by Victor Ivan
If President Mahinda Rajapaksa is not able to make a serious change in his attitude, style of governance and actions after genuinely looking back at his first four years of governance, it is unavoidable that he will crumble as a leader, speedily heading towards obliteration even though he will be able to win the next presidential election. The President should have critically looked back and reviewed his performance after the results of the Southern Provincial Council. But that did not happen.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a leader comparable to a highly valuable gem which is uncut and unpolished. If that gem was handed over to the custody of a versatile group of craftsmen, it could have become a very precious and a rare gem after careful cutting and polishing by experienced hands. Unfortunately, this gem is being continuously cut and re-polished by unskilled craftsmen who are not conversant with the subject. If this is to continue further, his importance and his value could get completely lost.
Out of all the leaders who came to power after independence, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the leader who is closest to the general public. He is not a leader who represents the elite society of Colombo Seven. He is also not a leader who came from the lower rungs of society but from the middle. He, like President Premadasa, does not think too highly of political dogma, but is a utilitarian leader.
Like President Premadasa, he also had a determination to become the leader of the country some day. He waited patiently until the right time came. Like President Premadasa he too had a high degree of endurance. He was quite patient against the humiliation directed at him. When the right time dawned, he utilised that opportunity in a clever manner.
The post of premier and the candidature for the presidency did not fall into his lap. He created a situation where he could not be denied these posts. Under the special and complex political situation that prevailed in the country, despite President Chandrika Kumaratunga working against him, and Ranil Wickremesinghe having a better chance to come to power, he still won the presidential election. It was on his birthday, that the official results of the election were announced.
Since the day he came to power, the most prominent weakness he has exhibited as a state leader is that he has not selected a team of high calibre, experienced, unbiased officers who could assist him in the governance of the State. In lieu, of the experienced and clever, he selected people from among his friends or relations.
Quite different to this situation, President Premadasa had a team of very clever officers who had been selected carefully. Among them Paskaralingam, Bradman Weerakoon, K.H.J. Wijedasa, and Susil Siriwardene gained the utmost confidence of President Premadasa. In steering the ship of state, he sought advice from this experienced team and in implementing his commands he had their assistance and help.
Victory over Pirapaharan
After coming to power, the greatest challenge to be faced by President Mahinda Rajapaksa was considered to be the de facto state of Pirapaharan. Due to the cease-fire agreement, it had received a legal acceptance which was not there earlier. They had identified the land they administered and it was depicted on maps. These areas of land were considered as belonging to Pirapaharan’s de facto state. They were treated as external of the Sri Lankan state to a greater degree.
Pirapaharan never harbored a genuine concern for an intermediate solution through negotiations. His only requirement was a separate state. However, due to the environment created externally by the ceasefire agreement, there was a strong notion both locally and internationally that the only alternative to solving the problem was to continue with the failed process of negotiations. Due to LTTE’s military successes up until then, there was a strong belief within the country and internationally that the LTTE was a movement that could not be defeated militarily.
Having a de facto state within the Sri Lankan state was the biggest challenge Sri Lanka had to face. It was a challenge that should either be won through negotiations or by military means. The greatest endemic characteristic of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the fact that he deviated from the path taken by his predecessors regarding this dispute and was firm in the aim of defeating the LTTE militarily.
His stubborn stance was the subject of severe suspicion and protests by the international community. It was also subject to suspicion and protest by the local groups who were of the view that this problem should be solved only through negotiations.
It is at this point that President Mahinda Rajapaksa shifted away from people who thought moderately and was pushed forcefully towards a small group of extremists. At this stage, as the moderate thinking people were taking a firm anti-war stand, Mahinda had no other alternative to select. That group of people, who had the ability to think moderately when dealing with other issues, were at the extreme end when dealing with the issue of war for which they were totally against.
Due to the ideological conflict between this group and the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, a deep rift emerged. The result is that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has got into the grips of social political forces which were loyal to the war effort and narrow-minded in dealing with other issues.
This limitation of the President was favourable to the war launched against Pirapaharan. He possessed the stubbornness and strong determination not to care about the ceasefire agreement and enter a decisive war. He also had the quality of disregarding any pressures brought on him locally or internationally.
He had the ability of entrusting the responsibility of executing the war to clever individuals disregarding dissension. There was a highly advanced and superb publicity campaign that was launched to ensure a new social recognition to the members of the armed forces.
Through this campaign, the morale of the soldiers that was diminishing was restored and it resulted in an environment to attract young people to serve in the armed forces. He followed a policy of granting resources needed for the war lavishly, while disregarding the financial constraints for the day to day activities of the government.
Finally, amazing the whole world, he was able to destroy entirely, the LTTE and the existence of the de facto state it maintained. It has to be conceded as an enormous victory and there is no parallel to this victory achieved by any other leader since independence. Even if some exceptional achievements have been achieved by different leaders at different times, it all became less important in the face of this great achievement. Through this victory President Mahinda Rajapaksa became a ‘giant’ leader for the people while all leaders of the opposition were made to look like dwarfs.
Smallness within the greatness
What is very unfortunate is that even though President Mahinda Rajapaksa evolved into a great leader of the people, there was no ideological evolution within him to match this tremendous change. Even after he became a great leader of the people, it was only that small man who lived within him. This did not match his newly acquired greatness and this contradiction is the central reason for the chaotic situation seen at present.
When a human-being gets exalted to the status of a god, the people who pay reverence to him do not expect the behaviour of a human-being from him. After exaltation as a god, if he is unable to adopt the behavior of a god, his going into a crisis cannot be prevented. In a political sense, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is facing a similar crisis.
The status acquired by Abraham Lincoln after the victorious civil war is not the same status he had before. The victorious civil war made him a giant. He changed his aspirations and attitudes so that it matched his gigantic stature. Thereafter, he was no more the narrow-minded political leader. He was a very great and a clever diplomat who viewed the world with much broader ideological aspects. Eight lakhs of people had died in the civil war.
The victory in the civil war was made into a turning point by Abraham Lincoln to bring together all the divided factions of people and to construct a modern state which was sensitive to the fundamental rights of all its citizens and to act accordingly. Similarly when his image expanded Mahatma Gandhi advanced his aspirations and so did Nelson Mandela.
If President Mahinda Rajapaksa had also harnessed this jubilant mood caused by the enormous war victory to establish peace among the communities and among the political parties, and if he made it an occasion to adopt a new political system instead of the present corrupt one, incorporating human rights, democratic values and good governance , he could have evolved into a great leader.
If President Mahinda Rajapaksa had been able to stop the astringent dialogue he was engaged in with Western countries led by the United States of America and adopt a foreign policy which would gain the honour and confidence of Western countries and also of the anti-Western countries, he would have become a very great leader of the people who won the honour and confidence not only of the majority, but of the minorities too, not only of the people of the government party, but of the people of the opposition too, not only of the anti-Western countries, but of the Western countries too. All of this was possible.
The reasons for the discontent
But, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unable to use this historic occasion in an adept and constructive manner. The President was not able to grasp the new situation that emerged. Or else, the group around him did not allow him to change.
Even after the war was over, there was no change in the economic activity that could be felt by the public. Due to the dogmatic attitudes regarding some issues, it was not able to obtain the maximum amount of foreign aid for re-settlement and rehabilitation activities.
If a quick and a flexible policy had been followed for the resettlement of internally displaced persons except the hard core LTTE members, and if an arrangement was in place to cooperate with Western countries who were willing to provide aid for that purpose, the process of resettlement of IDPs could have been a factor to reinforce economic activity in the country.
On the other hand, if the military restrictions that were in force during the time of war were relaxed considerably, specially in the capital Colombo which is the centre of business activities such conditions could have been a factor to strengthen economic activity. Even though large-scale projects are in place in some areas to develop infrastructure facilities, the economy of the country is stagnant.
It may be that the collapse of the world economy too was a reason that affected such stagnation. However, if anti-Western attitudes in foreign policy were changed after the victory in the war and if the government had been able to effectively manage the factors which affect the economy, there would have been a positive change in economic activity.
People endured economic hardship on behalf of the war. The public was of the opinion that it was their duty and responsibility. But people believed that the war victory would bring them immediate economic benefits. But even after a considerable time had lapsed since the end of the war there is no improvement in their economic condition, people have started to view the government with displeasure.
Corruption and nepotism
It is this situation that the opposition took advantage of in a very clever manner. The story that they conveyed to the public was that the benefits of the war victory were enjoyed solely by the Rajapaksa clan and hence the due benefits did not reach them. Although all the people did not believe this, there was a certain section of the people in this country including those who are aligned to the opposition who believed that corruption was yet another serious charge against the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.
Corruption can be treated as a permanent feature that has been introduced willingly to the current political system of this country. Even though there were limitations prior to 1977, a person resorted to politics for purposes of honour and respect. Politics was not a means to earn wealth. But when J. R. Jayewardene established the executive presidential system, he introduced corruption into the political system, as a catalyst which motivates people to take up to politics.
Along with that, the competition for political power became a vicious struggle to grab public wealth. Accordingly, politics became an easy means to earn wealth. In this system, all the governing parties who came to power since 1977 made use of political power to acquire wealth in an improper manner. Those opposition politicians who make corruption charges against the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration at present are themselves corrupt on a larger or smaller scale. The corruption in the governing parties is a product of the political system. The corruption which operates along with political power cannot be eliminated unless a new political system is implemented which obstructs corruption. That is also true of nepotism.
All leaders who came into power in this country granted special concessions to the members of their families, to relatives and to their friends. During the time of D.S. Senanayake, the UNP was known as the “Uncle-Nephew Party.” The authority of one family group over the party was the reason for S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike to leave the party. During his short stay is power, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike did not follow a policy of granting favours to his relatives.
But Sirima Bandaranaike who came to power thereafter, followed a policy of strong nepotism. It acted as one of the important factors for the nasty defeat the SLFP suffered at the general elections in 1977. J. R. Jayewardene who came to power claiming that he had no princes and princesses to be crowned except for the people, followed a policy of granting economic concessions to his family members and relatives.
But he did this wrong act hidden from the public eye. Hence these did not develop into explosive charges against J. R. Jayewardene. But the nepotism that is happening in the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration is not only extensive but is also done openly so that people see it. The public do not endorse a policy where the rulers greatly favour the kith and kin in an unwanted manner. People see it as serving themselves when the spoon is in their own hands.
The most important question is not whether President Mahinda Rajapaksa will or will not be able to win the forthcoming presidential election.
In spite of various limitations, Mahinda still has the support of the people. But even if he wins the presidential election without turning back to review critically and to remove any black patches in his political image prior to such elections the government that will be installed may not be able to win over public trust. That government from the start may have to suffer public protests.
This situation could be avoided, if the Mahinda Rajapaksa government carries out basic changes without delay in the policies that it is following. While expediting the resettlement of the Internally Displaced Persons, a solution must be given to the Tamil community which will restore their honour. As there is no real threat from the LTTE, a considerable amount of military restrictions could be relaxed. Tissainayagam should be pardoned, and all the journalists who have gone abroad seeking protection asked to come back with guarantees of safety.
A foreign policy where interactions will take place with all others with understanding and cooperation could be adopted. Laws could be promulgated to grant legality within the country to the International Conventions which are accepted by the country. The labelling of opposition campaigners as traitors to the country has to be stopped. The government should act in a manner where they will extend their cooperation.
It has to be assured that parliament will be converted to a Constitutional Council after the next parliamentary elections for the purpose of establishing a suitable political system with the support of all the political parties. Until such time a new constitution is adopted, the 17th Amendment to the present Constitution must be implemented.
If the President is able to show his willingness to such a change, it could help to restore and re-strengthen the public trust towards him, which is deteriorating at present. It could also act as a strong foundation for a new journey which will gain the confidence and the honour of the public.
(Veteran Journalist Victor Ivan is the Editor of "Ravaya". This article appears in "The Sunday Leader" under the heading " The Future of President Mahinda Rajapaksa)