In search of a leader for Lanka

Jefferson appears to fall somewhat into the category of a leader envisaged by Lao Tzu (601 BC), the founder of Taoism. He declared: A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.

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Thomas Jefferson, hailed as a great president of the United States of America, made many historic contributions to the development of the United States at its infancy and also wrote the Declaration of American Independence. He designed his own tombstone and wrote his own epitaph:

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

And father of the University of Virginia.

He did not mention that he was twice elected as the President of the United States! (Excerpted from 100 Great Nineteenth Century Lives by John Canning)

It is not possible to enumerate Jefferson’s many significant historic achievements in this column due to space constraints but Jefferson is also not without critics.

He was the son of a wealthy tobacco planter and did not renounce some of the powers and privileges that were exercised by those planters. Thus, he is the target of 21st Century anti-American critics, human rights activists, even business-like and buccaneering Sri Lankan NGOs, and genuine NGO activists of today.

Jefferson appears to fall somewhat into the category of a leader envisaged by Lao Tzu (601 BC), the founder of Taoism. He declared: A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.

That kind of leadership may have been scarce even in those ancient times and certainly extinct today. In 20th and 21st Century democracies, leaders attempt to work on the principle of: Ask not what the country can do for you but what you can do for the country, as enunciated by John F. Kennedy.

Of course, the performance records of a great many politicians of today, though they shout out to the world from rooftops that they are devoting all their efforts for the benefit of the country and not for themselves, show the personal benefits accrued by politicians from their country, far outweigh the benefits received from them by the country. Success for them is essentially the impressions made by them on the voters.

We delved into these qualities of leadership because the Sri Lankan people, now suffering from the worst financial and domestic crisis created by politicians since Independence, are searching for a leader who could take them out of the morass they are in.

The country is now being governed by two political parties whose leaders Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP and Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Pohottuwa (Lotus Bud) party had been bitterly opposed to each other since 1977 until the last General Elections in 2020. Through some unique constitutional procedure, Wickremesinghe is now the President of what is supposed to be a Democratic Socialist Republic which is not democratic, socialist or a republic with a president not elected by the people.

The question whether this kind of leadership can resolve the acute crisis— a significant proportion of the people facing starvation — is indeed valid. According to the FAO, 6.2 million Lankans ‘face acute food insecurity’.

An islandwide presidential or general election is believed by most people to be the panacea or Kokatath Thailaya.

What can the Rajapaksa family party produce at such an election as a solution to the imbroglio? Namal Rajapaksa, his brothers and cousins as ministers for a new government?

The party is reported to be back in the temples with the monks.  Would this strategy as in 2019 — ‘Sinhala-Buddhism is under threat, there is an international conspiracy that resulted in the collapse of the last government, and we won the war and saved Lanka from Tamil terrorism — work once again?

The Rajapaksas may be hoping that the sharp political divide that existed between the two parties — Rajapaksas and the UNP with the splinter group the SJB of the Premadasa faction — before the current crisis set in, remains and that their block vote is still intact.

If hunger, starvation, inflation at 300 percent, unemployment, the monumental fertiliser blunder, spiralling crime rate, schoolchildren being assailed with drugs and being without even exercise books, pens or shoes, and starving wild elephants smashing up homes and humans in search of food have not affected the thinking of the masses, then they are true political asses as they are often called by the political cognoscenti.

In this festive season when much is made of token gifts such as wheelchairs, donations to poor schools, Christmas treats, and the like, we place on record the magnificent and monumental gift of China to the children of Sri Lanka: School uniform material worth 90 million RMB (5 billion Lanka rupees) to meet 70 percent of Lanka’s requirements. Let us all thank the people of China.

When Wickremesinghe accepted the post of prime minister and later the presidency, the thinking was that his task would be mainly to negotiate with the IMF, other international lending institutions and Western nations with whom he has good relations. The initial breakthrough with the IMF which he expected by the end of December has not come through as yet.

According to reports, the economy has shrunk by 11.8 percent in the third quarter of this year ending in September. The suppression of the Aragalaya forces, using police and security forces after Wickremesinghe assumed the office of president with the objective of establishing political stability for economic growth, does not seem to have taken off. Repression of political forces that overthrew the Rajapaksa regime has not resulted in attracting foreign investments.

But he is going full steam ahead giving the impression that he will be president not only till the term of office of the Rajapaksa government officially ends but intends to contest elections and return as the president once again as his uncle JRJ rose phoenix-like from the fires of 1956 to the greatest election victory 20 years later.  The probability of lightning striking twice at the same place is said to be one in some millions.

Of the politicians in harness, Sajith Premadasa the leader of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Leader of the Opposition, is the brightest star on the horizon.  He is unsullied by the Rajapaksa dynastic corrupt politics and polled 5.5 million votes (41.99 percent of votes polled) in an extremely short presidential election campaign delayed because of his squabbles with Wickremesinghe. But Premadasa has placed himself in a conservative strait jacket and is still regaling about his father’s policies on housing, poverty alleviation and promotion of the garment industry.

Can he rest on his paternal laurels and not change with the times? He has to be politically savvy and open up to other political parties instead of trying to go it alone.  At the last party convention held on December 12, a formal resolution was adopted for the SJB ‘to work together with all progressive and democratic forces ‘to agitate against the government’s repression of mass protests’ and demand local government elections. But that resolution alone is not enough. He has to make moves and call for a united opposition with the JVP, and other left parties — at least an election no-contest pact. Above all, can he ignore the Aragalaya forces that threw out the Rajapaksa regime through non-violent means?

The Aragalaya leaders such as Vasantha Mudalige are still behind bars on flimsy charges such as obstruction of the police in carrying out their duties during mass legal democratic protests. Some of them are being held under the Prevention of Terrorist Act. Others were earlier arrested for sitting on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s bed and chairs when they stormed the President’s House. This petty nitpicking under the cover of terrorist laws has become a source of entertainment in social media.

Aragalaya leaders are possibly unique in that they are the only such leaders that threw out a government through non-violence — the force of the people’s opinion. They are perhaps the only revolutionary leaders who did not cease power and appoint a president from among themselves after throwing out a government!

Thomas Jefferson, twice elected as president, didn’t want to be remembered as a president.

The Aragalaya leaders did not want to be president!

Sri Lanka needs such leaders.

Gamini Weerakoon

Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island, and consultant editor of the Sunday Leader.

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