Photo courtesy Maatram, via Flickr

The CEO of a leading company is found out to have embezzled a significant quantity of money. This individual, however, has been responsible for bringing the firm through an economic crisis, and thus, in a last ditch effort, appeals to the board to spare punishment out of gratitude for all the services rendered in the past. The board is won over by this plea, and grants the request.

The curious case of the Sri Lankan voter

A similar case for gratitude has been thrown around by the incumbent candidate in the run up to the presidential election. Indeed, it has been one of the key dimensions of his campaign – time and again he has appealed to the masses to vote out of gratitude for all he has done – defeating terrorism (“A Secure Nation”) and rebuilding it thereafter (“A Brighter Future”).

This sort of argument could only work in the political culture of a country like ours. In Sri Lanka, the ‘representatives’ control the people, not vice versa, as it should be. As a society, we are overjoyed to see a politician comforting us after a disaster, and rarely do we express outrage that the disaster was not averted or mitigated better. In a nutshell, a politician paying a visit is a good one, not the norm. While our neighbours from across the Palk Straight are far more conscious of their claims on their politicians, we Sri Lankans are lagging far behind, and it is in this context that an appeal for gratitude holds political water.

A lesson from London

Sir Winston Churchill was one of the prime movers and shakers of the Allied Forces against Nazi Germany – indeed, it is his leadership that is credited with saving Britain and the rest of the world. As an unelected wartime Prime Minister he was without equal – all bold decisions and rousing speeches that helped rally the troops against the common enemy. After the end of the war – a victory that saved the world – his approval rating stood at 83% – and this after never having dipped below 78%. The Conservatives were comfortable in the knowledge that his popularity alone would see them re-elected comfortably.

As it turned out, Churchill and the Conservatives suffered one of their greatest defeats, as Labour took the election in a landslide. While the causes for this defeat are numerous and detailed, one important factor stands out – that during the course of the campaign, it became evident to the British public that while the Kingdom could not have asked for a greater leader than Sir Winston Churchill during the war, he was not their answer in peacetime.

Now Churchill never called on the people to re-elect him out of gratitude for saving them – indeed, saving the world – but it would appear that even had he done so, his plea would have fallen on deaf ears. For all their flaws, the British seemed to know to treat their politicians –as the old joke goes – as they treat their babies’ diapers: they had to be changed from time to time.

An undeserved promotion

In the film Get Smart, the eponymous protagonist Maxwell Smart (Steve Carrell) is a gifted analyst who longs to serve in the field for the secret security organisation that employs him. Having finally qualified for field duty, he is denied promotion by The Chief (Alan Arkin) because his function as an analyst was so crucial to the team. His witty reaction however, gives us something to think about: “So, just to be clear, you’re not promoting me because I am so good at my job?”

Perhaps the Sri Lankan voter needs to take a leaf out of the books of The Chief and the British voters of 1945. The president claims to have fulfilled his mandate to defeat terrorism – and that is exactly what he did – he fulfilled a mandate. He was entrusted with a task which he was able to accomplish, but it does not then follow that he be entrusted with other tasks on the virtue of having accomplished the first. The demands on a post-war government are different to those on a wartime one, but the Sri Lankan public seems to have neglected this.

The Great Protector

The regime seems to have betrayed its hand in the campaign that it has run for this unprecedented third presidential term. Inasmuch as the incumbent candidate has focused on the development drives since the war, it is clear that the regime is not confident in its track record in this department (and with an empty harbor and airport built at almost twice the price, how could it?). This is why the campaign has fallen back on that old friend ‘National Security’, and has cooked up various conspiracy theories, all the while taking the public memory back to a war we are trying to move past. It is clear that –at least in the minds of a vast majority of the Sri Lankan public – national security is one department in which the present regime has shone. Alas, that is no longer the order of the day.

An ungrateful ballot

The story at the start of this article is – and will only ever be – hypothetical, for two reasons. In no other job do we entrust greater responsibilities based on gratitude – it is always based on the employee’s perceived capacity to execute her new tasks. And in no other job do we see completion as anything more than the mere fulfillment of a task assigned. Kala guna salakeema is a worthy virtue by which to live day-to-day, but we should keep it far away from Sri Lankan politics.

At an election rally recently, an analogy was drawn of a doctor who had saved the lives of a mother and child, the argument being that he had no moral claim over them for doing this. What he did was his job, his duty, and while that ought to elicit gratitude and respect from his patients, they are free to live as they choose thereafter.

When the incumbent candidate won the war, he was only doing his job. Even if you are grateful for that, if you are to vote for him a third time, it should only be because you are certain that he is the best candidate to give Sri Lanka what it really needs in its next chapter.

Gratitude should play no part in it.

  • Jack Point

    Well said!

  • Bang bang

    While I share your frustration with the Sri Lankan voter. It is misleading to argue that campaigns built on gratitude “only works in the political culture of a country like ours”. This is what every politician in every country does. When a politician runs on his record, he’s hoping voters would judge the benefits greater than the costs and keep him in power. Whether we should call it gratitude or a good performance review is not going to change the fundamentals. From Chavez to Obama, everyone on their record. A few exceptions may include Kim Jong Un and Castro =)

    The counterexample provided – of Winston Churchill’s second re-election – is something I have admired too. The truth, however, is a little more complicated. It would be erroneous to argue that people voted against him simply because his mandate had expired. Lots of wartime leaders – their mandates gone – have been allowed to stay on as civilian leaders. Trueman, is American counterpart is a good enough example. Some scholars argue the vote against Churchill was not personal, it was against the record of the Conservative party.

    More important, Churchill did run on his record and even started his election campaign by spreading the same sort of conspiracy theories peddled around in Sri Lanka today. One of his opening broadcasts accused the opposition of planning to introduce “some form of Gestapo, no doubt humanely administered in the first instance.” The fact that the opposition also had various reforms – including those that would create the NHS – further helped their cause.

    Sri Lanka is not as unique as we’d like to think and that’s not a bad thing. We could use the similarities of our political system to learn and understand valuable lessons from other countries with similar political experiences.

  • puniselva

    Thank you for writing this now, Sanjit.

    There is another important reminder for the President :

    There are many things I am very proud about in this wonderful country in which I was fortunate to have been born, live and die. I would not choose to do so anywhere else in the world. But I would be less than honest if I did not express my grave disappointment and dismay at the way things have developed over the years in two of the important areas I have alluded to in this letter. That of elections as a fundamental part of an authentic democracy and the other the question of resolving for all time our minorities rights for equality and dignity. Many of our countrymen and women will hold with me that in these two areas many of our administrations over the past three or four decades have been sadly deficient. The United States too from which experience I garnered my Fullbright heritage is no doubt deficient in many respects too. But its political culture and society constitutes a self – correcting mechanism. We don’t seem to have that here and this devolves on our political leadership a greater and more profound responsibility” – Bradman Weerakoon’s letter as part of a project initiated by the Fullbright Commission of Sri Lanka to commemorate the 6oth Anniversary of the Fullbright programme in Sri Lanka,

  • Dr Somasunderam

    Gratitude for what. Making it a family business, taking the powers of the judiciary and having contact killings is not good leadership. It is time for a change.

  • wallflower

    Gratitude for what?. Was it the voter of this country who dragged this country into this racist war? This war was the result of opportunistic politics, and it was J.R. Jayawardena who proposed bringing in Sinhala as the official in the NSA in 1944, seconded by H.W.Amarasuriya.
    As the writer points out we have not selected our representatives and neither will we ever be till we devise a system to circumvent the ruling elite of the world running countries through proxies.