Over 52 years in active politics is no short, small or simple achievement. In Sri Lankan politics at present, apart from TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, whose political life began over 60 years ago, two personalities could claim more than 52 years of political life. One is Vasudeva Nanayakkara and the other is Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Both entered Parliament in 1970, May 27 but were in politics before that. Mahinda began with Bala Tampoe-led CMU. He was elected branch union secretary in 1967 while a Library Assistant at Vidyodaya University. In 1968 May, Madam B appointed Mahinda as SLFP organiser to Beliatte electorate that fell vacant after his father’s demise the previous year.
This week, Mahinda would celebrate, not his very long political career, but his parliamentary life that began 50 years ago. He was elected to the Beliatte seat for the first time, defeating Dr Ranjith Atapattu of the UNP. Mahinda polled 23,103 votes against Atapattu’s 16,477 votes. Here is a personal note on Mahinda written almost 40 years after he first entered parliament.
“In Mahinda, I thus found a very easy friend, who agreed often and rarely disagreed. In fact, he never disagreed, possibly for his own convenience. He just dragged those issues he wasn’t comfortable with, into other seemingly innocent and simple issues. He wasn’t politically a strong mind, though a strong-willed fighter. He wasn’t a cunning politician, but a pleasant and simple tactician in local politics. One who knew a dumb and a dependent constituency like Hambantota is better than a politically mobilised, opinionated one. The best in him was his pleasing personality that yearned for higher political aspirations with minimum effort.”
"This week, Mahinda celebrated not his very long political career, but his parliamentary life that began 50 years ago. He was elected to the Beliatte seat for the first time, defeating Dr Ranjith Atapattu of the UNP"
I wrote this in my personal blog in February 2009, three months before the war was declared over. It was again used in the “preface” to my book “Rajapaksa the Sinhala Selfie” published in 2017. There remains a question left unanswered in that short paragraph. “Who then is Mahinda Rajapaksa the politician?”
Only 23 years plus when elected, Mahinda was “baby of the parliament”. He merely sat through debates in that parliament dominated by political giants like NM, Colvin, Leslie, Bernard, Vivienne, Keuneman, Wickramasinghe, Ilangaratne, Felix Dias, Dahanayake, Dudley, JR, Shahul Hameed, V.N. Navaratnam, Kathiravelupillai and many more.
Mahinda’s one notable intervention in Parliament then was seconding the motion presented by opposition MP W. Dahanayake requesting leave for Vasudeva, after he was arrested in 1971 April for suspected links with the JVP insurrection.
The LSSP leadership refrained from requesting leave for their own member, thinking it would antagonise PM Madam B.
At the 1977 general elections, the whole Left got wiped out and the SLFP was reduced to only 08 elected MPs. Mahinda also lost his seat. He was out of Parliamentary politics for 12 years, continuing as SLFP organiser for Beliatte.
He practised as a lawyer in the South, visited Colombo now and then, met with Madam B and Anura and then his friends. A very amicable, easy-going character, Mahinda had cultivated a fairly large circle of numerous personalities, not necessary in politics.
His actual political career emerged with the Human Rights Campaign that was organised after I visited him in December 1987 to collect information on arbitrary arrests, abductions and disappearances reported from the South.
I was to do the cover-story on that for the Sinhala periodical Vivarana.Three months later in February 1989, when he was elected for the second time to Parliament, he was being spoken of as an HR campaigner. This second time as an MP, Mahinda was different to all politicians in traditional electoral party politics.
Over the next few years, into open political campaigns on issues outside electoral politics, Mahinda had moved from Hambantota to national politics as a public agitator.
His brand of politics saw two titles conferred on him that he never uses.
One was in 1998 by the Malwatte Chapter of the Shyamopali Siam Nikaya. A rarely conferred title Shri Rohana Jana Ranjana was conferred on him by the then chief prelate of the Malwatte Chapter. It roughly means “Glory of people of Ruhuna (South)”. The other is Associate Professor of the University of Benares, conferred on him in 1999 in Dehradun. That was in honour of his human rights campaigns during the JVP insurgency of 1988 to ‘90.
His long-time friend Sunimal Fernando, former Peradeniya University academic and a special advisor when MR was President was the facilitator in Colombo. Chairperson of the NGO, Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) Avdhash Kaushal, a close confidante of the Gandhi family was the key mover on the other side.
The question remains, Why does he not allow any mention of them in his political campaigns?
The two titles conferred, are contradictory. Using them to project as the glory of the Sinhala South, while also being a Human Rights campaigner would have been duplicitous.
"Three months later in February 1989, when he was elected for the second time to Parliament, he was being spoken of as an HR campaigner. This second time as an MP, Mahinda was different to all politicians in traditional electoral party politics"
But he is quite smart and comfortable in handling political duplicity.
“Mothers’ Front” (MF) in the South speaks about this duplicitous politics. “….Yet, I saw a possibility of creating an alliance with Tamil mothers, who were also campaigning for the same cause; against abductions and involuntary disappearances. They were also agitating against the same Colombo government. That was when I had contacts with Nirmala Sithampalam, an LSSP member in the 1960s and 70s when in Colombo and a pioneer of the Jaffna MF.
“The Jaffna MF took to the Jaffna streets in July 1984 in thousands and marched to the Government Agent’s office, with much more militancy than what was ever seen in Colombo protests.” (Rajapaksa the Sinhala Selfie – page/90) Mahinda wasn’t ready for such affiliations. “….it was proposed to Mahinda to have a joint rally with the Jaffna MF in Colombo, somewhere in mid-1991. That was when Mahinda indicated his willingness to launch a national campaign against the Premadasa government. Many ideas were being discussed with me as to how such a campaign could be worked out. The idea of a “Kataragama Pada Yathra” was not thought of then. Yet Mahinda was hesitant and silent on the alliance proposed with the Jaffna MF. He often worked on the premise that that type of ‘identity merging’ would discolour his Sinhala image in the Southern human rights campaigns.” (ibid – page/90)
For the Pada Yathra, “Privatisation became only one of the four demands of the protest march. The main demands were decided as (1) accountability for missing youth during the 1988 to 90 insurgency (2) cost of living to be reduced (3) privatisation to be stopped forthwith and (4) negotiated settlement instead of war” (ibid – page/101) But during the 18-day trek through the Southern Province, “In all his speeches that concluded the day’s Pada Yathra, he was not stressing on the demands; not the last one for sure that brought EPRLF (Suresh Premachandran) to support the Pada Yathra…..He was loud and strong against privatisation and on disappearances in the South - two slogans he thought would go well with the South and against Premadasa. It was often Rajitha Senaratne and Vasudeva Nanayakkara who took the issue of the war in their very articulate speeches.” (ibid – page/108)
That was politician Mahinda. He led the Pada Yathra that demanded a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict but was not the one who argued for that in the South.
Duplicitous though, his political stature grew within the rank and file in a party that was fractured no end. When organising the Pada Yathra in November 1991, the SLFP leadership was so divided, the parliamentary group had not met for 04 months and the Central Committee for over 03 months. Madam B had removed J.R.P Sooriyapperuma from the General Secretary post and appointed Dharmasiri Senanayake to that post as a trusted lieutenant. Beginning with the HR campaign in 1988, the Pada Yathra and the Jana Gosha (People’s Voice) in 1992, Mahinda emerged as the uncompromising campaigner against the UNP, in the Sinhala South that gave hope to a disgruntled and depressed SLFP voter base.
“The Pada Yathra for them was a rare and a giant collective effort in challenging Premadasa. It was proof he can be openly challenged. Pada Yathra gave them confidence. Gave them the public space and opportunity to oppose Premadasa” (ibid p/108).
His image meanwhile was linked to Giruwa-pattuwa, with the “maroon shawl” on his shoulders that by now is a Rajapaksa icon. “It was in Matara, Mahinda’s iconic kurahan satakaya, the reddish-brown shawl was publicly worn. It was now and then worn by his elder brother Chamal. On the morning the Pada Yathra left Matara, G.I.D Dharmasekera and Ariya Bulegoda came with the idea of honouring Mahinda with the satakaya to felicitate Mahinda for his political contribution.
They offered the shawl to Mahinda at the take-off meeting, calling him the ‘Giruwapattuwa hero’. He was to wear it during the rest of the Pada Yathra, making it a permanent accessory in his costume.” (ibid p/106)
By then, both Shri Rohana Jana Ranjana and the Associate Professorship could add little to his much larger image of a National Leader.
He had come to stay as the uncompromising anti-UNP leader for the Sinhala South. With the conclusion of the war projected as a “victory” that saved the “Unitary” State for Sinhala Buddhists, MR stands as the only Sinhala Buddhist leader in post-independent Sri Lanka, who can decide elections on Southern Sinhala votes alone. His political advantage lies now with the confused “Opposition” that wants to copy his image sans the “maroon shawl”. That is the politician MR is.