Sri Lanka: Rotten Creeds, Failed Gods

The personal despotism inherent in the Lankan presidential system has morphed into a hereditary despotism under the Rajapaksas. The advent of Basil Rajapaksa is on par with this transformation.

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“A leader is found! Yet cautiously to myself I ask, a leader to where? Despair overthrown often turns us in mad directions.” ~ Katharine Kressmann Taylor (Address unknown)

In Brother Grimm’s Little Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), the twelve wise women invited to the birthday feast gift the baby princess with “everything in the world that one can wish for.” A magical intervention of similar magnitude would be necessary to create the kind of leader who can use with moderation and efficacy and for greater good the enormous powers of Sri Lanka’s executive presidency. 

Our titanic presidency is a bad fit for mortals. The crown slips down covering the eyes, blinding the wearer. The mantle entangles the arms hampering efficient movement. Near divine powers are thus wielded by a mortal deprived of ordinary sight and ordinary efficacy by the weight of those very powers. How can anything but disaster ensue?

Sri Lanka’s presidential elections are pure theatre. Media campaigns attribute super human qualities to candidates, endowing them with “everything in the world that one can wish for.” Aggrandisement is the norm. No claim, however preposterous, is beyond belief to the faithful and the desperate. Each candidate is depicted as The Saviour, the One who will cure all our ills and guide us to the Promised Land, this time, definitely this time. 

The gap between this hype and reality is measurable only in light years. The winning candidate must battle every day, every hour pretending that the crown and the mantle are a perfect fit. The show works for a time and then does not. The failed saviour is abandoned and a desperate search, an impatient wait for the new saviour begins. Blinded by faith, we cannot see that the failure belongs to not just the gods but also the creed. 

Given his narrow horizons and paucity of experience, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was perhaps more primed for failure than most. But failure was his inescapable eventual fate, because no mortal could be what he claimed for himself and what his supporters claimed for him. (This was true of the other main candidates; none of them could have lived up to their own hype.) His fate is written, not in the stars but in the job description. 

The failure is both personal and systematic, president and presidency. In the 43 years of its existence, the executive presidency has not been able to deliver on its two main promises of economic development and political stability. The Gotabaya-experience proves, if more proof is needed, the danger of placing near absolute power in the hands of any single individual, however worthy he or she might seem, before power. 

Lankan political class is subject to a law of diminishing marginal qualities. Each generation of politicians is less than the previous one. The current crop of parliamentarians (a few notable exceptions apart) seems the pits until one considers what awaits the nation in municipal councils and pradesheeya sabhas. Future presidents might be swimming even now in these toxic pools. Against such a real possibility, the fictional horrors of a Bram Stoker or a Steven King would be laughably trite.

From Personal Despotism to Hereditary Despotism

Hilary Mantel in her controversial essay, Royal Bodies, compared monarchy to pandas, “expensive to conserve, and ill adapted to any modern environment,” a spectacle. She was referring to the constitutional monarchy in her own country, defanged and declawed (not to mention twice deposed and once decapitated) over centuries into something basically harmless. But to understand what how kings actually rule, one must look at the absolutist monarchies that still prevail in the political badlands, from Saudi Arabia to Thailand. 

“Latin Americans elect monarchs whom we than call presidents,” Simon Bolivar is said to have remarked. Monarchs with claws and fangs intact, one should add. JR Jayewardene touted the US and France as models when he first advocated an executive presidential system in 1966. But the presidential system he created was a closer kin to Latin America’s Caudillo presidency Bolivar talked about than to American or French models. 

JR Jayewardene’s main argument for an executive presidency was economic. Successive governments had failed to deliver the development Lankan people deserved, he contended, because the Westminster system made leaders unwilling to impose ‘correct but unpopular policies.’ After the UF regime’s seven-year closed economy nightmare, it should have been obvious that a parliamentary government with a clear majority was capable of imposing and maintaining policies it considered correct but were deeply unpopular. It should also have been clear that a parliamentary government with a clear majority could crack down hard on opponents without and dissenters within. Prime Minister Bandaranaike’s government banned opposition rallies and imposed an arbitrary curfew just to prevent a pro-government trade union federation from holding a demonstration the PM had previously disallowed. .

JR Jayewardene’s subjective desire for presidency was no match against these objective realities. He designed a presidency to suit not so much the country’s needs as his own. It lacked the power-balance that is the hallmark of successful presidential systems. His president was a king in all but name. When he boasted that the only thing he as president could not do was to turn a man into a woman and vice versa, he was speaking the truth as he saw it. That hubris would lead to a massive and bloody downfall. He would end his tenure as a failed and deeply unpopular leader who left the country in far worse straits than it was when he inherited it. 

The one undoubted success of his tenure, the economic takeoff of the early years, had nothing to do with the executive presidency and everything to do with the opening up of the economy. And that opening was done and could have been maintained without the executive presidency because it was popular. In an ultimate irony, the political mistakes and crimes of the executive president would destroy those initial economic gains. By the time JR Jayewardene’s second term ended, the economy was in shambles, much like the country.

The presidential system has not fared any better in terms of its other main promise, that of maintaining political stability. Its first decade saw more upheavals and bloodshed than all the previous years of independence put together. The list includes the removal of the civic rights of the main opposition leader, the sacking of 40,000 July strikers, the burning of the Jaffna Library, the referendum, the Black July, the proscription of the JVP, the First Eelam War and all its related atrocities, the second JVP insurgency and all its related atrocities, Indian aerial intervention and the arrival of the IPKF. Even constitutional stability was not achieved. During the first decade of the presidency, the constitution was amended 16 times. That record alone should have made us realise that an all powerful presidency with a two-thirds majority in parliament is not a recipe for salvation but for utter disaster. Yet, 48 years later, against all evidence and reason, the myth is as bright as ever. 

The personal despotism inherent in the Lankan presidential system has morphed into a hereditary despotism under the Rajapaksas. The advent of Basil Rajapaksa is on par with this transformation. That was why Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa insisted on removing the dual citizenship clause, made that removal non-negotiable despite all the bleating of their lay and ordained ultra-nationalist acolytes. Basil Rajapaksa is to succeed Brother Gotabaya, to be followed by Nephew Namal. The brothers, whatever their differences, understand that their familial interests are of greater moment than their individual egos. They’d do whatever it takes to maintain power in familial hands. The existence of the executive presidency makes their task easier. 

That ill-judged No Confidence Motion against a minister for implementing a government decision had one utility value – it demonstrated that within the SLPP the Rajapaksas are both dominant and hegemonic. If the SLPP splinters, it will be because the Family sunders. That happy event won’t happen in time for the next national election. 

Ishalini and the Poverty of the Opposition

Gotabaya Rajapaksa would want to enjoy the full five years of his only term. An early presidential election is therefore highly unlikely. Provincial council election will come before that, possibly in late 2021 or early 2022, pandemic permitting. The showbiz type arrival of Basil Rajapaksa was partly to energise SLPP activists and give the Rajapaksa base a new hope, so that the PC polls can be won without resorting to over-the-top fraud or violence. 

The Rajapaksas would know that they face certain defeat in the North and possible defeat in the East. Their aim would be to win in all the other provinces. If they succeed, it would cast a serious damper on the bubbling societal resistance. Therefore, the opposition needs to push the SLPP below the all important 50% mark in at least one province. This would require a significant voter-shift not just away from the Rajapaksas but also to the opposition. 

Taking the 2020 parliamentary election as the base, to push the Rajapaksas below the 50% mark even in the Colombo district would require a swing of more than 13%. Since a swing of 24% and 22% would be needed in Gampaha and Kalutara respectively, defeating the Rajapaksas even in the Western Province would be somewhat of an uphill task.

During their time in the opposition, no governmental error or crime was too small or insignificant to the grist of the Rajapaksa mill. Every issue, however local, however small, was picked up, blown out of proportions, painted in lurid colours and placed on the national stage. A clear line of responsibility was drawn between the government and every problem everywhere. Without that clarity and single-mindedness, the SLPP might not have been able to win the LG polls so handsomely or gain the presidency outright, even after the Easter Sunday Massacre. 

Today, the opposition to the government is not spearheaded by the organised official opposition. It comes mainly from a collection (not a collective) of individuals. It is spontaneous, unorganised, more like a series of bubbles than a steady stream. Not every social media post poking fun at or castigating the Rajapaksas would automatically become a vote for the opposition. On the contrary, there is a considerable likelihood of such critics adopting a ‘plague on all your houses’ attitude and staying away, especially if the election is non-national, and if the opposition parties fight each other on the campaign trail more than they fight the Rajapaksas.  

The crisis is a hermitic one, because there is no strong, inspiring alternative. The opposition is too busy preparing for a presidential election that will not be held this side of 2024. Various opposition personalities are engaged in a game of infantile one-upmanship. So many issues of national significance are ignored or de-prioritised. The opposition’s strangely lackadaisical response to the Ishalini-case is an example of this.

The facts are too well known to be repeated. But as a statement signed by a number of Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim civil society organisations pointed out, the repeated rape and suspicious death of Ishalini is one of several other equally horrendous cases of child abuse. The alleged abusers and enablers in these cases include parents, monks, lawmakers, guardians of the law and professionals. They point to a deadly institutional decay and moral decline that has placed the future of the country at risk.

Almost a decade ago, a young Muslim girl from the East, Rizana Nafeek was driven by poverty to seek employment in Saudi Arabia. Her hard-earned dollars enriched our foreign reserves. Yet when she was charged with murder and sentenced to death, her motherland, its government, and those politicians who claimed to represent her community mostly ignored her plight. The young girl was eventually beheaded. When her killers offered her poverty-stricken mother compensation, she turned down the blood-money. 

Young Ishalini’s fate is not very different. She too was driven by poverty to seek employment as a domestic aide. If plantation workers were accorded a living wage, her fate might have been different. As it was, she had to give up her education and place her life in the hands of strangers, just as Rizana did. She too was betrayed. Rishard Bathurdeen should never have permitted his family to employ a minor. He failed as a lawmaker, an opposition leader and as a human being. 

The government’s indifference to the Ishilini case is understandable because tolerating child abusers and pardoning murderers is pro-forma for them. One expects a better standard of conduct from the opposition. Still, rotten creeds can produce only failed gods.  

43 years is long enough to know what doesn’t work. It is time to stop this interminable wait for the saviour who will never come for he/she exists only in our desperate longings. 

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