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Who is afraid of Gotabaya Rajapaksa?

Gota would be a leader who would act as a ‘terminator’ who would eradicate fraud and corruption.

By Sarath de Alwis

Gotabaya Rajapaksa leaves the Trial-at-Bar in April/RepublicNext.com

Tyrants rule through fraud and force. When fraud is exposed, the tyrant relies exclusively on force. At a press briefing on Thursday, Basil Rajapaksa has confidently claimed that there is no need to be afraid of Gotabaya. Instead, Gota would be a leader who would act as a ‘terminator’ who would eradicate fraud and corruption.

Exuding the cherubic charm of a medieval potentate after a splendid feast, the supreme and super strategist of the Pohottu party vouched that brother Gotabaya will not be an authoritarian despot. That is fair enough. Rajapakse brothers have their own definitions of democracy, despotism, corruption etc. Give the devil his due. Basil has a sharp sense of humour and a sharper sense of the absurd.

His reassurances of Gota’s inherent jollity and geniality, is an eerie reminder of the ‘doublespeak ‘that George Orwell referred to in his classic dystopian novel ‘1984.’ Basil Rajapaksa’s insistence of his brother Gotabaya’s inherent compassion and benevolence is vintage Orwellian doublethink. Orwell defined Doublethink as “… the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them”

Basil Rajapaksa himself is a master in the art of using the political language of deceit; the kind of language that is designed to make deceit truthful and murder respectable. Gotabaya no doubt would be well equipped to eradicate any possibility of dissent and protest. Protest would be called sedition and dissent would be labeled as rebellion.

It is all a matter of language. ‘While Gotabaya will be a good democratic leader, he would be a stern eradicator of fraud and corruption.’ That was entertaining theatre.

For a mendicant builder of manorial homes on picturesque riverbanks at Malwana and the urban hillock in Matara town, the subtle sarcasm came with an eloquence that is natural, only to a tongue that is habitually attached to the cheek. “I can assure that Gotabaya will not be an authoritarian leader. Our party will not work for an authoritarian leader. Gotabaya was someone who excelled in management. I’m sure he will be a good democrat.” There was no need, he insisted, to be afraid of Gotabaya as president.

The purpose of this essay is to explain why I am not reassured by Basil, and to elaborate on the rationale for my indelible fears of a Gotabaya presidency. This is also a sweeping summation of Gotabaya’s militarized managerial skills. We have seen and experienced his management prowess when he operated from behind the throne.

This time round, we contemplate the prospect of his squatting on the seat of state as commander in chief, head of cabinet, appointing authority of the judiciary, ministry secretaries, provincial governors and our envoys. From what we know of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, we know that he epitomizes the political theology of Carl Schmitt the legal philosopher of the Nazi party. “The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything. In the exception the power of real-life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.”

The man has a monstrous ego. Make no mistake. He will end the cacophony of chaos in the streets. He will deliver stability by asphyxiating protest and smothering dissent. That possibility gives me the creepy-crawly feeling of gooseflesh. I know how he will give us stability and safety. But first, we must place the man in context.

There is no doubt that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the only candidate that is compellingly credible within the Rajapaksa political monolith. He enjoys the unconditional support of Sinhala Buddhist zealots, ex-military fancy pants, and most significantly the oligarchs who occupied the front rows of the famous shindig at Shangri-La that launched his ‘Viyathmaga’ platform. Gotabaya Rajapaksa found an unlikely accomplice in the highest echelons of the incumbent Government.

The current Prime Minister has a problem. His party or a good part thereof does not believe that him to be a viable candidate for a presidential run. His lacklustre performance in the past four years has undermined his once sheeny image of competence and commitment. Yet, Ranil is a tenacious politician with an overpowering sense of destiny. As late as the fourth week of July, Wickremesinghe with his wife travelled to South India to offer prayers at the Kollur Sri Mookambika temple.

His tête-à-tête with the deities in the heavens was ample evidence of his determination to make a run in this year’s presidential election. That things have not worked out as planned is another story. The Prime Minister’s calculation seems to be that a Gota candidacy would be of such horrendous consequences, that opposing forces would coalesce even around the UNP’s autocratic boss to keep the quintessential despot out of power. That calculation seems to have failed.

Last week, we learnt how Gotabaya Rajapaksa had obtained a new Sri Lankan passport circumventing all procedural requirements. He did not appear in person. The application was lodged just after the cutoff time of the day. He collected a new passport that made no reference to his dual citizenship status. It was then blithely claimed that the document so obtained was adequate proof of his renunciation of US nationality.

The Colombo Telegraph later reported that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe helped the former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to obtain a new passport through the intervention of his Internal Affairs Minister Wajira Abeywardena. Subsequent events seem to confirm the Colombo Telegraph revelation. Internal Affairs Minister Wajira Abeywardena in his characteristic display of jiggery-pokery with a straight cherubic face declared at a press briefing that the Department of Immigration and Emigration can indeed issue a passport within an hour.

The episode reveals the perfidy of the political class in power and out of power. The episode also reveals the man Gotabaya is. Impunity is his forte. He above the law, and beyond the law. The passport issue was reported by a daily newspaper. A pro-Gota broadsheet carried a reference to the issue of the passport accusing a senior government official of leaking the story. With Gota running for the presidency, media outlets are already queuing up for lessons in Pavlovian obedience.

Wickremesinghe hoped that a Gotabaya candidacy will animate civil society behind his possible candidacy. That, unfortunately, was not how the dice fell. The civil society formations that made the 2015 change possible are largely intact but in deep hibernation.

They have discovered the truth about monkeys. The higher the monkey climbs up the tree. the better you see the length of its tail and perhaps the shape and size of its posterior. Mahinda Rajapaksa during his decade weakened civil society through patronage politics. Gotabaya Rajapaksa with his secretariat for NGOs intimidated those who resisted state patronage into coerced docility.

In Viyathmaga, Gotabayahas built a network of political entrepreneurs. Under a Gotabaya presidency, they will monopolize economic social and political opportunities. Their network will implement their plans and policies with military precision. They will aim at total control under the protective cover of national sovereignty.

They will either buy off members of mass movements or suppress them altogether. Stifling civil society is a sine qua non for a Gotabaya presidency. Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not owe his candidacy to the family or to the party that Basil built and Mahinda leads. Gotabaya has earned his candidacy through sheer grit. The Gotabaya phenomenon is a result of a popular rejection of the established political elite.

That is how democracy dies and dictators are made. Democracy dies and dictators are born by majority consent. If you regularly watch the electronic media, you will know how dark money and media manipulation creates issues and project political actors. The Cambridge Political Science don David Runciman explains in his book ‘How Democracies Die” – “Information technology has transformed the conditions in which democracy operates. The media environment is a battleground fought over by forces elected governments neither control nor fully understand.” Periodic elections alone do not guarantee democracy or its freedoms. Political parties and political leaders must prevent and discourage authoritarian inclinations within their ranks. Mainstream political parties must in times of crisis such as the one we confront today, work to prevent megalomaniacs from gaining power.

When necessary they must be farsighted enough to refuse to endorse or align with would-be tyrants. They must be ready to make common cause with rivals for the long-term goal of securing our civil liberties. Blocking off or quarantining populist extremism, requires great political courage. Extremists often succeed when seasoned political players are ready to imperil democracy for fear of rivals or pure and simple opportunism. Sometimes, as it is the case today, mainstream political parties make the mistake of accommodating extremists in the hope that they could control them. That is a grievous miscalculation.

The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, despite its major flaws and glaring imperfections, is progress. The Right to Information Act is a bulwark that protects our meagre access to transparency and accountability. Once Gotabaya gains a foothold, our democracy faces the real crisis. The autocratic leader will proceed to subvert democratic institutions. Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions or constitutional provisions are safe only if we are ready to defend them.

The people of Hong Kong out on the streets attest to that. Political parties and organized citizens must abide by and defend democratic norms. In the absence of vigorous norms, independent commissions do not serve as the ramparts that protect our democracy. The wishy-washy conduct of the Police Commission in weighing the consequences of doing what is right is a stark example of chicanery before the mob. Institutions are strong only to the extent of the courage and commitment of those who control and direct them. In other words, their capacity to withstand external pressures. Institutions are easily and readily weaponized by those who control them, against those who do not.

The tyrant who takes the electoral route to power kills democracy slowly, gradually and legally. A former chief justice of Sri Lanka has informed the US court hearing Ahimsa Wickrematunge’s civil suit on the murder of her father, that she has all the legal remedies available in our Democratic Republic.

A despot chuckles! He had them in his pocket. If he has his way, he will have them again. And then, when the final curtain falls, you may ask – ‘Who is Ahimsa?’