Today marks the second anniversary of the victory of Maithripala Sirisena as the President of Sri Lanka at the 8th January 2015 Sri Lankan Presidential Election. And the second anniversary of the 17th August 2015 Parliamentary Election is merely seven months away. In the shadow of these two anniversaries, I thought of reflecting on what they mean to me in the context of what has happened, and more importantly what has not happened in the interceding two years. This is not a political analysis. I leave that to friends and colleagues more attuned to Sri Lankan politics on a routine basis.
This is literally a reflection tempered by hope, frustration and anger enmeshed in a pervasive sense of anxiety, which seems to suggest that grand dreams in our land have very little capacity for realization.
I did not vote in either of the two elections, as I was not in the country. Had I been in the country, I would have voted for Sirisena as President and the Ranil Wickramasinghe-led United National Party-United National Front for Good Governance alliance. I would have done so even though I had absolutely no confidence in either politician or the political formations they lead. My potential decision at the time would have been motivated by a simple utilitarian and strategic logic, and that was to defeat the extremely corrupt oligarchic system of governance and cult worship that Mahinda Rajapaksa had carefully installed in Sri Lanka’s political landscape and collective psyche over the previous eight years. As a result of Rajapaksa’s limitless political tinkering, much of the country’s democratic institutions and practices had been severely undermined and violence as a form of governance had been institutionalized as never before. I thought such a defeat might offer the country a much-needed breathing space within which it had the ‘theoretical’ possibility to reinvent itself and mend its ways. In other words, I was trying to dream. But let me stress on the word ‘theoretical’. As one knows, particularly in Sri Lankan politics, there is a vast gap between what is theoretically posisble and what actually transpires. In this context, I was thankful to Rajapaksa’s official astrologer for convincing him to call the presidential election two years ahead of schedule, which ensured his dramatic defeat and made the overall political change in the country possible.
On the night of January 8th 2015, notwithstanding my lack of affinity with any known divine pantheon, I nevertheless went out into the chilly winter night that New Delhi offered with its thankless dose of pollution, gazed into the heavens and hoped for the best in place of a prayer. I thought of the many people I knew and others I did not know, who had taken considerable personal risks to change the trajectory of Sri Lanka’s politics, and drive it out of its political wilderness. They were fighting an uneven battle against all odds while all state resources worked against them. That was ‘fair’ game in the unethical morass national politics had become. They seemed unlikely to win. But they had one thing going for them: the capacity to dream and the wherewithal to try and make that dream come true. But they did win – in so far as pushing an idea for political change, which had popular acceptance albeit with a very slim margin. This also meant that many other Sri Lankans did not want the system to change and were quite contended with the status quo despite the extreme negativities it had come to symbolize.
The next day, after the result was declared and it was known that Sirisena was the new President, I sat down and wrote him a rather long letter, which was sent to him by courier and fax on January 10th and was also published in Groundviews a few days later. In all probability, neither he nor his advisors ever read what I wrote. Nevertheless, I thanked the new President for giving “Sri Lanka a much needed breathing space to try and reclaim its democratic practices and its civilizational heritage both of which had been seriously mauled in the previous decade.”[i] I also told him, “despite the difficult path ahead, I hope the democratic and civilizational space Your Excellency, Hon. Prime Minster, Ranil Wickramasinghe, your colleagues and many concerned citizens have opened up in our country would prevail.”[ii]
In retrospect, how incredibly misplaced and naïve my hopes were! Or, was I writing to simply to assuage my own fears of the unenviable political circus that was about to begin? Perhaps in my mind, this was the short respite of reltive calm before the storm actually came. Why is it that our political leaders are simply incapable of sensing and delivering justice when it is so earnestly needed? Why is it impossible for them to do the ‘right thing’ rather than what is politically expedient which will only take into account their own political survival as individuals or the petty interests of the nefarious political formations they represent? And what explains our complete lack of political wisdom as a nation in placing our trust on politically and ethically unreliable individuals over and over and over again when their track record is so obvious? If we answer these questions self-reflectively, the cartography of our consistent failure as a nation despite some intermittent sober moments would become self-evident.
It seems to me that Sri Lanka is by and large a ‘suicidal’ nation when it comes to politics. This implicates most of us. I do not use the word ‘suicidal’ in a metaphorical sense, but quite literally. It is almost a national passion, perhaps like cricket. We cannot be separated from either. As a result, we will not realize when the train is coming towards us, and would imagine it to be the rising full moon in all its glory or the glitter of ‘development’ in all of its intoxicating allure. And we keep missing one grand opportunity after another. It is in this context we have transformed the historic moment offered by these twin elections into one of the worst out of many lost-opportunities Sri Lanka’s post-independence political space is littered with.
Unlike many colleagues and friends, I do not consider Rajapaksa a complete villain, a kind of simple one-dimensional man. There is no confusion in my mind about his personal culpability in transforming a once-functioning democracy into a family-lead fiefdom completely devoid of any sense of ethics. On the other hand, while recognizing the excesses of Sri Lanka’s civil war, particularly in its last phases, I have no doubt that the war had to be brought to an end — militarily. It was clear that the LTTE was incapable of a sensible political arrangement. But despite all this, once the war ended in May 2009, amidst much pain and extreme devastation, there was a very reasonable opportunity to travel towards a post-war society of decency and justice. But instead of these possibilities, Rajapaksa helped usher in a militarized oligarchy, which took as its point of departure a crude sense triumphalism despite the rhetorical claims of reconciliation. It is in that environment that virulent political formations such as Bodu Bala Sena with their anti-minority ethos also emerged adding a completely new dimension to the idea of intolerance.
After the war’s end, Rajapaksa had every opportunity and unbridled power to deliver anything he wanted, including a much needed and dignified peace. But in the din of creating a family-centered and seemingly perennial regime in the name of both democracy and war-heroism, he missed that opportunity. In the final analysis, the issue for me is not about the urge of a dictatorial regime and its main movers to survive over time irrespective of the costs to the nation. But many of our people did not seem to mind that agenda, if we go by the 2015 election results and the manner in which many continue to justify the former regime’s excesses. These are not simply people who have benefitted financially and politically from the system of rampant cronyism that the Rajapkasas single-mindedly institutionalized. Many were simply ordinary and decent people, relatives, friends, former students and neighbors whose capacity to visualize a democratic future and an ethical social and political space seem to be irrevocably lost.
And now, we see the daily unfolding of the absurd drama called ‘good governance’ orchestrated by the Sirisena and Wickramasinhe duo who were handed over power by the slimmest of margins to usher in an era of honest, ethical and decent governance. We should have known better when Sirisena’s 100 Day Work Programme was announced. It was a grand scheme with lofty ideals and a program of action, which was supposed to reintroduce lost democratic practices to the country. Let me refer to just one goal in this scheme. By January 11th 2016, a Cabinet of not exceeding 25 ministers, including members of all political parties represented in Parliament, were to be appointed with Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. The 19th Amendment to the constitution had limited this number to 30. Still, that was good enough when juxtaposed with Rajapaksa’s bloated, cash-gobbling and marauding cabinet. But by the time, the cabinet appointment performance was over with much horse-trading, there were 45 so-called Cabinet Ministers and 48 State Ministers and Deputy Ministers. Now, I have lost count of these characters and have no recollection of what their charges are. Citizens have been told that these positions have been offered to patriots who would help stabilize the new regime. But patriotism, in any real sense should come as a service, not as a lucrative cash cow at public expense. The overall reality is that nearly half of the mostly nefarious characters Sri Lankan voters have sent to Parliament are now ministers of one type or another, in charge of their own little fiefdoms. Others, which the electorate clearly rejected have also been offered cabinet portfolios through the infamous scheme, ‘the national list.’ The best example perhaps is the reinvention of S.B. Dissanayake, the man with too many lives. Another opportunity was lost.
One of the main claims of the opposition during the twin elections, for which there was also considerable circumstantial evidence as well as commonsensical conjecture was the extreme corruption and abuse of power by the Rajapaksa family and their political inner-circle. But to date, despite the high-decible tone of slogans outlining the need to prosecute such characters, almost no one has been seriously pursued legally. Part of the problem of course is the fact that the system of law and order and justice had been severely compromised under nearly a decade of Rajapaksa mis-rule, and to get the same system to investigate the former masters was difficult. But more importantly, there appears to be no political will on the part of the government to seriously pursue criminal proceedings against possible culprits due to apprehensions of a public backlash as well as their own sense of political instability as a government. A government however, cannot postpone crucial and necessary election pledges simply due to a fear of possible public anger. It is possible to mitigate against such an eventuality if such proceedings are pursued professionally and transparently. But this has not been done. So now, for many, it appears that the Rajapaksas and their bandwagon are actually saints and the entire election campaign of the former opposition consisted of innuendo which now cannot be proven. There is also no tangible proof of overhauling the institutional systems which have been compromised for too long. Another opportunity lost.
When ‘good governance’ was the main slogan of the two election campaigns, one expects to see at least some tangible results which makes contextual sense of what these words actually mean. But notwithstanding the fact that a democratic breathing space that was certainly created, what do the government and the president have to say about their achievements in institutional rebuilding and ushering in good practices? Political relatives and various significant others with no qualifications have been appointed to crucial positions in the foreigns service depriving competent professionals career advancement and a sense of professionalism in the service. Ill-suited characters have been appointed to crucial state bodies ensuring their stagnation in terms of growth and inefficiency in day to day running when competent local professionals are availble. The best examples are the appointments of former cricketer Arjuna Ranatunga’s brother as the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and President Sirisena’s brother as the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom. So nepotism is well and and overtly alive. Ministers continue to order expensive luxury cars while ordinary people find it difficult to simply get by; upright civil servants are threatened with sacking or resignation for trying to do the right thing. And this pitiful list of objectionable actions gets larger and larger and more blatant as time goes by while the government itself gets weaker and loses its credibility. And all the time, these doings completely contradicts what ‘good governance’ ideally should mean. Too many opportunities lost in the shadow brought upon by the exit of wisdom from politics.
And one wonders what on earth happened to the courageous group of people who came together from different backgrounds under the most difficult of conditions to defeat one of the most tyrannical regimes of recent memory. They seem to have metamorphosed into nothingness in political terms. It is sad that at least a part of this group could not organize itself into a formidable formal political force to ensure that the government they put into power delivers on the promises it made. But now, the government is merely interested in its own survival and not the future of the country and what appeared to be the conscience of the land has diminished like a sigh, a rather long sigh.
Another opportunity lost.
And now, Mahinda Rajapkasa, addressing foreign journalists in Colombo on 29th of December 2016 says – for the first time this clearly after his defeat – that he wants to come back into main stream politics and would like to “topple” the government.[iii] This is the curse of the obstinate patriarch who refuses to embrace retirement with dignity. In any case, he would not know what the words, “autumn of the patriarch” meant in the sense once narrativised by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and quite posisbly thinks that the former New Zealand prime minister John Key who resigned at the height of his career[iv] as he thougt he had given enough time to poltics, is a fool.
After all, in Sri Lanka, no politician ever retires. They hang around without grace until nature ultimately catches up with them. Even karma seems to elude them. Rajapaksa cannot be any different. Besides, why should he be when much of the populace wants to reinstate everything that was wrong with the country for which he stood? But given the disunity and the expanding lack of legitimacy of the present government, they are perfectly capable of toppling themselves without any help from Rajapaksa. Another opportunity is about to be lost.
So Sri Lanka’s story of lost opportunities continues like a distasteful but lengthy soap opera. If a decent future cannot be carved out for the country by the people its populace repeatedly send to parliament and if people who not so long ago dreamt of a better tomorrow have vanished into oblivion like a sigh, then perhaps it is time for people expecting change to think hard if the political formations currently in place could ever deliver the country out of its political wilderness and if they should not think about formulating new and more decisive alternatives.
For me, as my faith in the human spirit in my own back yard ebbs away, it is perhaps not a bad idea to look for an all-weather pantheon on whose shoulders one’s anxieties might be deposited and for whom a payer may be invented from what used to be our dreams.