Mystery surrounds what transpired during outgoing US Ambassador Atul Keshap’s courtesy call on former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa last Sunday. On Wednesday, The Island daily quoted a source close to the former President to say that Ambassador Keshap told Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR for short) that his younger brother and former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is “unpopular” thereby hinting that Gotabaya will not be able to win the next Presidential election to be held in January 2020.
It is widely rumored that the Joint Opposition and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by MR will field Gotabaya as their candidate because MR himself cannot contest for a third time under the 19 th.Amendment of the constitution enacted in 2015.
But The Island also quoted MR’s spokesman to say that the US Ambassador had not raised the issue of Gotabhaya’s candidature. In a “categorical denial”, MR’s spokesman said that the question of Gotabhaya’s candidature had not figured in the discussions.
However, a source close to Gotabaya told this correspondent that Ambassador Keshap had asked MR if Gotabaya is going to be put up as the candidate of the group.
MR’s reply was that no decision has been taken on candidature and that it is too early to take a decision given the fact that there are 15 more months to go for the next election.
MR further said that there are a number of possible candidates and a decision on who to field will be taken at the appropriate time.
The source also said that Keshap enquired about Gotabaya’s recent visit to China. MR said that Gotabaya had been a research fellow in a Chinese University to work on the successful war against terrorism in Sri Lanka. Gotabaya had been invited to do the same by a Singapore university too, as Sri Lanka’s experience in ending the terrorist and separatist menace is invaluable to many countries faced with the same problem.
Sources said that Ambassador Keshap’s apprehension is understandable because Gotabaya is set to win the election if put up as the candidate.
“The envoy’s query shows the existence of Gota Bhaya or a Gota Phobia,” one of the sources said in a lighter vein.
The West sees Gotabaya as a fiercely nationalistic and anti-West person who fully endorsed his brother MR’s anti-West posture during Eelam War IV (2006-2009) and also the latter’s pro-China policies after the war.
His national security ‘think tank’ is said to be packed with anti-US and anti-West elements who had vigorously opposed any accommodation with the US and the West during and after the war when the West was taking up human rights issues in the UN.
MR was President and Gotabaya was Defense Secretary during Eelam War IV which broke the military might of the separatist Tamil Tigers.
Gotabaya is undoubtedly popular among the majority Sinhalese community for his handling of the defense ministry during the war; his strong opposition to minority “communal extremism’; his post-war developmental work; and his pro-private sector stance.
But the minority Tamils and Muslims have deep apprehensions about his sense of fairness. His belief in the efficacy of strong arm methods is also feared.
It is certain that Gotabaya would never accede to the Tamils’ demand for greater devolution of power to the Tamil-speaking North and East and allow Muslims to go their own way in matters of cultural autonomy which is seen as “separatist” culturally if not territorially.
Though Gotabaya is now vigorously cultivating the Muslims using Ramzan Iftar parties to the maximum to touch base with Muslims, the Muslims by and large take his new stance with a pinch of salt.
His denial of responsibility for the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in 2014, which turned the Muslims away from his brother MR in the January 2015 Presidential election, has not cut ice with most Muslims.
The Tamils by and large are against Gotabaya s he will be a bigger stumbling block in the way of their progress as a distinct community with distinct political and territorial rights than his elder brother MR.
At any rate, Gotabaya has made no effort to cultivate the Tamils thus far.
Gotabaya has another handicap – his US citizenship. He is a dual citizen. The 19 th.Amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution enacted in 2015 bars people with dual citizenship from standing for public offices.
But Gotabaya could renounce his US citizenship. And it is said in political circles that he has applied for renunciation but is yet to get a response. It is said that the US could delay permission to quit US citizenship and thus prevent him from contesting the Presidential poll.
As of now, the Joint Opposition is keen on keen on putting up Gotabaya as its candidate given his “war hero” status and his excellent performance as a development administrator after the war. MR has even told the media that there is a “popular” demand for Gotabaya’s candidature.
But the Joint Opposition is preparing itself for various eventualities. It has an unofficial panel of possible candidates. They are as follows and in the following order: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, younger brother of MR; Chamal Rajapaksa, elder brother of MR and former Speaker of parliament; Basil Rajapaksa, MR’s brother and former Economic Affairs Minister and chief election organizer; and lastly, Dinesh Gunawardene, leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) who hails from a very distinguished family with a political history going back to pre-independence days.