Sri Lanka & the Rajapaksas: How Political Families Have Dominated South Asia

From Nehru-Gandhis in India to Koiralas in Nepal, political families are part of public life in South Asian nations.

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Hindi Female

Political families are part of the public life of all South Asian countries. Some of them have dominated national politics either over long stretches of time or have exercised great influence in their respective countries. Of these families, the Nehru-Gandhi in India, the Bhutto-Zardari in Pakistan, the Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, the Koirala in Nepal and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in Bangladesh, come readily to mind.

The roots of the Nehru-Gandhi, Bhutto-Zardari and Bandaranaike families go back to the colonial period. The Koirala family was the leader of the struggle for democracy in Nepal, and Sheikh Mujib fought against Pakistani oppression and led the movement for the creation of Bangladesh. By the standards of these families, the Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka are ‘johnnies come lately’ – Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister in 2004 and won the Presidential election only in 2005 – but they have taken to filling senior political posts with family members to the extreme levels, even in a country where family members holding high political offices at the same time has been the nature of politics.

  • The Nehru-Gandhis in India, the Bhutto-Zardaris in Pakistan, the Bandaranaikes and the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka, the Koiralas in Nepal and the family of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in Bangladesh are prominent political families that have dominated South Asian nations.

  • But no other established political family of other South Asian countries has ever gone as far as the Rajapaksa family in giving high political offices to so many family members.

  • The Rajapaksa clan will bide its time and try to make a return, hoping that the memory of its misdeeds will fade in time.


A Trip to Sri Lanka in 2013

This writer witnessed the domination of the Rajapaksa family over the national life of Sri Lanka when he went to the beautiful island country in 2013 with a delegation sponsored by an Indian think tank. At that time, Mahinda was President, having won a second term in 2010. His elder brother, Chamal, was Speaker of Parliament, while younger brothers Basil and Gotabaya held the offices of Minister for Economic Development and Defence Secretary, respectively.

The delegation met all the brothers. What struck this writer was the assurance and confidence they all exuded, though Chamal appeared to be quiet, affable and low-key. Mahinda asserted that he could ‘manage’ the contradictions between India and China in Sri Lanka. Basil clearly was the economic czar. Gotabaya gave out the self-assurance of one who had won a great war. The administration seemed to be an extension of the family. All threads of governance were in the family’s hands.


How Rajapaksas Gave High Offices to Family

The Rajapaksa brothers obviously did not learn much from the years in the opposition from 2015 to 2018 when, as part of a bargain, Mahinda was appointed as Prime Minister by the very man who defeated him for the Presidency – Maithripala Sirisena. A year later, Gotabaya was elected President, and the next year, Mahinda led the Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance to victory in the parliamentary elections. Thus, the Rajapaksa family was back in full control of Sri Lanka through a popular mandate.

Such mandates can be very intoxicating. They can create the feeling that the people’s support is so complete that they will accept anything the family may do. No wonder they spread the tentacles of the family further in the cabinet.

Now, not only Basil, but Chamal, too, was inducted into it. Besides, the next generation was also given high offices. Mahinda’s son Namal was made a cabinet minister. And, Chamal’s son, Shasheendra, was inducted as a minister of state.

None of the other established political families of other South Asian countries has ever gone as far as the Rajapaksa family in giving high political offices to so many family members. In Sri Lanka, though, political families are not reluctant to appoint family members to very high offices. The Bandaranaike family is a case in point. SWRD Bandaranaike was Prime Minister from 1956 to 1959. He was assassinated while in office. His widow, Sirimavo, took over his legacy and became Prime Minister thrice: from 1960 to 1965, from 1970 to 1977 and, lastly, in 1994, when she was appointed Prime Minister by her own daughter, President Chandrika Kumaratunga. She continued in that post till 2000. Chandrika was elected as President in 1994 and continued in that office till 2005, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President. Chandrika’s brother, Anura, was Foreign Minister for a brief period when she was President.D


Dynastic Politics in India, Pak, Nepal & Bangladesh

What about other South Asian countries?

In India, Indira Gandhi succeeded Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother. Later, Sonia held the final reins of power from 2004 to 2014 and Rahul also became party president. Over the years, two family members served in ministry. Indira Gandhi appointed aunt Sheila Kaul, who served as minister in Indira Gandhi and later Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s cabinets. Arun Nehru, a cousin, was appointed by Rajiv Gandhi as part of his ministry till the two fell apart.

In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto held the office of Prime Minister as her father Zulfikar Bhutto had, and now Benazir’s son is Minister of External Affairs. Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir’s husband, became President on the strength of her martyrdom. However, other family members were not inducted into high political offices at the Centre.

Three Koirala brothers became Prime Ministers of Nepal. They were Matrika Prasad, Bisheshwar Prasad during the monarchical period in the 1950s, and Girija Prasad who held the office five times. Of these, the first four tenures were during the monarchy, and the fifth was after Nepal became a Republic. A cousin, Sushil Koirala, also served as Prime Minister. The family exercised great influence in the country’s political life, but family members did not hold a great many offices as the Rajapaksa family did.

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who is revered as ‘Bangbandhu’, was assassinated along with many family members by a group of army officers in 1975. He was the President then. Only two daughters, who were then abroad, survived. They took refuge in India. Sheikh Hasina entered politics and served as Prime Minister for five years from 1996 to 2001. After an interregnum of eight years, Sheikh Hasina returned to the Prime Minister’s chair, which she continues to hold. Her son ‘Joy’ wields political influence and her sister is in politics but does not hold high office.


What Next for the Rajapaksa Clan?

Gotabaya fled the country and has reached Singapore. He has finally sent his letter of resignation to the Speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament. This will pave the way for the election of a new President by Parliament and the formation of an interim government of national unity.

Sri Lanka’s political class will now have to show unity to meet the challenge of the current economic collapse and the shortages of essential commodities.

Meanwhile, the Rajapaksa clan, which is solely responsible for the country’s miserable state, will either have to face the public’s wrath at home or will be allowed to go abroad. In any case, it will bide its time and no doubt try to make a return, hoping that the memory of its misdeeds will fade in time.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Sri Lanka   Pakistan   Bangladesh 

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