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The Indrajit Coomaraswamy Issue: A matter of decency

Featured image courtesy Sri Lanka Mirror

The issue of the appointment of Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy as the Governor of the Central Bank is a defining one. It is an issue on which one has to stand up and be counted. It is a moral issue; one which concerns the kind of Sri Lanka one wishes to have. It is also a larger issue of values; of what values one holds higher than others. It is an issue of ethics, of how one should or should not conduct oneself; of whether or not fair-play counts. Finally it is an issue of common decency.

If there is any one thing that has been wrong with this country, it is the deviation from the principle of sheer merit, i.e. of sheer expertise and ability. The principle of merit itself is only a reflection of a more important criterion, that of fair play and natural justice. Going by the criterion of merit, Indrajit is ahead of the competition, with Saman Kelegama running a fairly close second.

While the de facto Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition, Dinesh Gunawardena, has demonstrated his typical civility and decency by welcoming and commending Arjuna Mahendran’s replacement by Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, some elements of and around the Opposition have attacked the appointment in tones that cannot but be described as raucous if coded racism. Vidura Wickremanayake and Vasudeva Nanayakkara have taken the same stance as Dinesh. All of them have impeccably anti-UNP, progressive, radical and anti-imperialist records.

It may be true that in a deplorable lapse of judgment, Indrajit was associated with Raj Rajaratnam’s company, and Raj Rajaratnam was indubitably a financier of the LTTE apart from being a crook. He was a worthy successor of Emil Savundra.

I didn’t know of the rumored Galleon connection, and I trust Indrajit will issue a full clarification about that ill-advised relationship and/or be grilled about it in parliament, but being the “honorable schoolboy” (to borrow Le Carre’s phrase) that Indrajit has always been, he was probably suckered because of his naiveté.

However, guilt by association is not the most valid of criteria for evaluation and judgment. That tenuous affiliation with Galleon and Rajaratnam is by no stretch of the imagination the main thing about Indrajit.  As Jean Paul Sartre said about Paul Valery, “he was certainly a petty bourgeois intellectual, but not every petty bourgeois intellectual was Paul Valery…” When the world judges Martin Heidegger or Carl Schmitt, it is for their intellects and not their tangential affiliations.

The point is that in the case of professionals, academics and intellectuals, their affiliations are not the main criteria. The quality of their professional product and performance– of their minds—and the expert value they add, is or should be the main criteria. Only then can a country modernize, progress and advance. It is this criterion of sheer expertise and specialized competence that made Lenin and Trotsky absorb top officers of the oppressive Tsarist army, into the revolutionary Red Army even during the Civil War.

In any case, I can state after a friendly acquaintanceship of over three decades (as long as I’ve known Rajiva Wijesinha, a common friend), that Indrajit has never shown the slightest trace of sympathy to the Tigers, or separatism or the political activism of the Tamil diaspora or indeed the cause and ideology of Tamil nationalism in general. Indeed his early Marxist formation together with his cosmopolitan upbringing and social background made him almost blind to ethnic identity even after the seismic shock of Black July 1983. If anything, he has always had a hyper-rationalist recoil against the ideology and politics of ethnic identity.

In 2015, when the imminent appointment of Arjuna Mahendran was already drawing fire, I went on TV more than once, saying that Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy would be the best choice for the job.  He had been shortlisted at the time, but wasn’t the PM’s final choice. I am delighted that over a year later, Govt. has come round to my publicly stated view, and the criterion of merit has prevailed. Not since Dr. Warnasena Rasaputram and Deshamanya A.S. Jayawardena has our Central Bank had as intellectually solid and suitable a Governor.

The Prime Minister stuck to Mr. Mahendran almost to the bitter end, and then attempted to implant another longtime confidante and old school pal, Charitha Ratwatte. All credit to President Sirisena– and if she played a role, to ex-President Kumaratunga– for the choice, however belated, of Indrajit Coomaraswamy who has for years belonged on my private short list of the most intelligent, and might I add, civilized, Sri Lankans of my current personal acquaintance.

Even on vital economic policy issues, Indrajit is by far the right man to have at the helm of the Central Bank. Within the current Establishment, the decisive, perhaps determinant, economic importance of China is most easily comprehensible by Dr. Sarath Amunugama, the man who should be our Foreign Minister (with Mahinda Samarasinghe as Human Rights and Reconciliation Minister), and Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy.

The only advice I’d give him is not to allow economic and financial orthodoxy take him too far from his intellectual roots which would remind him of the determining realities of a socially embedded Political Economy.

The ultranationalist tendency of the Opposition seems to have fallen prey to the political sin that Mao, a philosopher as well as a master strategist, condemned and rejected as “whateverism”: whatever your side does is by definition right, while whatever the other side does is by definition wrong!

If a civilizational fault-line in the Opposition is not to open up, and if a fissure between moderates and chauvinists, progressives and ultranationalists, modernists and traditionalists, pluralists and neoconservatives, the reasonable and the raucous is to be avoided, the Opposition must not stoop so low as to pick up every possible stone from every possible dung heap, to throw at the government.

Instead it must take the high road, to the moral high ground. It must stand for the national, state and public interests, in the broadest sense, using the most advanced and enlightened criteria. That is the true meaning of progressivism. Patriotism is one thing, chauvinism quite another; nationalism has its place, but chauvinism must not.

Instead of stepping into the gutter, the Opposition has a much faster highway to take to defeat the Government if it wishes to, and to do so within a matter of months.

It was from Beijing that I followed Brexit with the clear realization that just as David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn, i.e. a bipartisan consensus of Conservatives and Labor, had been defeated, it is perfectly feasible to beat a Ranil-CBK led UNP official SLFP-TNA bloc at a referendum over a non-unitary Constitutional change, falling well outside the 13th amendment.

The quasi-federalist campaign in Sri Lanka would depend on the Northeastern and minority voters, but in the UK, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London all voted to remain. Yet, they lost. In the UK, the blowback has been the threat of a secessionist second Scottish referendum. The Tamil nationalists may get ideas (don’t they always?) but here in Sri Lanka, there is no EU equivalent to join, no second referendum nor referenda which can be activated by Provincial Councils.

In the UK, the Leave campaign was spearheaded by two mavericks, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farrage. Here in Sri Lanka the NO campaign would have such figures further down the batting order, while the nationalist ‘NO’ campaign would be captained by the equivalent of a Churchill or Maggie Thatcher.

The point I seek to make is that it is perfectly possible and indeed far easier to  hit a government hard and topple it if an opposition or resistance movement is both radical and rational, militant while on the Middle Path, occupying the moral high ground and seen to be doing so. Fanaticism will never do more than assuage the militant element of one’s own base, while proving an obstacle to winning over the middle ground and the new, undecided voters. The forces of patriotic popular resistance must be more ethical than the Government; not more fanatical and fundamentalist. This is why Fidel Castro and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega triumphed (and the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions remain quintessentially undefeated) while Pol Pot, the LTTE, the JVP, Al Qaeda and ISIS have failed.