Photo courtesy FT

After many years of being a politician in various capacities, J.R. Jayewardene had come to the conclusion that if he could rule all by himself without any restraints, he could do a better job than others had done in the past. An opportunity for this came when in the 1977 election, people gave his party an overwhelming majority in the Parliament. Within a short time, Prime Minister Jayewardene proceeded to create a kind of power arrangement within which he could realize his great dream. That scheme was included into a document called a “Constitution” that was in fact the opposite of what is usually known as a Constitution within a legal democratic framework. The idea of this document was to place himself as a person in charge of everything and to remove any obstacles to his exercise of power. With this, he fantasized that he could do miracles. He could do miracles in terms of the economy and he could also do another miracle of overcoming the impact of periodic elections, thus becoming an absolute ruler for as long as he lived.

Every other person who came to his position thereafter became the bearers of this fantasy and the belief that absolute power is a necessary condition for ruling Sri Lanka. This became entrenched and the practices based on that fantasy still operate. However, during the whole period within which this fantasy was the ruling ideology of Sri Lankan governments, what the country experienced was one crisis after another. It was also a period within which the absolute ruler decided all the borrowings that had to be done on behalf of the country without being restrained by the normal rules of prudence. The absolute ruler also had the power among other things to create an ever increasing indebtedness as a major characteristic of the country’s economy. Thus, it is the pursuit of this fantasy that has now placed Sri Lanka in a situation where the country has to do everything possible to avoid being declared bankrupt. Today, the primary economic ambition in the country is to remain as long as possible without falling into that final abyss of being treated as a bankrupt State internationally. It is ironical that the very political arrangement that Jayewardene made that led, step by step, into this economical nightmare has also been burdened with the same political arrangement in trying to resolve this abysmal problem. Handing power to a single individual created the problem in the first place and now that same arrangement of placing all power on a single individual has become the major obstacle for finding any kind of rational way out of the problem the same political arrangement has created.

Meanwhile, every other problem has accumulated and the people are suffering from the economic crisis that was created by the adoption of this ridiculous political arrangement as the ruling governing structure of the country. The problem that affects the people the most is the ever increasing prices of essential goods; every declared attempt to deal with the economic crisis in fact contributes to exacerbating the crisis.

It was amidst all this that the Covid-19 pandemic added to the existing unsolvable problems. This unprecedented global crisis required collective efforts that would have generated very high level of cooperation between the Government and the people including the most professionally capable persons who are able to handle this crisis, which requires expert knowledge. However, within a political arrangement that has allowed every exercise of power in the hands of a single person, such cooperation is impossible to achieve.

The result now is that the daily rate of deaths and infections have increased so much that the entire nation is experiencing a kind of fear never felt before in its recent history.

The manifestation of this fear is that people have begun to take their own security into their own hands and entire cities have closed down not by an order of the Government but by the wish of the people. This level of social initiative, instead of trusting that the State will come to their assistance, is itself an experience that should be studied in depth in order to understand what has internally changed in the perceptions and convictions of the people.

Almost everyone has spoken out, demanding that the Government take measures for a lockdown but the Government left in the hands of a single person has been adamant in not taking such steps. Even the two Mahanayakas of the Malwathu and Asgiri Chapters of the Siam Sect demanded a lockdown. All major professional bodies in the country including those of the medical profession demanded it. Trade unions have threatened to go on strike in order to force the Government to impose such a lockdown. The parties that are part of the Governing coalition itself demanded an immediate lockdown for at least three weeks. It is perhaps the first time that such a massive consensus has emerged demanding a particular action from any Government. However, the Government in the hands of a single individual refused to act. Only once things went out of his control did he agreed to impose a curfew for 10 days.

His speech to the nation announcing the lockdown was not graceful; he only mentioned the sacrifices that the people would have to make because of the lockdown. Perhaps he has begun to realize that this fantasy of one man controlling everything cannot hold under these vastly changing circumstances.

Both in the area of the economy and in the protection of the people in the face of the worst epidemic that has ever been experienced, the major obstacle to a solution remains the political arrangement made by J.R. Jayewardene, who thought that placing power on a single individual would better solve the problems of a country than by other arrangements practiced until then. Thus a fantasy has now turned into a nightmare. However, there is yet no serious discussion on displacing the political arrangements created in 1978 placing all power in a single individual. While acute problems accumulate, Sri Lanka has not yet found a way to lead the nation out of it.