Tisaranee Gunasekara

The writer is a senior political commentator in Colombo.

Sri Lanka: The Problem of the People

8 mins read

Was there then no essential difference between the ruler and the ruled?” ~ Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

Sri Lanka, unravelled and unravelling, is mesmerised by a new wonder: the Lotus Tower. When that monumental symbol of Rajapaksa folly was opened to the public last week, people thronged to pay the entrance fee, ride to the top, and gaze down. A monk enthused that he felt close to the highest of Buddhist heavens. Women thanked Mahinda Rajapaksa for enabling them to have this wondrous experience.

It was as if economic ruin and social collapse was happening in another country, to another people.

According to a survey conducted by a group of doctors, 80% of children in Sooriyawewa, in the Rajapaksa home-district of Hambantota, are malnourished (unlike the international cricket stadium the Rajapaksas built in that water-starved locality which gets the water the people are denied). That distressing statistic alone suffices to bare the vacuity of the Rajapaksa brand of infrastructure-led development. In a 2007 cable, American ambassador, Robert Blake, wrote, “An empty port, an empty airport, and an empty vast convention centre would not generate the benefits that Hambantota needs…” One percent of the money spent on these vanity projects could have provided the people of Hambantota with every possible creature comfort for generations to come. Hambantota was poor when Mahinda Rajapaksa first became president in 2005 and is still poor seventeen years later.

Untouched by Rajapaksa development, yet solidly pro-Rajapaksa at every election.  

Infrastructure-led development was a key pillar of Rajapaksa economics. Build airports, ports, stadia, expressways, and prosperity will follow. The strategy enabled corruption on unprecedented scale, satisfied Mahinda Rajapaksa’s colossal vanity, and, against all reason, increased the family’s popularity. The projects, productive or not, often not, were tabula rasa on which dreams of national glory and illusions of popular prosperity could be inscribed.

An actor playing the role of historian once created for the Rajapaksas a lineage going back to the Buddha, via King Dutugemunu. The massive physical infrastructure projects were depicted as modern variants of the infrastructure projects of ancient kings, a historical continuum, Sandahiru Seya the descendent of Runwanweli Seya, Hambantota Port the descendent of Parakrama Samudraya. People were invited to come and admire a breakwater, a runway, a walking path masquerading as a marina. In that way, an illusion of ownership was created. People came, they admired, and they voted.

The habit is so ingrained that, even without the full effect of the Rajapaksa propaganda machine, the Lotus Tower looks like a shortcut to heaven to some Lankans. Not in the same overwhelming numbers as in the past. Not enough for the SLPP to win the next election, but enough for every single contesting Rajapaksa father, son, uncle, nephew and cousin to be re-elected. Perhaps even enough for the SLPP, with its consignment of deplorables, to hold the balance of power in the next parliament.

Basil Rajapaksa can see this future and he is readying the SLPP for it. The party’s new political academy will hone the next generation of Rajapaksa devotee-activists. Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism will be re-burnished with the usual talk of motherland being in danger. Lotus Tower, undead Tiger, and encroaching Muslim in combination can dazzle enough eyes and twist enough minds. And the Rajapaksas will have their path back to national relevance, kingmakers if not kings.

 Absurd Faith

In an interview with a private TV channel during the run up to the 2019 presidential poll, Udaya Gammanpila called Gotabaya Rajapaksa a composite of “the managerial skills of Mahathir Mohammad, farsightedness of Lee Kuan Yew, bravery of Vladimir Putin, spiritual approach of Jawaharlal Nehru, and patriotism of Fidel Castro.” The words seem grotesque now and should have seemed embarrassingly funny even then. Yet the interviewer didn’t laugh or even roll his eyes. The audience would have lapped it up.

An electorate that is predisposed to believe any absurdity, sans proof, sans fact, that was what the Rajapaksas needed and that was what they created with their propaganda. Illusions and delusions were their stock of trade. In August 2005, an outburst of mass hysteria about Buddha statues emanating luminous rays coincided with the Mavilaru operation, and shored up support in the Sinhala South for the fourth Eelam war. An elephant calf was said to have been born on the very day High King Mahinda won the war, a lie that was believed until it was inadvertently exposed in 2013. Credulity was nursed and fostered, turned into a political weapon and election winning strategy. To quote the late, great Hilary Mantel, “Did the Enlightenment really occur, or was it just someone by the Styx lighting a cigarette?” (Is it still yesterday – Children of the Revolution – London Review of Books).

In a recent You Tube interview, journalist Tharindu Jayawardana chronicled the anti-Dr. Shafi conspiracy which helped set the stage for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 victory. A gynaecologist singlehandedly sterilising 4000 Sinhala-Buddhist mothers by squeezing their fallopian tubes during Caesarean operations; a claim that seems too preposterous to rate even a denial. Yet it was believed by millions of people as nothing but the truth. The ‘story’ of a terrorist Muslim doctor working to annihilate the Sinhala nation was published just a month after the Easter Sunday massacre. Channa Jayasumana blessed the tale with his seal of approval. Wimal Weerawansa called it the War of the Wombs. Respected gynaecologists stated that women couldn’t be sterilised by squeezing their fallopian tubes, but most of the public and a large section of media preferred to believe a dentist who insisted it could be done. The CID investigated the issue and dismissed it as a non-issue. The police arrested Dr. Shafi on no evidence, recorded statements afterwards and backdated them. The confluence of the absurd and the illegal advanced Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Saviour pretension.

In Holy Bones, Holy Dust,  Charles Freeman argues that most medieval Europeans lived in a ‘community of the supernatural,’ and points out that “…to shift one’s consciousness to the supernatural, the space between ‘heaven and earth’, is to lessen one’s attention to the immediacy of the natural world…” Rajapaksa politics too operate in a similar politico-psychological space which ignores/denies reality. Delusions of divine signs, illusions of grandeur, and phobia of enemies are used to make voters forget their ordinary, day-to-day earthly problems. The Kelani cobra story was not a singularity, but the final landmark in this road of lies. Not even national bankruptcy has been able to end that mindset, as the adoration of the Lotus Tower demonstrates.  Facts have no role in this spectacle, it never did.

In a functioning democracy, people too bear a share of responsibility for outcomes, be they positive or negative. The culpability of 6.9 million of our fellow citizens in our national plight should not be denied. The people are not innocent or blameless. This is not a fairytale in which the monster holds a land in thrall forcibly. In this story, most people invited the monster to takeover their land and their lives.

Even where leaders are forward looking, progressive projects can suffer defeat if a majority of people are not in tandem. The outcome of Chile’s referendum is an excellent case in point. Such dangers are particularly acute in times of economic and social anxiety. When ‘everything solid melts into air,’ past, or an imaginary version of it, could seem the only mooring left. In Italy, an extreme rightwing party which traces its lineage back to Mussolini’s Fascist party, is expected to gain power this Sunday. The new March on Rome is electoral. A democracy is shaped not just by its leaders but also by its people. A system change is impossible if enough people remain unchanged.

The absurdity is obvious, or should be. A people cannot vote in the corrupt and expect an honest government, vote in the inept and expect an efficient government, vote in the stupid and expect an intelligent government. Holding leaders to account is not enough. Those who vote for them too should be held accountable. The people are suffering, but many of them brought this disaster on themselves. They were deceived but they allowed themselves to be deceived. That is why an election, however necessary, can easily become a part of the problem rather than its solution, let alone the panacea that some claim it will be.

Haunted by old mistakes

Yatharoopa was a highly popular late night magazine programme aired on Rupavahini from August 2016 to March 2018. The programme aimed at debunking myths and superstitions and promoting reason and rational thinking.

In its second season, it was suddenly taken off the air. Media reports claimed that President Sirisena banned the programme at the request of a group of astrologers. Astrophysicist Kavan Ratnatunga made the same claim subsequently. President Sirisena reportedly said that as a state institution, the remit of the Rupavahini was to promote and not debunk astrology. Little wonder he made Mahinda Rajapaksa the PM seven months later.

In 2018, the 19th Amendment was in force. President Sirisena did not have the constitutional right to make unilateral decisions regarding a ministry that was not under him. Yet neither PM Wickremesinghe nor media minister Mangala Samaraweera objected publicly. The reason for their public silence is not hard to fathom. President Sirisena was going off the rails already. The UNP tried to avert disaster by alternately ignoring and humouring his antics. It didn’t save the government. The anti-constitutional coup was defeated not via accommodation but through resistance.

Winning elections is another matter, the pragmatic would argue. One must confirm, be what people want their leaders to be. So Sajith Premadasa distanced himself from the government he had been a part of for almost five years and adopted a Rajapaksa-lite approach characterised by temple hopping and a refusal to do or say anything remotely controversial (the only exception was his courageous stance on menstrual products) – in vain. Mangala Samaraweera felt that he had to leave electoral politics in order to be able to speak his mind. Truth has become a costly mistake in Sri Lanka by then. Telling truth to power could be dangerous. Telling truth to people could be disastrous.

The electorate’s unparalleled credulity in 2019 was the result of a presence and an absence. The Rajapaksas occupied the propaganda arena, promoting irrationality and absurdity. Anti-Rajapaksa forces avoided such propaganda battles or fled them when the cost was deemed too high, as demonstrated by the banning of Yatharoopa. Their evasion and disengagement backfired. How could voters be weaned away from Rajapaksa politics if they were subjected to only one kind of propaganda-diet? A no-holds barred resistance might have worked better.

The present is becoming overshadowed by the shades of those past errors. The appointment of 38 state ministers the same month indirect taxes were hiked is reminiscent of the UNP’s failed attempt to contain Maithripala Sirisena through appeasement. The ongoing repression smacks of Rajapaksa flavour, from the use of PTA to the prosecution of lawyer Dushmantha Weeraratne on September 9th for tooting his car-horn to the tune of kaputu kak near Galle Face. The Rajapaksas too arrested a young motorist for tooting his horn against a road-closure. The difference lies in the judicial response. In 2021, the young motorist was lambasted for exercising his constitutional right to peaceful protest. In 2022, the magistrate threw out the case against the lawyer and warned the police to study the law bef ore taking legal action against a person.

In Geneva, the government opted to reject the resolution on Sri Lanka in toto. This is not the Wickremesinghe-Samaraweera foreign policy of 2015-19 when Sri Lanka was open to the world and willing to take on legitimate concerns of the international community. This is a reversion to the Medamulana foreign policy of the Rajapaksas. The Rajapaksa habit of dealing with challenges by denying their existence or their severity is also making a comeback. Health Ministry rejected the UNICEF report on child malnutrition. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s truth telling days seem distant.

While Ranil Wickremesinghe blunders and the opposition exists in a parallel universe where their electoral victory is written in the stars, the Rajapaksas are back to weaving their web of lies and deception. Those who believe that Aragalaya has rid the popular mind of the Cobraesque myth should watch again the rapturous reception to the Lotus Tower. Lost in that marvel, the contribution that monstrosity and other like it made to our economic bankruptcy is forgotten. More than forgotten; that column of folly is being hailed as the economic way to go, a boon capable of attracting tourists and solving our foreign exchange crisis in one go. If the Rajapaksas resurface their old idea of building airports on various mountaintops and constructing an expressway right round the country, they may even end up being hailed as the only solution to the economic crisis the UNP, the SJB, and the JVP created, with help from Tamil and Muslim parties, traitors all.

Sri Lanka: Prelude to Elections

9 mins read

“What are we supposed to do when the system consistently yields terrible candidates?”

Nanjala Nyabola (The Kenyan Kakistocracy – The Nation – 12.8.2022)

Most politicians have a questionable relationship with reality. The Rajapaksas operate in a reality that is all their own. Asked why brother Gotabaya fled the country, Mahinda Rajapaksa replied, “Who accuses him of fleeing? He went for a medical check up.”

So the SLPP, that quintessential Rajapaksa party, acts as if the recent popular uprising happened in a parallel universe. As poverty engulfs new swathes of population and malnutrition ravages the young, the SLPP is planning to present a cabinet paper authorising the payment of 117million rupees to favoured ex-officials (civilian and military) on the spurious grounds of political victimisation. This in a land where the main children’s hospital is making urgent appeals for orthopaedic surgical supplies.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa might be fleeing from country to country; his family has learnt nothing from his fate. Sons and nephews remain as clueless as fathers and uncles. Namal Rajapaksa sent a letter to the Minister of Environment recommending two names as CEO of a subsidiary of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, one a Pradesheeya Sabha member and former secretary to acolyte-politician DV Chanaka. (Ranil Wickremesinghe set up a committee to review and approve appointments and transfers in the upper bureaucracy probably in response.) When outrage ensued, the Rajapaksa scion clarified matters by explaining he gives such letters of recommendation frequently!

The SLPP has submitted a should-be-ministers list to the president. This roll call of favourites sounds (in most part) like the broader populace’s index of undesirables. (Whether President Wickremesinghe accedes to that request will say much about his ability to chart a path that bypasses some of the worst Rajapaksa excesses.) Unfortunately, if an election is held today, SLPP faithful will ensure that many on that list are back in parliament.

The SLPP will not gain a majority in the next election. But it won’t be wiped out either. The Rajapaksa family party is likely to command a significant minority with around 20% of the vote, especially if Mahinda Rajapaksa leads the campaign. The diehard Rajapaksa voters, the kind who sees a national threat in every Tamil and every Muslim (and Christian too), will vote for the SLPP to save the Motherland from these encroaching enemy-aliens. And their preference will go not to the least objectionable but to the most deplorable.  

Commenting on the upcoming US midterm polls, Senator Mitch McConnell warned that rival Democrats are likely to retain the senate due to ‘candidate quality’; the fringe-nature of Trump-approved Republican candidates may propel many moderates either to vote Democrat or abstain. In a first-past-the-post system moderate voters have a considerable say in deciding the winners. In a preferential vote system, it is the died-in-the-wool party faithful who determine who’s in and who’s out.

If the next Lankan election is held under the preferential vote system, many of the most unsavoury characters on both sides of the aisle will be re-elected. The kind that had other priorities on the day the parliament was to debate the state of the economy. The debate was cancelled for lack of a quorum with a majority of SLPP and SJB members busy elsewhere; this in February 2022 when the economy was freefalling and a sovereign default looming. Then again, given the abysmal quality  of the current parliament, the debate would have degenerated into a slanging match. It is hard to imagine a sober, well-informed, fact-based discussion of the economy or any other subject in this parliament.

Down with 225 is a popular cry. But we elected 196 of them. If the next election is held sans a change in the electoral system, we’ll be back ere long shouting, Down with 225!

This counter-meritocratic polity

Almost every job imaginable requires some basic qualification or skill set. Politician is perhaps the sole exception.

“The purpose of government is not to look after the gifted minority,” Eric Hobsbwam argued, but to care for the ‘ordinary run of people’. “Any society worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and scope for such minorities” (On History). In other words, a meritocracy which is committed to ensuring a liveable life to the ordinary majority.

Lankan system has been engineered and habituated to look after not the ordinary majority nor the gifted minority, but a supremely mediocre political caste and its business, professional, religious, and societal satellites. Ours is a counter-meritocracy where the worst own the earth (and pass it on to their progeny) while the better are forced to leave.

In our political culture brawn trumps brain and willingness to violate all norms of decency is a prized quality. The preferential vote system amplifies this twisted ethos. Non-partisan voters may decide which party wins how many seats, but who adorns those seats is decided mostly by the hardcore of each party, via preferences. And the hardcore of whatever hue prefer loud-mouths to sober minds, slavish loyalty to knowledge or capability.

Our elections are billion rupee affairs. The source of this money is as much of a mystery as how it is spent. Campaign finance is lawless territory. The resultant absence of limits, oversight and transparency has turned elections into corruption hotspots. Where do parties and candidates get their money? If the money is their own, how did they earn it? If the money is donated, who are the donors? What are their affiliations and interests? None of these are known, since there is no law to compel parties and candidates to reveal how they got and spent their money. All we have is the reasonable assumption that a donor would give a bunch of money only if the potential return is high enough.

Ending this dangerous opacity through the introduction of a campaign finance law before the next election will go some way in correcting the distortions inherent in our electoral system. A related priority is to change the electorate from district to constituency. As long as district remains the electorate, money, family connections, political and muscle power will play a disproportionate role in deciding winners.

A hybrid system which combines the positives of proportional representation and majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems might give moderate voters a greater say in electing our next lot of representatives. Incidentally, all professional politicians (including retired ones) should be banned from the national list which should be for people with knowledge and expertises. Such a hybrid system together with a campaign finance law could weed out some deplorables and reduce the oversized role money plays in our elections. If the opposition does not want to join an all party government, it can perhaps focus on electoral reforms and the abolition of the executive presidency in the six months between now and the earliest constitutionally possible date for a dissolution.

Given the enormity of the challenge we need parliamentarians who can think beyond the old shibboleths of the left and the right. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and former World Bank chief economist, has been a harsh critic of the IMF for decades. But his stance has changed in response to the IMF’s own shift away from the neo-liberal Washington Consensus. He has praised the IMF’s 2022 agreement with Argentina for its non-insistence on austerity hoping it “may set a precedent for dealing with debt restructuring and financial crises” in other countries (Argentina and the IMF Turn Away From Austerity – Foreign Policy). In its official proclamation, the IMF stated that the Argentine deal included the government changing its spending priorities to accommodate “higher energy subsidies and appropriate social assistance to protect the vulnerable from the food price shock.”   

In this post-Washington Consensus climate, a deal with the IMF need not lead to austerity for the people. The choice of who tightens belts and how much will be made in Colombo. For instance, if the government hikes defence expenditure or re-embraces the failed infrastructure-led development model, budget deficit will be controlled by axing health, education and social welfare.

The ball is in the national court. Much will depend on whether the government can stand up to vested interests, be it politicians, business class, the military, monks, or state-sector trade unions. The role played by the first four in pushing through policies harmful to the national economy needs no belabouring. But the last might need a word of explanation.

The recent hike in electricity has been justly condemned for imposing a greater burden on low income consumers; the exception is the CEB. The hike might compel many old and new poor to lose access to electricity. But the CEB’s beef is that the hike is not high enough. It demands more rate-increases to reduce a 45billion annual loss while insisting on its right to bonuses.  If this is not a vested interest that works against common good, especially the good of the poorest of the poor, then what is it? Are state owned enterprises which burden the budget, and thereby ordinary people, national assets or national liabilities? 

An election sans electoral reforms, may land us where Lebanon is. There, no party got a majority, former PM is caretaker PM, politicians are trying to cobble alliances, and the president is busy promoting his son-in-law. The people suffer. Sounds familiar?

Motherland returns?

The brutal attack on Salman Rushdie reminds us again what obscenities the marriage of religion and politics spawns. As writer Adam Gopnik said, the attack “is horrific in the madness of its meaning and a reminder of the power of religious fanaticism to move people” (Salman Rushdie and the power of words – The New Yorker)

Religion and race played a decisive role in the 2019 and 2020 elections, and here we are. Minimising these deadly influences is necessary to ensure that the next election produces a parliament that is more moderate and more rational.

The unbanning of some Tamil Diaspora groups has created a hype among Rajapaksa supporters and other extremists. The Rajapaksas initially banned the Diaspora organisations in 2014, five years after the war ended, to shore up their waning Sinhala-Buddhist support. The ban was lifted by Mangala Samaraweera in 2015 and re-imposed by the Rajapaksas upon their return. The ban was always a political gimmick. Now it will be used by majoritarian extremists to raise the Undead Tiger in all its striped glory. The decision to sing the national anthem in Tamil at the upcoming 75th anniversary of Independence and the proposed return of some of the military-occupied lands to their original owners will be further grist to the Motherland-in-danger mill.

There are countless grounds on which the Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency can be criticised, starting with the ongoing repression targeting Aragalaya activists, a practice even the courts have questioned. The inclusion of poet Ahnaf Jazeem in banned people’s list is both silly and dangerous. Using the PTA to clamp down on democratic dissent will create a deadly precedent (This abuse is the best argument for the abolition of the PTA). Rising inflation, non-appearance of the promised social security net, the continuation of corrupt practices such as giving chairpersons of dissolved provincial councils and their attendants thousands of litres of fuel – all are condemnable and should be condemned.

The SJB is currently not playing the race-religion card, but the advent of the Weerawansa-Gammanpila group and the Dulles Allahapperuma group into the oppositional space might change this. These grouplets are likely to use the Motherland cry out of necessity (to cut into the SLPP base), inclination or both. Even if they fail electorally, they will shift the political discourse to the extreme, making ethnic and religious racism fashionable again.

When Pope Francis visited Greece, a Greek-Orthodox priest called him a heretic. That charge would have led to a gruesome death by fire in most of Europe just a few hundred years ago. If that past seems not just another time but another universe, it was thanks to the work of Christians and Catholics who struggled for religious reforms and the secularisation of politics, often at the risk of their lives. It is the inadequacy of such struggles or their failure that creates spaces for fatwas against authors and their brutal implementation.

The Rajapaksas regained power by riding on the collective back of Sinhala-Buddhist monkhood. Their disastrous performance discredited religion-in-politics for a brief moment. Political religion regained credibility and relevance by changing its tune. It is now back in its self-appointed role as supreme guide in all matters secular, from politics to economics, from marriage to why girls are born (A monk called Mahamewunava Saddaseela preaches that daughters are born to parents as punishment for the sin of lying. He obviously lack the gray matter to understand that going by his own logic, if all Sinhala-Buddhists eschew lying, the race will become as extinct as dinosaurs in one generation).

In times of national distress, when a secular path towards political, economic, and social justice is absent, the door opens for political-religions. If the idea of common good cannot be pursued, society will fragment and into the resultant chasms irrationalism will creep. That is why in this interim time before the election, the more moderate parties should form an understanding about not giving nominations to clergy of any religion and keeping religious symbols out of politics in general and electoral politics in particular. Allowing extremism of any kind a role in politics will take us not to a better future but to the worst places in our past. Those who believed in the Kelani cobra are still with us.