Some people seem to have all the luck in politics. President`s elder brother Chamal Rajapakse, who held the Irrigation portfolio earlier, was sworn in as Minister of Ports and Aviation yesterday. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ports and Aviation Mangala Samaraweera, who has indicated his willingness to return to the Cabinet following his ouster due to a row with the President, must be disappointed. For, even if he comes back, he will not get either of those plum cabinet posts.
Speculation in political circles is that Mangala is likely to be offered the Irrigation portfolio, which Chamal held earlier. But, it remains to be seen whether Mangala, the political matador, who dared ruffle the presidential feathers and call him names, will stomach such belittlement. If he does, then he will cease to be the hero that he claims to be. He, it may be recalled, laid down ten demands for his return to the Cabinet and when he returns, the people will want to know from him what has become of his struggle for `liberating the SLFP from the clutches of the Rajapakse troika` and the much advertised claim that there is a secret pact between the government and the LTTE.
The President may have sought to expedite the Weeravila airport project through yesterday`s appointment. One of the reasons he gave for sacking Mangala from the Cabinet was that the latter had done precious little about the airport project.
Chamal is a longstanding SLFP strongman who has stood by the party through thick and thin and it may be argued that he deserves what he has got. But, there is little that the President can do to prevent Chamal`s new appointment leaving a bad taste in the public mouth. His detractors may dub that as an act of adding another prong to the so-called `Rajapakse trident.`
Mangala is in a dilemma?to be a minister or not to be a minister. He cannot be unaware that the strategy of the President is to handle him in such a way that others will be wary of emulating him. The late President J. R. Jayewardene collected undated resignation letters from his MPs so that they would never dare challenge his authority. That`s why on being asked in a television interview immediately after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, whether his MPs would endorse the Thirteenth Amendment, he boasted, `They will vote for it en bloc!.` The late President Premadasa had to face a revolt at the very early stages of his presidency. He didn`t have any undated resignation letters in his pocket but resorted to a different method in his typical Keselwatte style. He took on the rebel leaders and ousted them while winning over the others. Thus, he prevented an impeachment motion being moved against him. President Chandrika Kumaratunga also took precautions to prevent her authority being undermined. She relegated her bete noire Mahinda Rajapakse to relatively unimportant ministries like Labour and Fisheries. (SLFP insiders say at the beginning she wanted to appoint him Minister of Buddhasasana but her kitchen cabinet including Mangala opposed that move.) She saw to it that Mahinda never got a key ministry until things began to get out of her control. She finally had to appoint him the Prime Minister. With that appointment she released the rubber ball she had been keeping under water for ten years. Mahinda became President in no time!
It looks as if President Rajapakse had taken a leaf out of his predecessor`s book in handling the SLFP rebels. The best assessment of President Rajapakse has come from NSSP firebrand Wickramabahu Karunaratne. He once said Mahinda was an embodiment of the so-called southern cunning. The President is apparently trying to take his fellow southerner, Mangala back as a minister after humbling him. He knows that Mangala has no alternative but to eat humble pie, now that the latter`s struggle has run out of steam. Initially Mangala may have expected several other SLFPers to join forces with him. That never materialised. The `secret pact` slogan has also lost its magic. Sripathy has chosen to remain silent on that `secret deal`. Only the UNP is making some effort to keep the issue alive.
Mangala has fallen between two stools as is the fate of any rebel who takes on the party leadership half-heartedly. He is now at the mercy of his political boss. President Rajapakse may have kept the Ministry of Ports and Aviation under him to lure Mangala to abandon his struggle by kindling his hope that it would be his the day he returned to the Cabinet. By giving that portfolio to his brother after Mangala reportedly agreed to return, the President has socked it between his eyes that no fat calves will be slaughtered to celebrate his return.
However, as was said earlier, the President by entrusting his brother with that key ministry has exposed his flank to his critics, who are already accusing him of `family bandyism` and cronyism. They may claim he is running a government of the Rajapakses by the Rajapakses for the Rajapakses. Samaraweera, who opposed the so-called Rajapakse troika, will have to learn to live with a `Rajapakse foursome`!
That, we believe, is the supreme irony.