ECONOMYNEXT – Cash-strapped Sri Lanka’s former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa vacated his parliamentary seat on Thursday (09) downplaying his role in the country’s worst ever forex crisis, without ruling out a comeback, and likening the Rajapaksa family to India’s RSS.
Exactly one month after his older brother and then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned against a backdrop of bloody violence, the younger Rajapaksa announced his departure from the legislature Thursday morning at the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) headquarters where he fielded questions from reporters eager to press him on his part in the ongoing calamity.
Rajapaksa appeared to be in a beaten-but-not-defeated mood as he attempted to use humour to deflect questions about his responsibility and, at one point, even seemed to shift the blame to the very people who had voted for his party, the SLPP.
“No, I’m not passing the buck to the people. But yes, they do hold some responsibility for electing us to power. If, as you say, we passed the buck, then those who gave us the buck in the first place are also responsible,” said Rajapaksa, quickly recovering from a question that had visibly agitated him
It was the one moment in the hour-long press briefing in which he lost his cool.
The former finance minister’s ouster was one of the key demands of Sri Lanka’s protesting public. Among the anti-government slogans shouted at protests islandwide was the earworm “Kaputu kaak, kaak, kaak” followed by a chorus of “Basil, Basil, Basil, Basil.” The somewhat elitist meme originated from a video in which Rajapaksa was heard using the Sinhala word for crows, “kaputas”, in the plural form, at a discussion held in English, for which he was relentlessly mocked on social media.
Asked to comment on his “new brand”, Rajapaksa claimed that he had made the singsong protest slogan his phone’s ringtone.
“I mean, it’s not a bad animal, really. I hold no grudge against any being. I do not seek vengeance.
“It’s my ringtone now. The phone goes ‘Basil Basil’ when it rings.
“The first bit is played back at a lower volume,” he added with a chuckle.
On more serious matters, Rajapaksa was no less facetious. When questioned about the erosion of Rajapaksa popularity, he said: “I think we can see that our family is better at politics than at governance.”
The former minister and architect of the SLPP said that there are such cases globally.
“India’s RSS has been around for years, but they do not govern directly. The BJP has taken on that role,” he said.
However, he does not foresee an immediate end to the Rajapaksa dynasty.
“Sri Lankans elected a Rajapaksa president three times: twice with Mahinda Rajapaksa, and once with Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” he said.
As for his own plans, the youngest Rajapaksa sibling said though he has retired from governance, he will continue to play an active role in politics. His resignation from the SLPP’s national list slot, he said, was for someone the party deems suitable to take his place.
Speculation has been rife that that someone will be businessman Dhammika Perera. Rajapaksa’s answers to questions about Perera’s entry to active politics were vague, at best.
“I don’t know about that. That is a decision that’s up to the party.”
However, he did say later on that if Perera wishes to implement some of the plans he had proposed for the country, there is no reason he should not be given an opportunity to do so. The same is true, he said, for anyone from the ‘aragalaya’, Sri Lanka’s youth-led protest movement.
“I invite anyone from the Aragalaya to take my place,” he said.
Regarding the economic crisis and the immense hardships imposed on the public, apart from a hurried “apology” at the end of the press briefing for any mistakes made during his tenure as Finance Minister, there was no heart-rending mea culpa from the former MP.
He brushed aside any suggestion from the journalists present that he and the Rajapaksa administration had been the authors of the agony the people were now feeling.
“I’m no longer finance minister.
“Since 1951, this country has been run the same way, on debt. No government has tried to change this. After my appointment, I tried to some extent enable the people to stand on their own feet.
“It may or may not have worked, but if there is something this country is getting now [in terms of financing], it is only what I was able to secure as finance minister,” he said.
Pressed for more honesty, Rajapaksa claimed the crisis was already there when he came on board as finance minister. He forcefully rejected suggestions by journalists that his government was responsible for the erosion of Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves which had stood at seven billion US dollars in late 2019 when his brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in.
“There was no seven billion dollars when I came on. I do not accept that reserves went down to zero under me. There were no reserves when I was appointed,” he said, adding that fertilizer and other essentials were being purchased today with loans that he had helped secure.
Rajapaksa said the government had been divided on approaching the IMF for assistance, and that reconciliation between two pro and anti-IMF camps had to be achieved.
“I sent the first letter to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was after that that two IMF officials came and met me and President Rajapaksa,” he said.
President Rajapaksa had earlier said in a televised address to the nation that it was a mistake to not go to the IMF. Former Finance Minister Rajapaksa, however, in some apparent revisionism said that the president had in fact said the IMF should’ve assisted Sri Lanka sooner.
There has been speculation that the proposed 21st amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution is being delayed due to machinations by Basil Rajapaksa against a provision to ban duel citizens from entering parliament. Rajapaksa is a US citizen and visits that country regularly. Some former influential government ministers who now function as independent MPs in parliament famously called him the “Ugly American” and accused him of carrying out a US agenda, a claim which Rajapaksa rejects.
“Personally I’m opposed to the 21st amendment,” he said, but added quickly that it was not due to personal reasons.
A constitution must serve the public interest, he said. “We can’t take the power given by 6.9 million voters to one leader and confer that on someone who only managed over 250,000 votes,” he said, referring to Sri Lanka’s newly sworn in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
“I definitely support certain aspects of the 21st amendment, such as the provisions on independent commissions.
“I don’t know if the amendment will pass,” he said, adding however that decentralisation of power to benefit the public is important.
If the executive presidency is to be abolished, Rajapaksa said, Sri Lana’s provincial council system – a legacy of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord – must be reformed in the interest of maintaining the island nation’s sovereignty and unitary character.
Though he would personally have voted against it, he said, the decision to vote for the amendment or not remains with the party, which he says he will continue to work with.
Basil Rajapaksa leaves parliament, which he entered as an unelected MP via the national list, with Sri Lanka’s economy freefalling around the hapless and increasingly desperate citizenry.
He, however, believes he did his best.
“I think I did [do something] to the best of my ability. But I couldn’t do everything the people had expected,” he said.
Asked if his resignation was a permanent one, Rajapaksa said: “If the people decide so, perhaps; but if they want me back, I’m ready for that too.”
“I know it’s going to be even more difficult going forward. We must all work together. We’re ready to extend any help to the present administration and whoever may be coming next,” the former minister said.
He expressed hope that global conditions will also improve, facilitating Sri Lanka’s recovery.
“I hope the Ukraine crisis is resolved and tourism will pick up again.
As he stood up to leave the briefing he said: “I would also like to express my sincere apologies to the people if there were any mistakes made.” (Colombo/Jun09/2022)