AT 10AM ON October 26, 2018, when the telephone rang at his residence in Colombo, Mahinda Rajapaksa was not prepared for what was to follow. On the line was his nemesis President Maithirpala Sirisena (formerly a minister under Rajapaksa, Sirisena turned on him ahead of the 2015 presidential elections). Rajapaksa was utterly surprised when Sirisena asked him to come to the president’s home in the evening to take oath as the prime minister of Sri Lanka, replacing Sirisena’s coalition partner Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Rajapaksa had his doubts. His brothers, too, were shocked. Gotabhaya, former defence secretary, younger to Rajapaksa by two years, was busy in a meeting. So, Basil, former cabinet minister, younger to Gotabhaya, accompanied Rajapaksa. Gotabhaya, who did not at first believe what he heard about his elder brother’s return to the centre of Sri Lankan politics, was convinced when the visuals of him being sworn in were beamed on TVs across the country. But the bubble burst quickly.
Wickremesinghe refused to accept his dismissal; after about two months of turmoil, Rajapaksa resigned on December 15. It was a disappointing end to the drama as far as the Rajapaksa camp was concerned. But Sri Lanka’s political strongman and his current party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)—previously a minor political party, relaunched by Basil in 2016—are confident of a massive comeback in the next elections. In fact, just three days after resigning as prime minister, Rajapaksa was made leader of opposition by the speaker. He replaced Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan. The TNA and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress reportedly objected to Rajapaksa’s appointment. Sampanthan told THE WEEK: “He tried to become prime minister by force by disturbing parliament proceedings. Now he is the opposition leader. This is an attempt to grab power through undemocratic means.”
As per protocol, Rajapaksa is now behind only the president and the prime minister, but his inability to retain the premiership has led to a diminution of his political stature and his reputation as “Medamulana Machiavelli”. SLPP insiders even believe that Sirisena renewed his relationship with Rajapaksa only to place the latter in a predicament. Rajapaksa had explained, a few days after being sworn in, that he accepted Sirisena’s invitation because the fate of the country and the future of the younger generation were at stake and it made sense to assume office before further damage was inflicted upon the country.
Wickremesinghe told THE WEEK that Sirisena renewed his relationship with Rajapaksa only because he wanted a second term. “But, the recent happenings where Mahinda tried to grab power will not work with the people,” he said. “It will have a huge impact whenever the elections [are held]. With all this, he cannot imagine a comeback.” While Rajapaksa is a “popular people’s leader” among the Sinhalese, the Tamil and Muslim population fear his return. “The LTTE is no more. There is no terrorism in the country, as they claim. But he (Rajapaksa) will not allow us to live in peace,” said Kanagasabapathi, a Tamil cab driver in Colombo.
But the SLPP is the most popular party in the country at present. It won 239 out of 340 local bodies in the civic polls held in February 2018 and its membership recently crossed one crore. “The writing is on the wall,” said S.B. Dissanayake, a senior leader in the Rajapaksa camp. “We are coming back soon. Mahinda Rajapaksa will soon lead the country. The people want him to come back and lead the country.” Basil is said to be the architect behind the resurrection of the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka’s political arena. He had been slowly nurturing the party since 2016; Mahinda was a member of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP, now led by Sirisena) till October 2018. Basil is now focusing on building the SLPP and leading it to success in the upcoming elections in 2020. Most SLFP members, except the parliamentarians, have now become members of the SLPP. Basil said his party lost in the Northern Province in the civic polls because it did not work well in that region. “Otherwise our numbers would have been much higher,” he said. Rajapaksa said that the SLPP had defeated established political parties to come out on top in the local body elections. He added that along with the SLFP and other allies in the Northern and Eastern provinces (where majority voters are Tamils), the SLPP would command a very comfortable majority in the next elections.
Sources said the Rajapaksas sat down in March 2018 to sort out issues among the siblings. As Rajapaksa cannot become president again, it was discussed who from the family could contest for the top post. Rajapaksas’s elder brother Chamal opted out because of age, and Basil is busy with his plans for the SLPP. The only option was Gotabhaya. “He (Gotabhaya) is a well-organised person,” said Palitha Kohona, former UN ambassador and permanent represntative to the UN from Sri Lanka.
“People accuse him of war crimes. But he made a thorough study on the Sri Lanka security forces and the LTTE before launching any military [offensive].” Sources close to the Rajapaksas said that Gotabhaya has been accepted by all as the presidential candidate for the next elections. But Mahinda told THE WEEK that the joint opposition would decide who the candidate would be.
Though the Rajapaksas are popular in the country and among the majority Sinhalese, “international forces” are believed to be opposing their return. “There are elements, both local and foreign, who do not want to see me coming back to power,” said Rajapaksa. “These are elements that seek to control Sri Lanka’s destiny. The people of this country see me and the political movement that I lead as the only force capable of preventing foreign domination. We are now in a struggle against neo-imperialism.”