The Sunday Observer Political Editor
In his haste to get somewhere fast, the young MP from Hambantota proved last Wednesday that he could really jeopardise his father’s dreams for the future:
“Everything the light touches is our kingdom.”– Mufasa, Lion King
September 5, 2018 was supposed to be much more than just a mass mobilisation of support for former President Rajapaksa and his proxy party known as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Janabalaya, organised by the SLPP ‘youth wing’, was also about a passing of the torch.
Over a decade long presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa groomed his eldest son Namal to be his successor in politics. The second boy, Yoshitha, dreamt of a military career, the youngest Rohitha dabbled in aerospace engineering. But Namal Rajapaksa’s destiny was to follow in the illustrious footsteps of his father, and his grandfather before that – the keeper of the flame and the political future of the Rajapaksa family.
In December 2019, Namal Rajapaksa will be 33 years old, two years shy of eligible age to contest for presidential office in Sri Lanka. Capturing the presidency in 2020 is just beyond the young politician’s reach. His best hope is to remain in politics – and out of prison – until 2025, and cash in on his father’s legacy to reach the highest office of the land. As Dr Jayadeva Uyangoda argued superbly in a political analysis published in a Sinhalese language weekly recently, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s sights are really set on 2025 and a presidential future for his eldest offspring. In 2019/2020, what the former President is truly seeking in a candidate who will contest from his party, is a place-holder for his son, someone who will pave the way for the rise of Namal in 2025. In essence, Mahinda Rajapaksa is looking for a regent, until his son and chosen ‘heir’ comes of age.
It is strange to resort to monarchic metaphors in discussions about the political future in what is supposed to be a democratic country. Yet the Rajapkasa universe is quintessentially monarchical, and is often most easily deciphered and analysed by setting their dilemmas, their successes and failures within that context.
None of the candidate options currently in the SLPP/JO fray, quite fit the bill. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the most obvious presidential aspirant in the Rajapaksa faction so far, falls short of being the ideal ‘regent’. Firstly, he has a son of his own and may harbour dynastic ambitions. Secondly, the former Defence Secretary is already looking to set up a wholly different type of administration than has ever existed in the country. If a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency ever takes shape, the soldier will take precedence over politicians, forever altering a long-standing republican tradition that the military official is always subject to civilian political control. It is to highlight this subservience as it were, that military officials are placed lower in the order of precedence for seating at official sate functions and events. If Gotabaya wins the candidacy and this alteration takes place, there will be no more guarantees about the line of succession, no matter what promises may have gone before the election. The former President is keenly aware of this threat and it may be the defining reason for his vehement opposition to the prospect of a Gotabaya candidacy in 2019.
Dinesh Gunewardane, G.L. Peiris, Chamal Rajapaksa, these are all unpredictable choices –politicians in their own right – who may develop minds of their own if they secure high office. The former Speaker, although well-liked across the board, poses an even larger threat to the Namal 2025 project, since his son, Shashendra, is already an active politician.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa family within the larger Rajapaksa clan therefore has a fairly unique problem. Added to that, is the growing resentment within sections of the SLPP/JO that former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa has been portrayed as the ‘mastermind’ behind the SLPP election success in the local government polls. The JO decision to move a no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister that was easily defeated in April this year, was another unmitigated disaster that Basil Rajapaksa had strongly warned against.
Friction between the former Economic Development Minister and Namal Rajapaksa has been a long-standing issue. The portrayal of Basil Rajapaksa as an indispensable factor in the Rajapaksa comeback project is no doubt unsettling for the former President’s immediate family.
The Janabalaya last week therefore, set out to prove two things.
Firstly that Namal Rajapaksa was in fact, the ‘chosen heir’ to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political legacy. This meant that the senior leadership needed to begin to look up to the 32 year politician from Hambantota, and learn to take direction from him. The visuals posted across social media of the young Hambantota District MP chairing meetings, at the centre of a SLPP/JO group that included Rhodes Scholar Prof. G.L. Peiris and Dinesh Gunewardane, the son of one of the founding members of the Lanka Samasamaja Party, were deliberately revealing. The SLPP Youth Wing Twitter account and all of the Namal Rajapaksa satellite accounts, exploded with pictures of the young MP addressing pocket meetings to brief supporters about the Janabalaya Colambata rally. The group’s digital marketing teams created a theme song and video for the rally that included visuals only of the young MP from Hambantota – there were visuals of Namal being arrested, holding meetings, reaching out to communities – all under the watchful shadow of his father. The Janabalaya was supposed to be the launching pad for Namal Rajapaksa in the way that Paada Yaathra and Jana Gosha was for Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 1980s, a symbolic passing of the mantle that would signal the desire of the 72 year old former President’s heart, and his only true political dream.
Secondly, the Janabalaya was supposed to showcase Namal Rajapaksa’s own organisational strength, without his Uncle Basil’s help. Basil Rajapaksa is currently in the US, where he holds citizenship, and did not even return to Sri Lanka to attend his brother Tudor Rajapaksa’s funeral two weeks ago. Said to be sidelined and in a bit of a sulk, the former Minister seemed intent to stay away from the mass rally, organised by his nephew. It is learnt that Basil Rajapaksa strongly opposed mobilising supporters to converge on Colombo at this time, preferring to do it in December, just before the provincial council elections are expected to be held. The Basil faction in the SLPP believed a show of strength at that point would serve the party well in an election, by creating the impression that the Rajapaksa led party was enjoying a groundswell in support.
In hindsight, this may have been the wiser course of action.
Wednesday’s rally fell flat, even though it managed to bring tens of thousands of people to Colombo. The numbers fell significantly short of the SLPP Youth Wing targets of 200,000-500,000 propagated widely over social media ahead of the rally, but that was the least of the organisers’ problems. The SLPP frantically tried to create the impression that the Government was going to crackdown on the mobilisation. But even though law enforcement was on standby with tear gas, water canons, riot police and even STF personnel moved into the capital the night before, the rally itself was peaceful and completely devoid of interference from the police.
Contributing to this situation was the fact that the much-hyped rally created a lull in the capital, with many choosing to stay away from work and school in order to avoid getting stranded on the road or stuck for hours in traffic congestion.
The result was traffic flow that resembled a public holiday and protestors who had the Colombo Fort area to themselves, and exploited it to the fullest – for merry-making. To maintain an air of mystery, organisers refused to tell supporters where the march would converge, only announcing the location as the Lake House Roundabout after about 30-40,000 people were already milling about in the capital without direction.
Any semblance of organisation that had existed when the march began from different directions had fallen apart, and with no epicentre, a stage or planned speeches, the crowds hung about aimlessly for hours, occasionally cheering when VIP convoys carrying former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa sliced through the protestors. The heavy partying took its toll on demonstrators who had little to look forward to as dusk fell. By 7 pm they began to walk away from the Roundabout, looking for buses to take them back home.
A half-hearted satyagraha and pleas for crowds to stay overnight on the road got little traction, and the vigil was called off at midnight allowing the remaining stragglers to disperse.
The morning after, was like a bad hangover for Namal Rajapaksa and his fellow organisers. During the protest and overnight, the Rajapaksa twitter universe had gone deathly silent with its main controllers busy with the protest. The rest of social media had exploded with photographic evidence of drunken shenanigans, poor organisation and piles of garbage left behind in the city once the Janabalaya protestors moved on. By morning, the protest had been dubbed an utter failure, even on websites and social media platforms that usually favoured the JO.
Blame was laid entirely at the feet of the young prince. Namal Rajapaksa’s social media marketing and engagement remains unparalleled in Sri Lankan politics to date. But Wednesday’s rally proved that when it came to a real ground-game and political organisation, the young MP had a great deal left to learn. As one Twitter user pithily put it as the post-mortems of the rally wound down last Wednesday, “this Simba can’t walk yet”.
If following his father’s example was the aim of Janabalaya, there are other lessons to be learned from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political journey. To begin with that politics is a game for distant runners. Namal Rajapaksa showed a lack of patience, a desire to get somewhere too fast – and he built resentment in the ranks and clocked up a major failure with Wednesday’s rally. Fears within the JO now are that the flop could have a telling effect on the group’s political fortunes, and result in another major loss of momentum on the back of a failed attempt to oust the Prime Minister, a debilitating Hitler scandal and infighting over the 2019 candidacy. The drunken party on the streets of Colombo also stripped the SLPP/JO of its moral high ground, as the custodian of the country’s morality and Buddhist values.
The failure of the crown prince last Wednesday, has set the stage for a renewed quest for a regent, and fresh fractionalisation within the JO.
In Disney’s blockbuster animation Lion King, Mufasa, leader of the pride, shows Simba the kingdom that will one day be his. In the movie, the young cub nearly lost it all through wilfulness and regret.
Namal Rajapaksa is heir to a tremendous political brand and legacy, but in his haste to reach the top, he could easily precipitate the decline of everything his father built over four decades in politics. Once already, the double triumvirate of offspring and sibling, with their arrogance and extravagance, cost Mahinda Rajapaksa a third presidential term. At this rate, as they precipitate crisis after crisis, they could just as easily jeopardise his dreams for a real political comeback.