Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Retrospect
Photo by Dhananjaya Samarakoon
Colombo was noticeably subdued when news of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation letter reaching the speaker of the parliament came out; perhaps because people were unable to buy them, there were no firecrackers. In any case, Mr. Rajapaksa goes down in history as the first Sri Lankan president, indeed its first post-independence leader, to have been chased away by his people. We are yet to know what will follow. For the aragalistas at Galle Face and elsewhere, however, the news was eagerly anticipated and long in coming.
Fearful of an impending military takeover, anti-regime social media circles kept predicting the president’s next big move. And yet, none of it came to be. Not even on July 9 when thousands of jubilant protesters stormed his official residence, did the military do anything remotely resembling what we have seen in Egypt and Pakistan. There was no takeover, no attempt at a pushback. The lack of any definitive response from the state thus revealed him for who he really was – a weak-kneed president, one of the very many who have, throughout our history, assumed the throne and later made an ignominious exit.
The mood at GotaGoGama was perceptibly upbeat on July 12, the day before the president was to tender his resignation. I was there, walking across the site, savouring the sights and the sounds, talking with the protesters, seeing what it was like to be a part of it all. I was not entirely surprised to come across those who had voted for Mr. Rajapaksa, who had felt more or less betrayed by his failures. One of them, who had come all the way from Kegalle, once a Rajapaksa stronghold, was sober about the man he had once lionised. “We honestly thought he would give us some sense of meaning, perhaps even turning Sri Lanka into another Singapore. But because of those around him, he got wrong advice and messed things up. Having supported his brother [Mahinda] in 2005, 2009 and 2015 [when he contested the presidency], we now feel betrayed by him.”
He was even sadder about Mahinda’s fate. “This was a man the whole island would have wept over upon his death, a man who could have pushed us to tears. Now the country welcomes his death. They don’t see anything to celebrate about him or his family. A shame, a very big shame.”
Such opinions are not shared by the more vehement critics of the government. But then it’s hard to find someone who didn’t vote for this government; Mr. Rajapaksa, after all, won 6.9 million votes, or an impressive 52 percent, in November 2019. Although paling in comparison to what Chandrika Kumaratunga won in 1994 it was, as one of Mr Rajapaksa’s prominent biographers C. A. Chandraprema put it, “the mother of all landslides.” Having won such an unprecedented mandate, he found it difficult to commit to it. This could only invite rebellion, particularly from those who had once looked up to him.
In retrospect, the problem was not what he did but what he failed to do. In 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa swept to victory by portraying himself as a doer and a deliverer. He promised a new order in place of the old and made use of his lack of political experience. Yet this lack, as it stood, underscored a certain naivete about how things should be done and how he should set about doing them. During his short tenure Mr. Rajapaksa resolved this problem in two ways – by summoning officials and issuing humdrum, routine instructions and by letting his brothers, particularly Basil Rajapaksa, dictate policy and overrule him.
One fatal mistake Mr. Rajapaksa made was not assuming control of the very party through which he had come to power. Left in the hands of his brothers and their acolytes, the SLPP degenerated into a pale echo of what it had once aspired to. That the many outfits formed in his name and cause, including Viyathmaga and Eliya, would collapse within a year or two was only to be expected since both groups envisioned itself along the lines of the technocratic movement but ended up as petty appendages to the first family. Today no one takes their grandiloquent statements about the country emerging as a regional hub or forging ties with a new regional order seriously because they have long ceased to be important.
The SLPP had always tended to the right. Although it was not regarded highly by Colombo’s comprador bourgeoisie, it won the support of the predominantly Sinhalese and Buddhist suburban middle classes, the rural peasantry and even the working class. It was the grandest coalition since Mrs. Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance. Those who joined in lionised the man and deplored the failures of his predecessor. They were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Based on his conduct in the first COVID wave, they gave his party a thumping victory in 2020. That only emboldened it to move further to the right.
Mr. Rajapaksa should have learnt the lessons of the first wave. Although criticised for taking too long to implement and enforce curfews, he won plaudits for keeping patient numbers down. This was largely thanks to the people steering the campaign against the pandemic. The most prominent among them, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, provided the civilian counterpoint to the highly respected Major General, Shavendra Silva. Yet his reward to handling the pandemic well was to be transferred to a Ministry which had no bearing on his field. Two years or so later, the same fate befell Lasantha Wickramasinghe, the Chairman of MILCO, who turned it into a profit earning entity; he was sacked, in favour of a Rajapaksa acolyte.
It is difficult to place Mr. Rajapaksa, or the SLPP, along a political spectrum. Certainly, they leaned to the right. But they were also populist. Although touting themselves as progressive alternatives to the UNP, the SLPP hardly differed from the latter in degree or substance. But it advocated a programme of national self-reliance, charting an independent course for the country. It was this blend of centre-rightism and populism which made it incumbent on Mr. Rajapaksa to play the role of a Bonaparte; a man who could balance all social classes, unify them and become a Sri Lankan Peron. Yet not unlike the later Peron, the contradictions he had to put up with overwhelmed him. Something had to give. In the end, it did.
To be fair, Mr. Rajapaksa was not solely to blame for this. One cannot make a sensible critique of his [in]actions without considering the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whatever government comes to power will have to deal with these realities. Mr. Rajapaksa’s problem was not that he could not cope up with them but that he could not convey to the people that he and his government were taking steps to resolve them. He was constrained here by two flaws – his dependence on a group of self-serving acolytes, yes men, family members, and ex-army generals and his inability to think beyond a military mindset, which pushed him to resort to soldiers and curfews whenever he felt like it.
Colombo’s civil society circuits continue to depict Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a despot, a Hitler in the tropics. Such narratives miss the real picture. For a sizeable number of protesters at GotaGoGama, what was deplorable about the man was not his authoritarian tendencies but his failure to live up to the hype they had created about him. As Lakshman Gunasekara has validly observed, the Sinhalese middle classes who went in droves for him now feel like the proverbial woman scorned. While some of them did not know how to react to him, many others took to the streets. If a man can’t guarantee gas, fuel and uninterrupted power for the nation, they rightly reason, what can he be entrusted with?
The protests will not, of course, end with Mr. Rajapaksa’s resignation but they will splinter and fade away eventually. For a brief moment at least, however, the protesters had their say. I find it unpardonable not to have been able to be present there, to witness perhaps the most vibrant protest movement in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, to take note of its strengths and weaknesses until last week. I was led there by several of my students, who to me have epitomised the spirit of the times, a rebellious defiance that transcends the limits of electoral politics. One of them told me, “I wondered why I came here I April and frequently thereafter. I took the bus, once even walked all the way to meet the president, to tell him we wanted him out. I felt active, part of a movement. Our problems cannot and will not disappear after he leaves. We need to transform the economy, to move into production, to industrialise, to export. With Gotabaya we could not do any of this. I only hope we can with whoever comes next.”
Such sentiments have been echoed by a hundred thousand or so others his age. In 2019 I predicted that, should Mr. Rajapaksa fail, the young would be the first to go against him. Strictly speaking, they were not; the farmers and the workers preceded them by a year or two. Yet the trajectory of the protests should tell us one thing, that the young, who voted in droves for Mr. Rajapaksa, are not to be betrayed again. In this they have all proved to be the wiser and the superior of those my age and those older than I.