Rajapaksa. THAT name. Mahinda’s surname. Loved by some, hated by some but considered ‘formidable’ by one an all. And that was perhaps one of the key impetus for the Yahapalana Government to bring in the 19th Amendment.
What did the 19th Amendment do? Well, apart from bringing back independent commissions (albeit with greater selection-sway for politicians courtesy a Constitution Council whose composition was deliberately made politician-heavy), there was a limit imposed on the size of the cabinet. A loophole was scripted into the text in the form of a non-defined ‘national government’. It made for inflation-at-will. Partisan.
The 19th clipped the president’s powers. Wait, not the then president’s powers so much as his successor’s. Power would shift to the office of the Prime Minister. The entire Parliament voted for the amendment in the middle of a tiring night. Except of course Sarath Weerasekera. So, technically we have a person elected by the entire country having less power than someone who was voted to Parliament by a single district. That’s democracy, yahpalana-style. Partisan.
What do we have now, though? The man the yahapalanists loved to hate, Mahinda Rajapaksa is now the ‘“Stronger” PM under the 19th.’ To make matters worse, even the ‘mitigating’ factor of the diminished executive presidency is no consolation, because we have another Rajapaksa in that position.
Gotabaya. Gotabaya Rajapaksa. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. What happens after the next parliamentary elections, we cannot predict. It is likely that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna will secure a parliamentary majority. Whether Mahinda Rajapaksa will contest that election we cannot predict. While it is no secret that Mahinda’s immense popularity was a major factor, indeed if not the most important factor, that secured Gotabaya Rajapaksa the presidency, this is his time. The time of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Another Rajapaksa regime, but perhaps one with a different flavor.
Now Gotabaya was able to deliver on tasks assigned when he was Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development because his presidential brother had his back. In turn, Mahinda had in Gotabaya a military strategist who he could trust. Like in the times of the ancient kings. Their statures were in a way interdependent.
As mentioned, Mahinda’s backing was key to success in the presidential race. To that extent and because of Mahinda’s persona, one could say that Gota is under his older brother’s shadow. Will he move out of that shadow? Will Mahinda try to keep him ‘in his place’? We can’t predict, but it is clear that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for all the salutations he offers his political sibling, is not Mahinda’s twin.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa clearly shares his brother’s ideological preferences when it comes to the nature of the state, the importance of national security, reading of the international community’s machinations etc. And yet, if there is something cultural which in practice could be called Mahindaism, it has not inscribed itself on the persona of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Simply, he does things differently. Nothing grand about him. No frills. Less talk, more work. He keeps things simple and clearly believes that doing the job is what matters — braggadocio unimportant and perhaps even an unnecessary distraction, over and above the additional costs involved.
The 19th is not cast in stone. It could be amended and my hunch is that this time around, the UNP, plagued with Mahinda-phobia, might welcome such a move. However, even if amendment is not attempted, the home-and-home political arrangement means that Gotabaya has a better chance of doing things his way than did Maithripala Sirisena, even though he, Sirisena, had better constitutional leverage. Indeed, we may very well see the brothers so in agreement most times that such issues may not even materialize. Mahinda could, for example, play the senior political citizen, offer advice when solicited and lat Gota do his thing.
Brothers sort out differences in ways that unrelated people cannot. Families have their tension-busting strategies. Only the Rajapaksas will know what these tensions are (if indeed there are any) and how to deal with them. However, family though they are, in the eyes of the constitution and the law Gotabaya and Mahinda are two distinct individuals. Cultural push notwithstanding Gotabaya is a man with a mind of his own. In the first few days in office, he has dispelled all doubts in this regard.
So far, there’s only been accolades. The cheers have come naturally from those who voted for him, but interestingly from even those who didn’t. Maybe it is less that ‘Mahindaism’ is outdated or despised than Gotayism being something fresh and as appealing for obviously different reasons.
‘Gota’s War’ was the title of an account of the operations seeking to eliminate the terrorist threat. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not in the middle of a similar battle, but there’s some fighting on the cards. There are institutional arrangements that rebel against change. Procedural matters can block him. A political culture under threat may very well fight back rather than fold down and concede defeat.
One thing is clear. The opposition is in such disarray that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ample maneuvering room. He has a mandate. He has shown unwavering determination to fulfill tasks taken on. Mahinda Rajapaksa, ideally, would let back him to the hilt, just as his brother did from 2005-2015. Siblings are like that. In any event, the nature of their relationship would most certainly make everyone want to look at the 19th Amendment afresh.
Siblings, shadows, mirrors, histories, ego and humility, strength and perceived strength, the clash of weaknesses — the Gotabaya presidency could be all about such things. We are in for an interesting presidency.