Colombo Telegraph

88th Birth Anniversary of Premadasa: The Saviour-Myth, The Hereditary-Rule Fallacy And Democracy

By Tisaranee Gunasekara –


“A hereditary governor is as inconsistent as a hereditary author”.
Tom Paine (Rights of Man)

Every place has its Bastille,’ wrote Tom Paine in ‘Rights of Man’. Perhaps in some places that Bastille is a psychological rather than a physical construct, a holdover from a bygone anti-democratic time, a germ festering, unnoticed, within the collective psyche of the citizenry.
Lankan democracy, even at its most vibrant, contained twin viruses: the saviour myth and the fallacy of hereditary rule. Either could coexist with democracy, and did so for decades. However, in confluence they cannot but undermine democracy from within, gradually replacing it with its antithesis: an absolutist rule by a political dynasty.
Historically countries have come to democracy in two ways. Some had to fight hard and long for it while others had it given to them as a parting gift by a colonial/victorious power.
Sri Lanka belongs in the second category. From being an absolutist monarchy she went on to become a fully fledged democracy based on universal adult franchise in less than 150 years, a historically-brief interregnum spent under colonial rule. Though there was little knowledge of democracy amongst the populace, and hardly any enthusiasm for it among the leaders, a combination of factors created an apposite climate for the new system to flourish.
Foremost amongst these was the absence of a serious and an attractive political alternative to liberal democracy. The monstrous excesses of the last Lankan king, who epitomised the evils and the dangers of absolute monarchy, constituted a strong antidote to any popular nostalgia for royal-rule. This was augmented by the fact that no ‘Sinhala’ royal-line was extant. Even if a legitimate              descendent of the last Lankan king could be found, he/she would be a Tamil and thus unacceptable to the majority Sinhala community in the new nationalistic age.
Though democracy came to Ceylon as an unasked gift, the Ceylonese, politicians and people alike, became democrats almost overnight. Political parties mushroomed, voter turnout soared and governments rose and fell. But within this bustling democracy, feudal notions of hereditary rule survived and thrived. Almost from the very inception, hereditary rule became an axiom in the two main political parties. The UNP replaced its founding-leader with his son, while the SLFP replaced its founding-leader with his widow. The traditional left mocked the UNP as the ‘Uncle-Nephew-Party’ but saw no irony in their support for the even more family-centric SLFP.
The ‘saviour-myth’ deeply embedded in the popular psyche constituted another anti-democratic space within Lankan democracy. In the South, this was manifest in the ahistorical and unreal figure of Prince Diyasena, who, popular prophesies predicted, would come down to save the chosen land of Sinhala Buddhism in the hour of its greatest need. Though the Sinhala South had no desire to return to monarchic rule because the last Lankan king was a particularly brutal one, and his descendents would be Tamil, the nebulous yearning for a ‘good Sinhala hero-king’ remained undead…..
The UNP broke out of this archaic mode in the 1970’s, when the attempt to replace Dudley Senanayake with his politically neophyte nephew failed. Family-ties would retain a degree of relevance within the new UNP but not the belief that the leader should be succeeded by a spouse/offspring/sibling/nephew. ‘I do not have princes or princesses to crown’ was a key campaign theme of J. R. Jayewardene in 1977. Ranasinghe Premadasa took this assault on hereditary rights to a new level, by becoming the first – and only – non-Govigama President and by committing his presidency to a radical project of socio-economic and ethno-religious equality, which earned for him the undying hatred of racial, religious and caste supremacists.
When President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s half-hearted efforts to nominate her politically-errant brother as her successor failed and Mahinda Rajapaksa, with his populist credentials became the leader of the SLFP, it seemed as if that party too had finally freed itself from the chains of hereditary rule. But ere long it became obvious that the SLFP had freed itself from the Ratwatte-Bandaranaike dynasty only to bind itself to a Rajapaksa dynasty pursuing its manifest destiny with unprecedented ferocity and unparalleled guile.

Democracy and Democrats

“I believe that….the best defenders of our democracy are an enlightened people,” said Ranasinghe Premadasa. “Constitutional provisions alone can never guarantee democracy… People must know what democracy means. They must acquire experience in managing it, in resolving the problems it generates. They must have a stake in it. Only then will they fight for it” (A Charter for Democracy).
A democracy cannot survive without a populace of democrats. And a populace of democrats is impossible without a commonsense which believes that no one should have a superior claim to political power or public positions based on kinship, insists that solutions for problems of democracy should be sought only within the democratic framework and demands that all citizens are ensured a liveable life via basic political freedoms and economic standards.
Any excess can endanger democracy by alienating one or another segment of the populace. The breeding of democrats and the survival of democracy requires what French philosophe Claude Adrien Helvétius termed ‘a just equilibrium’, a politico-economic arrangement which ensures a fair deal for most – if not all – citizens. It is only under such a system that citizens will value their citizenship and feel a sense of commitment to it.
Ranasinghe Premadasa knew the destructive potential of alienation and poverty. The unifying factor in his policies and practices was his belief in socio-economic and ethno-religious equity and his commitment to alleviating inequality wherever it existed. This made him support devolution of power to the minorities and adopt an economic strategy which was committed to promoting socio-economic justice by enhancing socio-economic opportunities.
Premadasa was totally committed to the safeguarding of Lankan sovereignty but his commitment stemmed neither from Sinhala/Lankan supremacism nor from xenophobia but from the principle of essential equality of nations as of people. He thus responded positively to genuine international efforts to improve human rights conditions, such as the 1991 Amnesty International proposals. As William Clarence, the head of UNHCR’s Lankan relief mission (1989-1992), pointed out, during Eelam War II, “The government accepted its responsibility to feed civilians in the war-torn north, and as it could not itself deliver food supplies to LTTE-controlled areas it entrusted the task to the small refugee agency team I was leading…..  I soon found that the fact that Sri Lanka was a proudly liberal democracy made my job much easier…..” (Global Asia – Spring 2008).
Values are not constants; nor are the value of values.
For a ruler to sustain the role of eternal saviour, a populace which is willing to play at ‘damsel-in-distress’ endlessly is a sine-qua-non. A commonsense which accepts hereditary rule and the saviour myth has little use either for equality or moderation; it would regard devolution as incompatible with national security and democracy as a weakness exploitable by national enemies.
Having gained democracy for free, will Lankans struggle to save it? Or will the Sinhala-South, blinded by the infantile yearning for a good (Sinhala) king, submit to Rajapaksa dynastic-rule, while the Tamil-North loses itself in the Eelam-mirage?

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