Why should “He”? | Daily News


Why should “He”?

If the government of National Unity- which incidentally celebrated its two year anniversary last Thursday- hoped that the resignation of Ravi Karunanayake from the Cabinet would allow it to concentrate on its task of governing the country, it has been proved wrong.

Hardly had the dust settled on the Karunanayake controversy another minister, Justice and Buddhasasana Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is the cynosure eyes with his own party, the United National Party (UNP) demanding his resignation.

The dispute over Rajapakshe is significantly different in its context. Karunanayake was implicated in evidence given before the Commission of Inquiry probing the sale of Central Bank bonds. While the Joint Opposition was demanding his resignation, sections of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and his own UNP were endorsing these calls. In the end, he yielded to the pressure and resigned.

In contrast, Rajapakshe is accused of inefficiency as Minister of Justice and it is implied that he is colluding with the JO. He is also charged with violating Cabinet responsibility. It is his own party, the UNP, that is demanding his resignation. The JO is, in fact, supporting him. The mainstream SLFP maintains a deafening silence.

Rajapakshe is certainly no stranger to controversy although a political career that once held much promise is now under a cloud following his recent actions. It is also worth noting that he is no dyed-in-the-wool UNPer, launching his political journey from the SLFP.

Ironically, fifty eight-year-old Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe hails from the same district as his namesake, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who he is now accused of siding with. When Rajapaksa was asked whether he would oppose Minister Rajapakshe, his laconic reply was, “Why should I? He is from my village.”

Young lawyer

Rajapakshe’s hometown is Walasmulla in the Hambantota district. He had his schooling there before entering the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. He first tried his hand at banking before training as a lawyer. He quickly made his mark and commanded a lucrative practice - a noteworthy achievement since he was an ‘outsider’ in Hulftsdorp where Colombo’s legal elite usually held sway.

Rajapakshe may have always had political ambitions but he took to politics only in 2004, entering Parliament on the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) National List. President Chandrika Kumaratunga obviously valued the expertise of the young lawyer fast making a reputation for himself. She offered him the portfolio of Constitutional Affairs. Rajapakshe declined, but remained in the ruling party. He also survived a legal challenge to his appointment by media personality Sunanda Deshapriya.

With the ascension of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the presidency in 2005, Rajapakshe accepted the portfolio of State Banking Development in November 2005. That appointment though was short-lived, as he resigned over differences in policy in April 2006.

Rajapakshe was then appointed Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE), the parliamentary body tasked with ensuring financial discipline in institutions in which the state has a financial stake. This role catapulted Rajapakshe to the limelight. In January and August 2007, COPE under his chairmanship published two reports highlighting various issues of financial mismanagement in the state sector. This embarrassed the then government as Rajapakshe was still in the ruling party.

As opposition demands for action on the COPE report grew, Rajapakshe’s position in government ranks became untenable. During the vote on the budget in 2007, Rajapakshe put forward conditions if he was to vote for it, which the government declined. Rajapakshe then voted against the budget. Initially, he maintained that he would remain with the SLFP and continue as the party’s organiser for Maharagama but it was the beginning of the parting of ways.

Sinahla nationalist

Rajapakshe was invited to join the United National Party (UNP). He accepted and was promptly appointed as its organiser for Maharagama electorate. With many UNPers joining the ruling party, Rajapakshe, along with Mangala Samaraweera were among the few that bucked the trend.

Rajapakshe was fifth in the list of UNP MPs returned from the highly competitive Colombo district at the 2010 general elections, polling over 60,000 preferences. He was seen as a Ranil Wickremesinghe loyalist in the factional dispute that dominated the UNP at the time.

In 2012, Rajapakshe contested the presidency of the Sri Lanka Bar Association (BASL) and won, polling nearly double the number of votes polled by his opponent Tirantha Walaliyadda. As President of the BASL, Rajapakshe opposed the impeachment of then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayaka.

Interestingly, although Rajapakshe professes to be Sinahla nationalist now, in 2012, as an opposition parliamentarian, he submitted a Private Member’s Bill to prevent a priest of any religion becoming a Member of Parliament.

At the time, Rajapakshe said the intention of the legislation is “for the purpose of maintaining and preserving religious dignity and holiness of all religions” but with the only priests in Parliament being Buddhist monks from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the amendment clearly targeted them. The Bill was not passed.

National Unity government

At the 2015 general election, Rajapakshe ran as a UNP candidate from the contentious Colombo district. He polled nearly 82,000 votes and was ninth on a list of eleven UNP parliamentarians. In the minority UNP government he held the portfolio of Justice. When the government of National Unity was formed, he took over the Buddhasasana portfolio as well in September 2015.

In recent months Rajapakshe has been advocating a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist stance on several issues. Arguably, the motive for this could be to carve a leadership niche for himself within the UNP. If that was the intention, it has backfired spectacularly with the party which once adopted him now openly disowning him- a fate that even Ravi Karunanayake did not suffer.

This was not Rajapakshe’s first transgression. When the controversy over the Avant Garde security company was discussed in Parliament, Rajapakshe appeared to defend the company. So did Minister Tilak Marapana. While Marapana paid the price by resigning his portfolio, Rajapakshe stayed put.

At the time Rajapakshe also denied that he had any links with Avant Garde Chairman Nissanka Senadhipathi. However, photographs later emerged of the Rajapakshe family enjoying an overseas holiday with Senadhipathi. This incident dented Rajapakshe’s ‘clean’ image and eroded his credibility.

In more recent months, Rajapaksa has been courting controversy. When the issue of legal delays in prosecuting wrongdoers of the previous regime were raised and cabinet spokesman, Minister Rajitha Senaratne spoke of establishing special judicial mechanisms to deal with such cases, Rajapakshe stated that this would require a constitutional amendment. This was interpreted as a move to try and stall these investigations.

The Attorney General’s Department, which is under Rajapakshe’s purview has been accused of going slow on corruption cases involving stalwarts of the previous regime and Rajapakshe has been blamed for this. This was highlighted, especially after the Department appeared to act with alacrity into the investigations implicating Karunanayake.

However, what appeared to damage Rajapakshe’s standing irreparably was when he publicly criticised a Cabinet decision to lease the Hambantota Port to China and claimed that he would not rest until he vested control of the Port with Sri Lanka.

When the controversy over Rajapakshe erupted, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was keen to see a quick resolution. He therefore referred the matter to the UNP’s Working Committee. The expectation was that Rajapakshe would make use of that opportunity to apologise for his conduct and resolve the issue.

UNP’s instructions

At the Working Committee meeting however, Rajapakshe remained defiant and unapologetic as speaker after speaker admonished him. In another bid to soothe the ruffled feathers, at Wickremesinghe’s insistence, Rajapakshe was given more time till Monday to respond, apologise and remain in the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister is also reported to have had a one on one meeting with Rajapakshe.

Rajapakshe did not do so. The UNP on Tuesday released a press statement under hand of its General Secretary Kabir Hashim stating that it is requesting President Maithripala Sirisena to remove Rajapakshe from all his portfolios.

Last afternoon, the President's media Division announced that President Sirisena had "approved the request and that the decision has been notified to the UNP and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe". Thus, Rajapakshe's removal from the Cabinet is now a fait accompli and only the formalities needed to be dealt with. At the time of writing, the political grapevine was already buzzing with speculation about his potential replacements for the portfolios of Justice and Buddhasasana.

It is clear that Rajapakshe revels in this controversy and firmly believes that he will emerge stronger in the longer run, even after losing his cabinet portfolio. However, that is doubtful because, embroiled as he is in controversies and being accused of links with Avant Garde and the Rajapaksa regime, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is no longer protected by the cloak of incorruptibility. Nevertheless, it can be confidently said that this is not the last we will hear of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe in the national political arena. 


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