Sri Lanka: Greed, gimmick or confidence


N Sathiya Moorthy  10 August 2018

At a recent meeting, with envoys appointed when he was in office for 10 long years (2005-15), former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has sought their inputs for framing the nation’s foreign policy under a future government. By implication, it indicates his desire, hope and or confidence of staging a come-back; after the telling reversal in Elections-2015.

“We had a fruitful discussion. We talked about what we were trying to accomplish during our time in office and where we might have gone wrong. We contrasted it with the present situation in the country,” Prof. G. L. Peiris, External Affairs Minister of the time, is reported to have said later, that “The former envoys formed themselves into various committees on the basis of geographical regions where they served”.

It is not about what those veterans proposed at the meeting, or what may come out of it. It is about the meeting itself. It is the kind of message that could send the Rajapaksa camp into new confidence as if they are already there and act in a way that some or many of them did when he was in power.

It is also the kind of confidence that can cut both ways in electoral terms. Over-confidence can kill the campaign-spirit on the one hand. At the other extreme, it can also encourage cadres and second-line leaders to treat adversaries at their own levels with the contempt that they do not deserve. Worse could be the voters, who then can hit back as they did, in Elections-2015, especially in the non-ethnic Parliamentary polls.

Top-down approach

In a way, the Rajapaksa presidency was known for its ‘top-down approach’ to policy-making and programme implementation. ‘Foreign policy’ was no exception. With the ‘ethnic war’ first and UNHRC resolutions later taking the centre-stage of the Rajapaksa foreign policy, the approach had its own pluses and minuses, successes and failures.

On the positive side, decisions were taken at the top, and it minimised confusion at all levels. On the not-so-positive side, such decisions were seen as being influenced by inputs flowing from an intellectual baggage that had no relevance to post-Cold War ground realities.

It was/is one thing to count on the China/Russia veto-vote in the UN Security Council on all issues ‘anti-Sri Lanka’. It is another matter still learning to work with the rest of the world as they came, and meet them half-way through, through a professional approach, which need not have to reflect the ‘personality’ of the President of the day, or his top aides, key among them being his own siblings.

From a domestic and immediate perception, it may have made things easier for the Establishment, not having to wade through policy road-blocks at every turn. Given the complex, composite culture of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala polity in particular, at every turn, the political leader at the top is bound to get varied and opposite inputs, with hurt egos that have been individuals’ politico-personal baggage from the past.

It has thus been the experience of successive rulers that they ended up assuaging hurt sentiments of the permanent bureaucracy on the one hand, which too travel to a personal level at times, and the rivalling demands of their political aides, including senior ministers, who too feel slighted by the other side quite often. If President Mahinda thought it wise to take all the insults himself, and hand down all the insults, too, himself, that was his way of doing it. It was not the way others were accustomed to.

Suffering in silence, but…

Yet, all of them suffered in silence, and opened up when the opportunity offered itself. On the former, they were afraid of losing their key positions and/or postings to a strong President, who was strong in politico-electoral terms, but not necessarily as strong-willed as was being made out to be. Translated, it meant that Mahinda was not as uncompromising as he was being made out to be. He was also malleable and ductile – if that is the borrowed phrase from metallurgy.

When it was time to go, they all poured out their hearts – and with that their hidden, concealed hatred for what they dubbed the ‘Rajapaksa style of functioning’. It should explain how they continue to be on the other side of the political fence after winning even the 2015 Parliamentary polls on his voter-strength, and condemning him for what he was as President, despite the fact that they had continued to ‘serve’ him with servility in full flow – until they were convinced that he would not be their President or even Prime Minister, at least for the present.

It was thus that Rajapaksa had senior ministers who would be travelling overseas, purportedly on official work, without even informing his office, officially or otherwise. There was thus that he had senior Ministers like incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena, and a host of others, who could convincingly complain after quitting his Government, how they had felt suffocated and stifled under his leadership.

To date, neither would admit that they were party to all the controversial decisions that the Rajapaksa Government was supposed to have taken in its time.  The beauty is barring present-day Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, who quit early on in Mahinda’s first term, no other chose to protest in public or quit in private.

‘Outsider’ President

Such approach of the ministerial colleagues and bureaucratic aides, including diplomats, who saw two birds already fallen to the ground when the Rajapaksas claimed to have shot only one, made all the difference to policy-planning at the time. Today, it may be worse as no one in the Government seems to see any bird anywhere, in the sky, on the ground or even in their nests.

It was also what went wrong with the Rajapaksas way of doing things. Possibly feeling slighted by the ‘Colombo Seven-controlled’ Establishment Sri Lanka, Mahinda, like President Premadasa before him, felt an ‘outsider President’ at least until he proved to the other side that he and he alone was capable of leading the nation to a war-victory. Though he did penalize his ‘outsider’ then Army Commander in Sarath Fonseka, now Field Marshal and Minister, he too should be asking himself how far that choice helped his leadership to stay firm on the war-route, once taken.

It is here that Rajapaksa departed from the tested Premadasa route. As if to slight the Establishment elite, who treated him as ‘dirt’ both as Ports Minister and later as Prime Minister, he began cutting through them all, putting them to size and bringing in people whom he thought was loyal to him.

In the short term, it helped him and his leadership, as his chosen men at the helm did not stand on prescribed norms and procedures – and thus in his way. Most of them could not have either, as they did not know what those procedures, protocols and policies were. Foreign policy especially requires an institutional memory, which the President’s team lacked, and his chosen envoys did not possibly know existed.

With the result, those ‘chosen’ envoy’s of President Rajapaksa were either bragging their own achievements to whoever was willing to listen, or were fighting for his ear, more so against that for which other ‘chosen envoys’ of the kind too were fighting for. There were thus crucial moments and critical decisions when not many seem to know who took the decision, when, how and why.

Rajapaksa ended up losing as much, as he won the war and won peace for Sri Lanka. Worse still, Sri Lanka lost even more, even as it won the longest global war against terrorism, wholly and squarely. And it is this complexity of the contributions of the ‘chosen envoys’ that the Rajapaksas would have to address here and now, especially if the foreign policy of a ‘future government’ of theirs at least does not go down the same way as it did once earlier!

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