The Lion of Giruvapattu couldn`t have cherished any gift more than what he was given on his birthday yesterday. He, with decades of experience as a parliamentarian, minister, Leader of Opposition and Prime Minister, becomes the fifth executive president to rule this country. Congratulations!
Not only has he won the presidency but democracy has triumphed. Thursday`s election is being described as very peaceful. Sri Lanka is beginning to show signs of evolving into a mature democracy albeit with delay.
A human rights activist, lawyer and, above all, man of the people, Mahinda Rajapakse comes from a well known political family connected with the SLFP since its inception. The secret of his success has been his devotion to the party which his father co-founded with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Mahinda inherited the famous kurahan saatakaya from his famous paternal uncle who tirelessly strove to popularise kurakkan of Ruhuna as a staple food. It has today become a symbol of the common man`s cause and is often mistaken for a socialist symbol because of its colour.
What characterises Mahinda as a leader is his courage to stand up for a cause and be counted. An indefatigable party man to the core, he has always remained loyal and faithful to the SLFP despite numerous difficulties, intra party machinations and backstabbing, which would have driven a lesser person out of the party a long time ago. He is one of the few politicians who risked life and limb by campaigning against Presidents with dictatorial tendencies in the past. Jana Gosha, Paada Yatthra, Human Chain were some protests he led from the front to mobilize the people to fight for their rights, especially during the 1988-93 period. The foundation which he and a few others had thus laid for protecting democracy stood Ms. Chandrika Kumaratunga in good stead when she returned to the party fold and went on to become President.
Mahinda, who is a good team player, is known for his willingness to consult and listen to others before making crucial decisions. He achieved the feat of unifying warring political forces which didn`t see eye to eye on almost anything and forging an alliance with them to ride to power?he has got the JVP, the JHU and Vasu`s party, three combustible entities in his camp.
However, what is most difficult in politics is not so much getting elected but living up to people`s expectations by honouring pledges thereafter. Now that the people have elected him President, he has to start delivering on promises promptly. He has given a bagful of pledges.
The executive presidency is a strange mould which completely changes leaders who get into it. We put democrats in and take dictators out. Whether this will be true of Mahinda, too, remains to be seen. What is expected of a leader who rises to the highest elected office of the land is that he should also rise above partisan politics and become a truly national leader commanding the respect of one and all including those who didn`t vote for him. He has to carry them all with him, an uphill task no doubt but he must prove he is equal to it if he is to achieve the much talked about nation building.
The ethnic question is already staring him in the face. He will have to unveil his plans as to how he is going to deal with the problem which has defied remedies for two decades. Before the election, he offered to go to the Wanni and meet the LTTE leaders himself. President Kumaratunga pooh-poohed the idea and asked him whether his intention was to have some tea with the LTTE leaders. He appears to believe in bypassing third parties and approaching the Tigers direct.
An honourable peace is what he has promised. This will require all stakes holders being involved in the peace process. Will the LTTE be amenable to that? Or, will a solution that the LTTE agrees to, be acceptable to his two main coalition allies, the JVP and the JHU?
He must be mindful of the fact that the people didn`t swallow his election manifesto hook, line and sinker. They have expressed cautious optimism by giving it only pass marks?a little over 50 per cent?not a credit or a distinction. The bigger the majorities, the cockier politicians tend to get, the people may have thought. They have conveyed a message. Let it be heeded if he is to avoid the pratfalls his predecessors had.