By Ravi Perera –
An observant visitor will not fail to note the existential disorder the Sri Lankan society stumbles into when asked to define itself. In the popular social discourse, the question is addressed expansively, if not loosely. There are so many stories of Sri Lankan ingenuity; Lee Kuan Yew the celebrated founder of dazzling Singapore was working with a blueprint drawn up by a Sri Lankan, our skills provide the oil that lubricates Dubai- that miracle in the sand, if not for the brain power from this island will the NASA ever take off, even in the urgent search for an antidote for the dreaded Covid, our scientists are at work.
These dazzling personal performances can be explained. They are well born, this is a blessed island, push a stick into the soil, soon it will become a fruit bearing tree. One faraway time, the granary of the East, and long before that, Ravana the mythical king of Lanka, built his own flying machine. Surely this island is favoured by the gods.
The present times are very different, the visitor will learn. Other than the plantation industry, a colonial era leftover, we are net importers of agricultural products. If the visitor, with the idea of looking at our Japanese built Parliament House, goes towards the newly created administrative Capital of ‘Sri Jayawardenapura” he will see a very long line of Sri Lankans, mainly of young persons. This is the passport queue, thousands upon thousands, clamouring to get out of the country.
For the true believer, evidence is the least important. Other histories may be silent about importing rice from the granary of the East, Ravana may be a figment of a foolish, over-heated imagination, but it matters not. By repeated affirmations and constant incantations the necessary belief can be strengthened.
What is mildly claimed as our global achievements, is vehemently asserted in the local line-up of celebrities. Apparently, doing politics in this country are golden brains, a seven in one brain (a biological first, another unique achievement!), golden tongues, pure patriots, characters comparable even with colossal figures like Socrates, Hitler and Machiavelli. Unable to comprehend their true significance, the huge disservice done to these historical personalities by such easy comparisons with the spivs and poseurs that constitute the local leadership, is glossed over. For good or for worse, these are lives that have impacted the entire human race. Not only their thoughts and works, they also wrote; even Hitler the blood thirsty conqueror produced the “Mein Kampf,” said to be about 700 pages long.
Impudence is unlimited, at a drop of a hat we see our parliamentary mimics drawing parallels with British political figures like Disraeli, Gladstone, and even Churchill. True, there is a geographical similarity in the fact that both the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka are island nations. However, in global recognition, economic robustness, political stability/ integrity, institutional strength and intellectual achievements (in nearly every field), we are worlds apart. The United Kingdom with sixty odd million people, commands an economy of close to 4 Trillion US dollars. We, with a population of about 22 Million people, barely make it to an economy of 80 Billion dollars.
But in the social discourse, things are seen very differently. Quirky happenings in what is a deeply flawed, topsy-turvy and corrupt system are later interpreted by the discourse as a well thought-out Chess game of a Grandmaster. There were several who saw in Ranil Wickremesinghe alighting on the President’s chair, the culmination of a series of masterly moves by this otherwise singularly unsuccessful politician. What another culture would see as wrong or unbecoming, is seen here as evidence of cleverness.
How the Grandmaster anticipated the outbreak of Covid, the dollar crisis, the long queues for petrol, the eccentricities of the elected President and the desperation of the Rajapaksa clan, is left unexplained. Evidence of pre-planning is not needed, like the Ravana flying machine, we only need a story to illustrate what we want so fervently to believe. After Mahinda Rajapaksa made a hasty exit, the Premiership was offered all around, only there were no takers. Having being part and parcel of a failed establishment for many years, the others felt in their bones that it was unjust to get in the saddle without a fresh mandate from the people.
The verdict on Ranil Wickremesinghe at the 2020 General Elections was unmistakable. That election put an end to the once glorious UNP, which Wickremesinghe had led for more than two decades. A political party which had formed governments many times, and not so long ago commanded a four fifths majority in parliament, was reduced to zero seats. For a very senior politician, several times Prime Minister, the message was crystal clear. He had no legitimacy to dabble in public affairs any longer. A public life cannot be conceived of, without the public’s approval.
But that is in the rest of the world, in other cultures and countries. The Sri Lankan “being” is infinitely more convoluted, who can tell what our karmic repository will throw up next! A person defeated by the voter can yet end up gaining the very office, without election. That is only his good karma at work, or perhaps his cleverness!
Ranil Wickremesinghe not only possesses the UNP completely, he occupies a peculiar space in the Sri Lankan narrative, the Sri Lankan way of seeing and believing. Having no particular credentials in any given subject, producing no writing on any issue, Wickramasinghe nevertheless is referred to as an authority in nearly every area of knowledge.
A day or so after the attack on the Galle Face protestors, I watched a Sinhala U-Tube in which the presenter, a youngish bearded man, lambasted Wickremesinghe. According to him, the nation must be wary of Wickremesinghe, a dangerous man, notwithstanding his deep knowledge of events like the American Revolution, the French Revolution and even the Russian Revolution. He was further suggesting that the new President may resort to some dastardly suppressive moves, gathered from this reading of world history. For the young presenter the obvious differences between these three countries, all world powers, and little Sri Lanka, were irrelevant. One needs to only read the literature produced by the pivotal revolutionaries of these three revolutions, and contrast this to the total lack any serious writing from our leaders, to realize the emptiness. If the young man had a sense of humour, he would have noted the absurdity of a Sri Lankan leader mimicking a revolutionary giant of a culture so alien to his essential being, surely an ambition beyond his make-up!
We know that the history changing revolutions in America, France and Russia have become life-time studies for many renowned historians and academics. There are hundreds of volumes written about these titanic turning points in the human story. To this day, many aspects of these revolutions are being studied, debated; interpretations of their origins and the realizations are many and varied. An interested reader of a book or two on the subject, is certainly no expert on what are hugely complex historical processes.
Perhaps that young U-Tuber is a victim of his own education or its narrowness. In the Sinhala medium there cannot be but more than a few books on these subjects. Besides, it is most likely that even those few books were written in a tone of finality; patchy, subjective. So barren is the intellectual life here, a person who knows something, is taken to know everything. It tends to breed know-alls, some of them rise to very high positions, even the presidency. When in power, the quintessential amateur becomes a fount of wisdom, not only does he lay down the policy, he even dictates its implementation. Before long the consequences become apparent; the whole thing becomes dysfunctional, the administration is confused and demoralized, the shadowy cabal around the hollow leader praise him and flatter him, and soon the word gets around that this clique has enriched themselves from the policy, some even investing the ill-gotten money in Swiss bank accounts.
If a critic sees such expertise in Ranil Wickremesinghe, how much more would a Sri Lankan admirer see in him! In creating this image Wickremesinghe has been artful. It is commonly held that ours is an oral culture, writing down is only an imposition. An oral culture does not work towards cold facts, precision, definitiveness; it is all about creating an image, a different image in different minds.
It has been noted that in the course of a general conversation, most Sri Lankans are reluctant listeners, his mind is busy working out a counter argument, waiting to interrupt in order to display his superior knowledge.
When you are the Patron, the Party Boss, the Prime Minister, this one-upmanship ruse comes easy. Still better, if your counterpart is a self-acknowledged underling, a person who cannot claim the same lineage. So the leader while talking down to his audience, puts on the hat of omniscience; industry, agriculture, maritime matters, city planning, IMF, international relations, Sovereign Bonds, Latimer House principles to even common etiquette, an endless list of knowledge bases.
With age, there is another feather on the cap, experience in Statecraft!
Notably, this honour is bestowed on him by other worn-out politicians, men who have lived off the public purse for many years. A bus driver who drives his bus for 50 years with an unblemished record of safety and punctuality, is dismissed as insignificant. A politician who hogs the public stage of a country run to seed, now utterly bankrupt, is declared an indispensable asset!
After the ill-advised attack on the Galle Face protestors, in an effort to damage control, President Wickremesinghe addressed foreign diplomats. “Would your country allow the occupation of the residence of your Head of government?” he asked in a somewhat arch manner.
Diplomats are not known to argue with the host country. They could have just as rhetorically said to the President that in their countries, such office holders are elected directly by the people. This is the fundamental canon and creed of representative democracy. Even to go to the IMF, a leader must have been endorsed by the people. The public servants follow a President’s instructions, because he is voted in by a majority of the voters. The army takes his orders, because they know he represents the will of the people.
If they were so inclined, the diplomats could have also told the President that in the USA the per capita GDP is approximately US $ 74,000 while in the United Kingdom is at $51,000. (Sri Lanka per capita GDP is at about US$3000). The countries that the diplomats represent haven’t gone bankrupt, in fact they are economic powerhouses, their currency is strong, people are not in petrol or gas queues, there is no hyper-inflation in these countries. Their politicians are not a tax burden, by and large they are honest, they leave when defeated at an election. Why should the people of these countries occupy the residences of their leaders? Of course, if a mob occupies the residences of such leaders, their police will remove them!
Ranil Wickremesinghe would like the country to ignore the fact that appearances notwithstanding, he is in fact a lame- duck President. According to the scheme of our constitution, a President is powerful only when he commands a majority in parliament. The money is controlled by parliament, including the expenses for his office. For any new law or amendment, he must go there. Even to extend a state of emergency, he has to seek the parliament’s approval.
In the present parliament, his UNP has only one member. Wickremesinghe in effect, is a hostage of the Rajapaksa PA which commands a majority in parliament, functioning only by its leave. All the PA members have been voted in by the people, which cannot be said of the single UNP Member. It is inevitable that the overwhelming majority in the Cabinet will be from the PA. For the present, this awkward arrangement, while allowing Wickramasinghe to strut on stage in the unearned robe of the Presidency, suits the pressing needs of the PA. How long the ill-starred union would go, is anybody’s guess.
Consider this conversation I had with a friend. We were discussing the commonly held opinion that money passed or bribes were given to vote for the winner at the recent election in parliament. My friend suggested that the results pointed to a modicum of integrity in our law makers. Perplexed, I asked him why he thinks so. His reasoning was that the bribe taking parliamentarians did what they were paid to do. After all it was a secret ballot!
This is the confounded country our false gods have given us.