Eating Lunch with Mahinda Rajapaksa and Drinking Tea with Maithripala Sirisena on the Same Sunday



It wasn’t just another Sunday. On the eve of the day that nominations closed and the Presidential race began in earnest, I had a one-on-one luncheon conversation with President Rajapaksa and a late teatime discussion with Maithripala Sirisena, at the invitations of the incumbent and a key personality of the challenger’s camp, respectively. While I shall not divulge the contents of either conversation, I can however, share my impressions.

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Most important is that contrary to the lurid propaganda about dictatorship and even Nazi fascism that accompanied the 18th amendment, Sri Lanka remains a vibrant democracy and the race for the top spot in the country is a real one. This was made possible by a simple expedient that I had been canvassing ad infinitum et ad nauseam: the introduction of a viable Opposition candidate in place of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The two candidates seem roughly evenly poised. Thus is a balance restored. They are both strong personalities, each in their own distinct ways.

One –on–one, Mahinda Rajapaksa is gracious and grounded. As has been the case since I first knew him in 1999, our conversation is in English. Mahinda’s is the cautious confidence of a veteran; he is not gung-ho. He comes across as a Realist who has sensed the opinion currents for change, but is relying on his achievement of ridding the citizenry of terrorism and of visibly, tangibly improving the towns and countryside through electricity, roads and shelter. Ironically, for a former progressive, his is a message of conservative modernization, or a message that is progressive insofar as the defense of national sovereignty in the Global south is a progressive cause and economic and material modernization is intrinsically, socio-historically progressive. It is on the other hand, a conservative message in that I for one cannot discern any further room for enlightened structural reform in the Mahinda Rajapaksa trajectory and project, unless a third and final term faces strong pressures from an opposition led parliament.

He is drawing on maturity and experience in a thousand battles, but is hamstrung by his clan and sclerotic party-state establishment. Mahinda Rajapaksa will have to fight and win this election on his own personality—he will have to romance, persuade, convince and win back the voter, by himself and as himself. The impression I am left with is that his main concerns are national sovereignty and the dangers of eventual transfer of power to parliament which could give a proto-separatist party the veto over governmental formation someday.

I speak straight from the shoulder as I always have with him—which is why his siblings and their crooked, thuggish cronies flushed me out of the System—and sincerely wish him luck. What I really hope for is that if Mahinda wins narrowly, he will be freed from his family oligarchy by the voters who will defeat the ruling coalition at the parliamentary election. I tell him that for his sake I hope the voters will, just this one last time, opt for the parliamentary rather than Presidential channel of change.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is “the Lion in Winter”. I leave with no clear sense of whether he will win or lose, but with the notion that even if he resonates enough with the rural voter to pull off a win, I am witnessing a scene in the inevitable cycle of the tragic hero, whose tragic flaw has been his inability or unwillingness to curb the greedy excesses of his family clan. The Maithri rebellion is the equivalent of the impeachment that damaged President Premadasa and the Karuna breakaway that crippled Prabhakaran. Mahinda may pull off the famous rope-a-dope that Muhammed Ali used in his comeback—but the unipolar moment is over.

I meet Maithripala Sirisena that evening. The President’s camp as well as his own will find that he is no pushover. Maithripala is very confident, calm yet switched-on. He is slight and friendly with a wiry tensile strength and the zeal of the reformer. He has much to say, to share, to disclose, to convince. To me he is credible. He has drive and energy as a challenger should. I get the sense that the very logic of his campaign has led to a welcome change from the fast-track abolition of the executive presidency to a rather more nuanced, evolutionary gradualism. He is gathering social momentum owing to the combination of sheer anti-incumbency and a backlash against an exclusionary clan-centrism. His activists are far more switched on than the old warhorses, fat cats and gangsta young politicos in the President’s campaign. Maithripala’s is a Movement while Mahinda’s is a Machine. Maithri is feeding off the energy of the Movement; its strength and weakness being that it is predominantly urban, educated, and professional. Mahinda has the challenge of transcending his Machine while relying upon it. Mahinda’s Machine is itself perforated, permeable, not chiefly because there are UNPers in the System but because the challenger, Maithripala is a senior SLFPer and has sympathizers in its ranks as Ranil would not have.

Maithripala is a man with a message: he will clean the place up; save money and invest it for the public benefit by clearing out the crooks—the kleptocratic clan. In that cause, I support him and sincerely wish him luck. Win or lose, I think a leader has emerged whom we should protect. Even if he narrowly loses the Presidential election, I hope to see him lead a coalition to victory at the parliamentary one, and become our Prime Minister, balancing the President.

Maithri’s critique resonates with me but I cannot suppress a larger historical question which is essentially ethical, even moral: if we gave two terms to JRJ and CBK who failed to save us from terrorism and did not try hard enough to do so, should we not give Mahinda a third term almost as a bonus for having achieved what these others did not? Should we reward dramatically unequal performance equally, with two terms? Is it historically fair and just that Mahinda should be sent home, having saved us from Prabhakaran, while Ranil Wickremesinghe should be installed as Prime Minister, having genuflected before Prabhakaran?

If it were only Mahinda without his ubiquitous family, I would have no hesitation in supporting him. Similarly if it were Maithripala without Ranil and Chandrika, I would have no hesitation in supporting him. The reality is that neither is the case. Both candidates, strong and worthy men, are embedded in their respective reactionary matrices. I shall therefore remain agnostic and equidistant; opting for bipolar power-balancing and rising, as Isaac Deutscher recommended, “au dessus de la melee” (“above the fray”).

A Movement has the edge over a Machine, but the battle in the electoral arena will be, in the final analysis, mano-a-mano, man to man. It is here that Mahinda may still have an edge. When I left Temple Trees after two hours and a bit, Elvis was still in the building.