While the 2015 presidential election that saw Mahinda Rajapaksa lose power was mired in controversy for India’s alleged role in helping Maithripala Sirisena win, Basil Rajapaksa — the youngest of the three politically active Rajapaksa brothers’ has said that no international actor will interfere in the Sri Lankan election this time.
On Thursday, in an interview with The Indian Express at his office in Colombo, Basil was going through a red-coloured map on his table that showed the 160 electoral constituencies in the country. “Gotabaya Rajapaksa managed to visit 150 of them,” he said, pointing out the 10 empty pockets that Gotabaya, his elder brother and the presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, had missed.
Known as the chief strategist of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political victories and elections, Basil sits at his control room, a huge mansion in Colombo city with more than 100 staff who execute his strategies. “This is the main office, there are six other offices opened ahead of elections,” he said.
For him, Mahinda Rajapaksa, his elder brother, is the “political leader”. By the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy was announced, Basil had little time to finalise his strategy. “Limited time was the major challenge. If it was Mahinda, he is familiar to everyone. But we wanted Gotabaya to visit every nook and corner of the country as he was being introduced into active politics for the first time, even though he is known to everyone in Sri Lanka as a (former) defence secretary and administrator,” he said.
Basil laughed when asked about the challenges in handling both India and China simultaneously if his party is elected to power. “Actually, we understand both countries, but they lack understanding about us. India and China are equally important for us, and India is more closer to us,” he said.
According to him, the failure of the international community’s understanding of Sri Lanka was reflected in the United Nations, too. “While the WHO, UNICEF and UNDP were some of the UN agencies who worked closely with our government, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) alone had a different approach. Instead of seeing us as partners, they wanted to monetise issues here,” he said.
Although several civil rights and minority groups have expressed strong reservations against the Rajapaksa family for their seemingly majoritarian stance, Basil said the party stood for everyone, not just for the majority. “Building the strong values of multiculturalism is our aim. We do not even want to use the word ‘minority’, but they are our brothers,” he said.
Asked whether allegations of massive rights abuses during the previous Mahinda regime could still hurt them, he conceded that there may be grievances. “There is no question of lapses in handling the war. We tried our best to handle the war with a brutal organisation (LTTE). They used civilians as human shields, and stole the food and medicine we sent for civilians in the war affected areas,” he said.
“We can’t ignore their (voters’) grievances. They wanted a change in 2015 as they were not satisfied. But now they have realised that what they wanted was real change, development and a better life. They will bring us back to power as they know that Gotabaya will do it,” he said.
Did the wounds left by the war heal? Basil said wounds are to be healed. “Successful reconciliation measures taken by the Mahinda government were discontinued after Sirisena came to power. After our victory, we will take the reconciliation process to the next level, besides bringing development and jobs for Tamils in the north,” he said.
According to him, this presidential election is different from the last time. “We were defeated in 2015 after a long period of being in power. We had the support of the state media in the last elections, while the private media went against us. This time, the state media is against us while the private media support us,” he said.
About the secret behind the unity of the three brothers, unlike some Asian family dynasties that have been mired in disputes and clashes, Basil cited the example of the old tricycle. “Have you seen the old tricycle? One huge wheel in the front and two smaller ones behind it. That’s how we are. Mahinda is the huge wheel while both me and Gotabaya are smaller ones behind it. We follow that principle, keeping in mind the words of Buddha that one person cannot be good at everything,” he said.
As his staff were busy reviewing the campaign a day after it officially ended, Basil said he preferred to maintain a low profile. “Politics is in his (Gotabaya’s) blood even if the roles he handled all these years were different. He is a good learner, and obviously a better politician than me,” Basil said.