Just ten days before the newly set up speedy High Court’s judges begin to hear on a daily basis to its final finish the charges levelled against him of misusing public finances for personal use, Gotabaya Rajapaksa put the nation on notice when he announced for the first time his solid intention to run for the Presidency of Sri Lanka.
In a speech delivered last Sunday at the Viyathmaga meeting, in Colombo, he declared — in the manner Seventh Day Adventist and others denominations of the Christian faith are given to quote Luke’s 12:35 and paraphrase its meaning and herald the coming of Christ “Jesus is coming, are you ready? — that he would come forth as Lanka’s saviour and present himself as a presidential candidate if the people were ready to embrace his advent.
No doubt, he would have known even before the words drooled out from his mouth, the immense odds stacked against him in his elusive quest to bear Lanka’s Sword of Excalibur, which in the Rajapaksa family mentality only a Rajapaksa is entitled and destined to bear. The Triumvirate in Lanka’s Pantheon of its Political Gods: With Mahinda taking the place of Brahma as its creator, with Chamal as Vishnu the Preserver and Gotabaya as Shiva the Destroyer. With Basil perhaps following them as the Holy Ghost in the Christian Trinity found at the Devil’s Altar as the imperceptible Unholy Apparition.
So what made Gota go for the kill on an all-or-nothing basis to seek the nation’s highest office, knowing full well that the odds are against him?
Undoubtedly, he is the most intelligent of the Rajapaksa brothers, the most savvy of them all. No doubt, too, that, next to his elder brother Mahinda, he commands a high level of popularity amongst the people. But is that enough to clinch the Holy Grail and assume the Excalibur when his past shadows his present and casts a sinister dark glow from which he is unable to flee?
So what drove him to announce unbidden his intention to vie for the presidency? Was it to impress upon the speedy High Court Judges that he is presidential material who may become president of Lanka this year and wield all the powers a president is entitled to wield and even beyond? Was it to put on notice the legislature and especially the SLFP and the SLPP that they both have in him a candidate who can deliver the mass vote carte blanche, en masse? Was it to convey to the masses his intention to appear before them as their messiah, savant and saviour well in advance and thus condition them to receive with welcome his imminent advent?
Only Gotabaya will know the answers as to what propelled him to make last Sunday’s boisterous, bellicose call even before he had received the backing of any single political party. Even as he will surely know why it is an impossible dream for him to become the President of Lanka without possessing a political base?
But now that he has made his intentions clear to go for gold, perhaps he should ask himself what qualifies him for the nations’ top job? True, that once upon a time, in Sinhala folklore, it has been said that when the country was kingless, an elephant was sent to roam the country side and the first person the elephant knelt before on all fours and worshipped was declared king of the land. But much water has flowed down the Mahaweli since those days of yore.
And not all the waters of the Rivers Mahaweli, Kelani, Walawe and Kalu that descend from the sacred Samanala Mount can wash away the hurdles that confront Gotabaya in his ambitious bid to seek the throne, the sceptre and the crown of Lanka.
The following are the major obstacles he faces on the road to the presidency:
Obstacle 1: No political base
The first hurdle he faces on his obstacle course is the fact that he has no political base to boast of. No political party still to show its willingness to wager their bets on him. And escort him to the starter’s stall. Without such a sponsor, he can be crippled before he can even begin his canter.
Article 31(1) of the Constitution makes it abundantly clear as to who shall be eligible to contest the presidency. It states: ‘Any citizen who is qualified to be elected to the office of President may be nominated as a candidate for such office
a) By a recognised political party, or
b) If he is or has been an elected member of the legislative, by any other political party or by an elector whose name has been entered in any register of elections.’
Thus, though a front runner in the popularity stakes, he is totally dependent, totally at the mercy of G. L. Peiris’ Pohottuwa party or Sirisena’s SLFP to nominate him as the chosen stallion to run in the 2019 Presidential Stakes event. Though he appears to be the favourite, he stands to be knobbed in the stables even before he can make it to the starter’s gate and sentenced to the knackers’ yard and there condemned to graze upon his dreams and lead the rest of his life on feeding upon what would have been had the fates been not so overwhelmingly stacked against his presidential ambitions.
Chairman of the Mahinda Rajapaksa front party, G. L. Peiris, reiterated two weeks ago that the choice of the party’s presidential candidate lies solely — being the democratic party it is — not in the hands of its members, but at the sole discretion of its sole backer Mahinda Rajapaksa. Addressing a press conference, the former professor who sacrificed a brilliant legal career to turn Mahinda porter and chief yes man and share the barn with the likes of S. B. Dissanayake, Wimal Weerawansa and Gammanpila and moo the same moo in unison, told the media that whoever Mahinda nominates as the presidential will be the party’s unalterable choice. No two words on the matter. Mahinda’s word was law on the issue. His wish the party’s command.
It brings us then to the second obstacle that faces Gotabaya in his quest for the Presidency. Will his own brother, Mahinda who has in his hand the unfettered right to nominate him and upon his tongue to say the magic mantra ‘Open Sesame “to Ali Baba’s cave of untold riches and allow him to share the spoils of presidential office, do so? Will Mahinda, like the Turks of old who did not keep a brother near the throne, wish to keep an uncle next to his son’s future seat of power?
Funnily enough, Mahinda Rajapaksa has kept a studious silence on the matter. Though he has been repeatedly asked whether he will endorse his brother’s candidature, he has, in the silence of the Buddhas, kept mum, saying only that it’s too early to say.
But in September last year, he did not keep secret as to who he wished to be nominated to the presidency of Lanka in 2025: His son and heir apparent.
In the manner the Rajapaksa’s have now become accustomed to — even despite their fall from public grace — believing as they do that it’s their god-given right to rule this thrice blessed land of Lanka, their conviction bolstered by the adulations received from the slavish minions like G. L. Peiris and his ilk of bag carrying flatterers, butterflies who happily swarm the Rajapaksa rose to imbibe its amritha, the nectar of the gods whether earthly or divine — who cares so long as it offers hopes of immortality when the chalice is drunk to its seeming bottomless dregs — Mahinda’s ordained heir for the 2025 hustings is son Namal. Since he is still underage as per the constitution to contest the 2019 presidential election, anyone who is nominated by Mahinda to contest the presidential post in 2019 from the SLPP camp must do so on the basis that he will only sit on the throne to keep it warm for the anointed Rajapaksa heir to place his bottom on it six years hence.
Consider what he had to say on the issue in September last year when he visited India: As the Sunday Punch of September 16, 2018 commented:
“This week in India, fond father Mahinda Rajapaksa declared for the first time the presidential ambitions he harbours in his heart of hearts for his eldest son Namal to be his natural successor and heir apparent, groomed to be the president of Lanka come 2025.
“Speaking to the Indian media, he said on foreign soil what he has kept secret all along in Lanka: that his choice of candidate to run for the presidency is his own son and heir. Alas, the 19th Amendment had raised the age limit for a presidential contender from 30 to 35 thus barring Namal from contesting the 2019 elections, forcing him to click his heels till the 2025 elections come along to throw his year beaten hat to the ring and realise papa’s fond dreams.”
“In answer to a question raised by Tamil Nadu’s Hindu newspaper: “Will it be a member of your family, or would you consider someone outside it?”
“Rajapaksa’s answer: My son Namal Rajapaksa cannot be a presidential candidate since they have now raised the minimum age to 35 years, instead of 30, so he can’t be considered in 2019.”
“So who’s going to warm the seat till 2025 till Rajapaksa son and heir finds his bottom cushioned on it, with his father’s blessings? “
“Rajapaksa’s answer was: “My brother is certainly a contender, but the party and the coalition will have to decide who the people want.”
“All know that it’s in Mahinda’s sole hands to name who that contender from the SLPP will be. So why the hesitancy to name his brother Gotabaya and instead pass the buck to the party and coalition which will slavishly follow his command and hold it as the supreme word of the Almighty.”
But if this is a seeming barrier to his presidential chances stemming from his brother Medamulana Court, Gotabaya faces even a more lethal battle in the Hulftsdorp Courts beginning this week.
Obstacle 2: The high speed courts
This Tuesday he is due to appear before the newly set up High Courts whose brief is to speed up the criminal cases that demands urgent attention. And that’s, as far as Presidential hopeful Gotabaya is concerned is only for starters.He faces charges over his alleged role in various incidents under investigation by the CID, the FCID and the Bribery Commission, including the ‘MiG Deal’, Lasantha Wickrematunga murder, Keith Noyahr abduction and the Avant Garde affair. Furthermore, the Bribery Commission last year charged Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Nissanka Senadhipathi and others with corruption to the tune of Rs 11.4 billion in connection with the operation of a floating armory by Avant Garde Maritime Services.Not a small bundle to carry as baggage that will endear him to the public, is it? Especially when G. L. Peiris says only Mahinda can decide the SLPP candidate and Mahinda still remains hesitant to do so, when Nimal Siripala of the SLFP announces the SLFP death wish that the SLFP candidate will be Sirisena at the forthcoming presidential hustings, Gotabaya Rajapaksa must feel like an orphan at a Cheshire Home, abandoned and condemned to the dustbin, though — and this what must hurt him most — he firmly believes, as perhaps rightly so, he is the best man for the job to beautify Colombo’s streets and pavements and expand his plans to make all roads one way where a flotilla of white vehicles can roam at will without the prospect of being enmeshed in traffic jams, leading to unnecessary, inconvenient cases in court.
Thus in the event of not being granted the privilege of contesting the presidential election under the SLPP banner of his brother or under the SLFP sign of Sirisena who himself makes no bones about running for a second term despite his avowal when he took his oaths four years ago at Independence Square that he will only serve one term and will go home pronto without seeking an encore, Gotabaya will find himself reduced to starting his own political party under whose banner he will be eligible to hand over his nomination papers to the Election Commissioner to seek the seal of eligibility. And that must indeed be a daunting, last resort chance. For, the process of gaining recognition is a long and laborious process, unless, of course, the wheels of bureaucracy are well lubricated to make it spin faster.
And there is one further problem. And that comes from his eldest sibling Chamal who queered Gota’s pitch even more when he announced his own readiness to contest the Presidency. Chamal Rajapaksa, the former Speaker of the House, also put in his own bid, in the best Rajapaksa manner to treat the right to the Lankan throne as if it was a family heirloom, when he told journalists this week that if the people were ready, then so were he to be nominated as presidential candidate.
But even if Gotabaya establishes his own political party and gains recognition from the Election Commission and thereby the opportunity to appear before the voting public as a candidate at the forthcoming presidential election, does he have the political base to use as a springboard to launch his election campaign? For without grassroots logistics, his campaign will be still born, doomed even before it had got off the ground, neutered before its conception and condemned, despite the red rose’s promise, to waste its fragrance in the desert air.
Obstacle 3: Dual citizenship
Most of all, the biggest obstacle he faces as he runs his steeplechase of hurdles before he can get to the starter’s gate is that erected by the United States of America. It revolves around the question of his dual citizenship and of his ability to jump over the wall that America has built around her borders not so much to prevent aliens from jumping in but to prevent her own citizens who have enjoyed the broad acres of her land from jumping over it at any time of their choosing when it suits them to do so.Under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution enacted by over five sixth of Parliament in April 2015, a person, however so much he may ooze with patriotic fervor for his motherland Lanka, if he had opted to swear allegiance to a foreign nation and sworn fidelity to it and to defend its soil and abide by its laws is barred, quite rightly too, from contesting for Parliament and the presidential election. No man can serve two masters, no citizen can profess allegiance to the motherland whilst having his foot on a foreign land and swearing allegiance to it voluntarily. In matrimonial parlance, it’s adultery, though no criminal offence, of course, either in staid Lanka in a swinging US of A but still a civil disability in Lanka to participate in her political affairs and woo the Lankan voter and cuddle him in a bi-nationalistic embrace.
This Tuesday, emerging from the High Court which had fixed for trial the case again him for misuse of public funds for the 22nd of the month, he was accosted by the media who asked him of the great barrier reef he faced with regard to his US citizenship.
For Gotabaya, however, it was no issue. He spoke of his dual status as if it did not entail any responsibilities or duties to either host nation, one that had given him birth and the other whom he had sought by choice to be suckled for his nourishment and advancement.
Speaking to the media in a nonchalant manner indicating he could discard his foster mum at whose breast he sucked to return to his biological amma who had given him birth at his whim and fancy, he said, the matter of dual-citizenship was something personal to him and he did not think the US could block individual rights.
“It is something personal to me. As a personal matter, I can either get it removed or keep it. No one should make it an issue. No man can be kept tied. The US hails itself as the father of liberal democracy. So, can they obstruct individual rights for any reason? They can’t. I can renounce it at any moment I choose. America cannot tie me down. It’s my exclusive right to renounce it when I want,” he said.
But is that so?
First take the Lankan courts. Geetha Kumarasinghe was disbarred from being a member of Parliament last year when the Supreme Court found that a mere letter sent to the Swiss Government as she claimed she had sent, did not suffice to amount to an act of renunciation.
This established a strong precedence that a person who enjoyed dual nationality could not contest at any elections in the country.
Secondly, the US Supreme Court has also upheld the view that a citizen’s right to renounce citizenship was no one way street affair. Puerto Rican born citizen Lozada Colon’s bid to unilaterally renounce US citizenship was denied by the Supreme Court in 1999 and had set a 20-year precedent which is still binding on all courts in the US.
As the Sunday Punch commented on October 14 last year, the first hurdle that Gotabaya faces is a question of time. Although US law on the matter of renunciation simply says that all one had to do was to walk into a US consular Office outside the states and declare an oath renouncing US citizenship, the procedure involved in the final excommunication by the US Government is not that simple. For it is only after the intention to renounce is informally expressed that the process begins before one can make his oath of renunciation. The local Embassy will forward the filled application form to several agencies in the US.
When a local embassy enters a filled application form into the system, the globalised US State Department system automatically computer generates the process. The application gets wetted at every relevant US government agency from the Department of Homeland Security, to the Pentagon, to the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Treasury.
The task of these agencies will be to ascertain whether the applicant seeking renunciation of citizenship has been involved in money laundering, in any criminal activity, in drugs, whether he or she is in divorce proceedings, in tax evasion, in short, in every gamut of activity that, in their discretion, may hold their attention.
Depending on the case in hand, the process can take three months to three years. For US law sets no time frame and leaves the investigative agencies to take their own cool time to furnish their report.
Once an application is made to renounce US citizenship and weeks before it is formally granted, the US Treasury is legally bound to publish a notice in the newspapers announcing such an intention and inviting the public to place their objections, if any. With such kind of notice, it is hard to see the American Tamil Diaspora, armed with the Lozada precedent, not leaping into action to petition the US courts to prevent the US Secretary of State granting Gotabaya the right to renounce US citizenship to enable him to contest the Lanka presidential poll.
The Courts may hold otherwise and deny them their request. But wouldn’t the sands of time have run out in the hour glass before the presidential poll is held this year. For time is not on Gota’s side. And time is of the essence. Neither are the laws of both Lanka and the US in his favour. And the pity is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa still keeps on harping of his right to unilaterally renounce his citizenship. The tragedy is that he still expects the people to swallow his humbug whole.