Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, once reportedly quipped the Sinhalese have short memories. Prabakaran’s nihilistic terrorist struggle for a separate state that lasted for twenty-five years cost the country as much as the current Gross Domestic Product if a conservative estimate of 2 per cent of annual loss growth is counted. That the Tiger supremo could wage war for so long and unleash so much destruction partly because the entire strategic, tactical and operational manoeuvring of the LTTE was designed to exploit this particular weakness of the Sinhalese majority and the opportunism of their political leadership.
Now, another man is testing Praba’s premise. Basil Rajapaksa, the founder and self-anointed strategist of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), made a glorious entry at the SLPP’s May Day event. That grandeur welcome placed him on par with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the disgraced former president and prime minister.
In contrast, the incumbent Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena received a rather lukewarm reception. SLPP’s plan for a grand May Day rally was a flop. Instead, the empty rows of chairs and poor attendance blighted the occasion meant to showcase the party’s resurgence. That itself elevated Basil Rajapaksa in the news cycle.
Basil himself seems to think this is his moment. The patriarch of the family, Mahinda, has exhausted the constitutional limit of the two terms of presidency. One of the Rajapaksas should rise to the occasion to keep the party within the family.
Basil, a dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the United States, will have to renounce the latter in order to qualify for running for the presidency. But, there is plenty of time, even if the incumbent, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who would definitely contest, as some reports suggest, would succeed in getting a constitutional amendment, enabling him to call a presidential election at the expiration of four years in office.
As a president who was appointed by Parliament for the remainder of the current term vacated by his predecessor Gotabaya, Mr Wickremesinghe does not have the discretion to call an early election without a constitutional amendment. Time is not the most pressing concern for Basil should he renounce his US citizenship. But, a potential legal investigation by the Justice Department may complicate his plans. As for now, there is no known investigation, strangely for a man whom the leaked American embassy cables alleged as Mr ten per cent.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s dynastic project is in shambles. He funnelled US$ 3 billion of Chinese loans to home turf in vestige projects. He even promoted Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a step-gap president to warm the chair for heir apparent, his son Namal. Today, even the most sycophantic of the Rajapaksa followers have no desire for the return of a Rajapaksa. Rajapaksas have effectively cannibalized their most loyal constituency, the poor, the rural and the nationalistic, just like Prabhakaran did with the Tamil youth.
Not just a bad Joke, a cruel one
As a result of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mismanagement of the economy, poverty in the country has doubled within a year, from 13 per cent in 2021 to 25 per cent in 2022, which effectively has eroded two decades of gains in poverty eradication. It was the most faithful of the Rajapaksa vote base that took the brunt of the economic crisis. Any mention of the return of another Rajapaksa is not just a bad joke but a cruel one.
But Basil Rajapaksa does not seem to think so.
Nor do some of the staunchest of the Rajapaksa acolytes like SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, Basil’s sidekick, who told a media conference, Basil Rajapaksa is well placed to be the presidential candidate of the party.
This newfound confidence may correlate to the easing economic hardships and the Sri Lankans’ generally shorter memories. Many cynics even raise the prospect of the Rajapaksa’s pulling up a racist, xenophobic bogeyman yet again as a successful election strategy.
When Sri Lankans have enough to eat and not much circus, they easily fall into those and actively participate. But, unfortunately for Basil Rajapaksa and the wider Rajapaksa clan, the economy is still fragile, and many who have their lives shattered are yet to recover and are in no mood to be mobilized by racist dog-whistling.
This is also bad news for some of the young SLPP Parliamentarians who have moved from the shadow of Rajapaksas and are making a career of their own. Some, like the Minister of Power and Energy, Kanchana Wijesekera, have undertaken serious responsibilities and delivered decent results. Many young SLPP Ministers and Deputy Ministers are proving they are more than sycophantic poodles and are competent in their own rights. Basil Rajapaksa is set to spoil things for these MPs as well.
This also risks a split in the SLPP as many MPs, some already vocal, might put their weight behind President Wickremesinghe.
Basil Rajapaksa is bad news for the country too. A semi-literate third-world politician whose only qualification is the dynastic lineage will not solve Sri Lanka’s existential problems. It was this political class and their bureaucratic acolytes who created this mammoth economic mess in the first place.