Dynastic politics in South Asia — II

May 15, 2022

The Rajapaksa clan controlled various apparatuses of the state

Share Next Story >>>


n the dynastic politics of South Asia, the Rajapaksa family of Sri Lanka and the Sharifs of Pakistan show certain similarities.

Critics and opponents are of the view that many of the economic and political problems currently plaguing Sri Lanka stem from the Rajapaksa family’s stronghold on the country’s politics. Some say that democracy has been just a façade. For almost two decades, Mahinda has loomed large over Sri Lanka’s politics; serving first as president for a decade (2005-2015) and then, after a brief interregnum, as prime minister in a government where his brother, Gotabaya, was president.

The Rajapaksa clan controlled various apparatuses of the state. It exerted influence on the security forces and had an overriding influence over major sectors of the economy. Following the unexpected defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential election, they were accused of authoritarianism, corruption, nepotism and bad governance.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa contested the presidential election in 2019 and won. The popularity of the family collapsed within 30 months of taking over power this time after an economic crisis resulted in a default on national debt for the first time in the country’s post-independence history.

Rajapaksa was one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful families during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reign who was once known as Sri Lanka’s man for all seasons. He had been introduced to parliamentary politics way back in 1970 at the age of 24 by the legendary Sirimavo Bandranaike, to replace his deceased father, DA Rajapaksa.

The young lawyer was “exuberant and a mass mobiliser”. Once in the corridors of power, Mahinda never looked back. He kept making steady progress and eventually became the country’s president. Soon afterwards he brought in his brother, Lt Col Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, an American citizen at the time, to serve as the country’s defence secretary.

Later, his other brother, Basil, also an American citizen, was made a senior advisor to the president. In 2007, Basil was brought into the parliament on the National List, reserved for distinguished citizens. During Mahinda’s first term as president, the Rajapaksas brought the finances under tight control. Basil oversaw the financial takeover and was branded as Mr Ten Percent.

There were some protests against ‘militarisation’ of governance as several retired military officers were appointed governors and heads of other public institutions. Besides, various members of the ruling family came to hold public portfolios as well as positions in the foreign service. This too caused a bit of acrimony. The critics of the government, particularly those condemning the concentration of power, nepotism, human rights violations and widespread corruption were labelled as traitors. Their accusations were dismissed as mere figments of their imagination.

Thus, Rajapaksas remained in the saddle. Dilrukshi Handunnetti (a Sri Lankan journalist) says, “The gods continued to smile on the Rajapaksa family’s expansion into public life.”

Mahinda reached the zenith of his popularity for having militarily defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the militant group that had been waging a war for a separate homeland in the northeast. That war had cost 60,000 lives and left Sri Lanka extremely fatigued. There were allegations of war crimes. However, Mahinda dismissed the claims of atrocities and kept the fight against the insurgents going. His success at dealing with the Tamil rebels secured him his second term in office.

That term was marked by “strengthening of the power concentration project”. More members of his extended family assumed positions of power in various institutions. In the wake of the war victory, the necessity to seek a political settlement to the national question was cast aside. But the war euphoria ended eventually and in 2015 Rajapaksa suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Maithripala Sirisena.

However, in 2019, the family was back in power. It also had greater visibility this time. Chamal Rajapaksa was elected the speaker of parliament. Later on, he became the minister for shipping and aviation. Namal Rajapaksa, the eldest son of Mahinda, is seen as being groomed for presidency. He was made the minister for youth and sports after he entered the parliament in 2010 at the age of 24.

Mahinda’s growing proximity with China was a factor in his becoming unpopular. He borrowed almost $7 billion for infrastructure projects, many of which were alleged by the opposition of having been mired in corruption. His position on Ukraine-Russia conflict may have been the decisive factor. The extent of US involvement in his ouster has not been studied so far. After mass protests against his government and deadly violence in the streets went on unabated, Rajapaksa was as prime minister.

This capitulation made him the fourth member of his family to give up a high-powered role in the space of a month — following his brothers Basil and Chamal (now former ministers of finance and irrigation, respectively) and his son Namal (former minister for sports and youth affairs). The opposition’s focus is now on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Sharifs come from Jati Umra in Amritsar. The family, having an artisanal background, moved to Pakistan in 1947 and settled in Lahore. Mian Muhammad Sharif was a person with extraordinary business acumen but his real forte was his social skills. He aspired for exponential expansion in his business. This required support from someone in the corridors of power. One of Sharif’s great virtues was patience coupled with foresight. Thus, he could wait for his son to realise what he aspired for. He decided to initiate his son, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, into politics.

Nawaz initially joined the Tehreek-i-Istaqlal, headed by Air Marshal Asghar Khan (retired). His real break came in 1979, when Ziaul Haq decided to hold local government elections. Two years later he was appointed finance minister under Lt Gen Ghulam Jilani Khan, the then Punjab governor. Sharif was said to have been introduced to Khan by Brig Qayyum, a former batch mate in the army. In 1985, Nawaz Sharif was elected chief minister of the Punjab.

(To be continued)

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

More From Political Economy