by Col R Hariharan
President Mahinda Rajapaksa started his second innings as President when he was sworn in at an auspicious hour on November 19, 2010 with all the pomp and ceremony associated with the coronation of royalty. “It Is fitting in a way” thousands of his supporters would say because President Rajapaksa is now “monarch of all he surveys.” Not only his United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has bagged two thirds majority in parliament but also dutifully amended the Constitutional two-term restriction imposed on presidents. With that the President’s second tenure that would have been his swan song, has now been turned into an orchestration for a second symphony, with options open for him to compose more.
Though the beaming President Rajapaksa looked supremely confident as he watched a military parade and the screaming fly past of air force jets on the occasion, there were a few false notes within few days of the second term.
The first came when 104 members out of 161 members of the UPFA coalition were ushered into a jumbo cabinet. It included the prime minister, the new class of 11 senior ministers, 61 ministers and 31 deputy ministers. In his first term Rajapaksa’s coalition did not enjoy the advantage of two-thirds majority and his adoption of the ‘jumbo cabinet’ strategy to strengthen his coalition in parliament had some validity. But why has he fallen to the same ‘jumbo’ tactic? Does it mean he has doubts about retaining the loyalties of his coalition members? With his mass popularity, does the President really feel politically insecure? This doubt is further reinforced when we see the senior ministers - trusted lieutenants of earlier years - have been given the option of attending cabinet meetings when they chose, despite holding high sounding portfolios! Have they been put to pasture? Does it mean the President wants to keep them at arms length in his decision making process?
The second jarring note is the way portfolios have been allotted to the ministers. In spite of such large number of ministers, the President has retained the vital portfolios of defence, finance and planning, ports and aviation and highways under him. President’s brother Basil Rajapaksa will be handling planning and development as before. The portfolios allocated to other ministers and deputy ministers are confusing. They also appear apportioned from cohesive entities, and we can expect the ministers to trample upon each others territory. Does this mean the President has little confidence in his cabinet members in delivering his development agenda of which he has been speaking at length? Or is it for more mundane reasons of keeping the ministers on the leash as they look for small pickings?
Of course, there was also the President’s ill-timed, if not ill-advised, visit to the U.K. to address the Oxford Union. The President’s 100-strong entourage marked a big occasion in his calculus. The organisers aborted the meeting the day before it was scheduled for reasons of security after a well orchestrated protest march of Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates, largely peppered with Tamil Tiger acolytes, threatened to converge on Oxford to disrupt the meeting. The Tamil protest had a well-timed added provocation when Channel 4 TV beamed an old but more detailed version of the gruesome slaughter of Tamil women captives allegedly by Sri Lankan army soldiers in uniform. The British government kept the legendary stiff upper lip and had nothing to say Oxford SNAFU as Rajapaksa’s visit was ‘unofficial.’ Wikileaks also added its pennyworth up loading cables on how the US ambassador Ms Patricia Butenis felt the President and his team had collective responsibility for war crimes.
The President bravely weathered the cold rebuff in Oxford in the icy British winter and went home to a thundering reception by an adulatory crowd. Regardless of the Tamil Tigers colouring of the war crimes issue, the Oxford experience should be a moment of truth for the President. He has to face the issue squarely at the international level and clean up, if not erase, his and Sri Lanka’s image blurred by war crimes allegation. No locally compounded formulation of the Lesson Learnt Commission-kind will can do this. Solutions like the one proposed by his irrepressible minister Mervyn Silva to educate all Englishmen from the highest officers to the lowest on Mahinda Chinthanaya can only provide comic relief. Sri Lanka has a credibility deficit in this respect. And this has to be overcome.
The President in a recent interview given to N Ram, the Editor in chief of the Hindu, had explained the rationale behind getting the constitutional two-term bar on the president lifted. He said he had found in the past, presidents were effective only in the first year of their second term after which they became lame ducks. As per this reasoning, the lifting of the constitutional limitation would enable him to use the second term fully for “development of the people.” If that was his idea, neither his cabinet nor its structuring gives confidence of fulfilling Rajapaksa’s hopes.
Moreover, with the abolishing of the two-term limitation for the President, Sri Lanka may end up with a life time president, though Rajapaksa had disclaimed any such intention in his Hindu interview. Going by his demonstrated political acumen, President Rajapaksa is probably shrewder than other ‘life term’ presidents of the world to make such a mistake. Some of the ‘life termers’ who rose to pinnacle of fame ultimately ended up in the dust bin of history. [Of course, there is a modern day precedence of a president who became an emperor! Jean Bèdel Bokassa, President of Central African Republic, declared himself President for Life in 1972 and crowned himself as emperor in 1976! Of course, he was overthrown later and died in custody is a matter of inconvenient detail.]
As Oliver Goldsmith wrote “Popular glory is a perfect coquette; her lovers must toil, feel every inquietitude, indulge every caprice, and perhaps at last jilted in the bargain.” President Rajapaksa needs to rewrite his opening of the second symphony lest it fails at the altar of popular glory. He needs it to get his development agenda succeed.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group.)