. 

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.