By Rajan Philips –
In legal terms, a 99 year lease means that the term of lease would extend beyond the life expectancy of the lessee or lessor. In Sri Lankan political terms (make it – constitutional terms; all that is needed is Q & A with the Supreme Court) it would mean the assurance of regime continuity beyond the life expectancy of the regime founder. In practical terms, elections will continue even more often than now, but only the government will be winning everywhere except for a while in the sore North; and 99 years will be more than enough to permanently dispossess the grumpy Vellalas of their petty property titles. Lanka will be on track to become the dream land without differences, where everyone will be the same and equally patriotic under a perfect dictatorship full of democratic rituals. The ‘perfect dictatorship’ (la dictadura perfecta) was the name given to the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico that ruled Mexico uninterruptedly for seventy years from 1929 to 2000. Why shouldn’t Sri Lanka outdo Mexico? We have a continuous history of more than 2000 years, while Mexico is a mere upstart of 500 years.
The Wikipedia has a list of “Longest ruling non-royal national leaders’ in the world today. Forty such leaders are listed, and President Rajapaksa is ranked 39 with ten years to his credit including the one year when he was the loyal Prime Minister to Sri Lanka’s only Lady President. No doubt, President Rajapaksa will move up the ranks before he sheds his mortal coil in this birth. He is in the distinguished company of 39 leaders, perhaps more distinguished than the hell that Bernard Shaw imagined to be the resting place for all emperors, the popes of old, and other illicit greats of the mortal world. Of the forty men and no women, six leaders have been ruling for more than 30 years, 10 for more than 20 years, and the other 24 for 10 years and more. Geographically, the vast majority of the forty are African and Arab leaders. There are only three Asian countries, Sri Lanka sharing the honour with Cambodia and North Korea. But we are better than both of them, and we can still be better with a 99 year lease government.
Put another way, Sri Lanka’s opposition forces as they are currently constituted (make it – ‘unconstituted’) do not deserve to form a government for another 99 years. There are obvious personal weaknesses and subjective shortcomings among those who are in the opposition. And those faults have been highlighted many times, by many people. Let us not flog that dead horse anymore. The opposition’s political ineffectuality is also a systemic outcome, specifically arising, as I have been arguing a few times in this column, from the operation of the Executive Presidential system. Whatever might be said in detraction of the parliamentary system, systemically weakening the opposition cannot be one of its mischiefs. What was critically perceived as a parliamentary tyranny that prevailed between 1970 and 1977 was overthrown effortlessly by the people simply casting their votes. Just compare the swiftness of the opposition victory in 1977 with the paralysis of the opposition under the presidential system since 1978.
It is not just the opposition that has been squashed out of shape, but the very system of cabinet government has been transformed into being the rubber stamp of the executive President. Gone are the days of standout and stalwart cabinet ministers who brought intelligence and independence to the cabinet table for discussion and decision making. The system worked well, very well, in fact. There were instances when the cabinet was dysfunctional owing to ministerial differences, such as when there was a ‘cabinet strike’ to sabotage the Paddy Lands proposals of Philip Gunawardena in the 1950s. But at no time in the past has there been a cabinet of so many ministers doing so little for so long. Yet, from Peradeniya dons to political hangers-on, the common party-line is that the executive presidency has produced economic development, and is on the way to producing new miracles.
On the other hand, the pro-Rajapaksa members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party have determined that there was only one period of economic development in the executive presidential era, and that was the period (2005-2014) presided over by Mahinda Rajapaksa. The earlier two periods, 1977-1994 under the UNP and 1994-2005 under Chandrika Kumaratunga, were development failures according to the Communist Party Central Committee. If so, it is not the executive presidency but President Rajapaksa who is the reason for economic development. And that is good enough reason for the neo-dialecticians of the Communist Party to support Mahinda Rajapaksa in his third presidential election, notwithstanding the constitutional coup to do away with term limits and the democracy deficit that has grown alarmingly under the same President. Not to mention the orgy of government corruption, exposing which became a self-assigned portfolio of the only Communist Minister in the government. But all these ills must be fought from within the regime and not from outside. That is the new self-delusion, and that a 99 year lease on government will help in that internal fight might become the new dialectical argument.
There is a parallel opinion among the chattering classes, according to which no previous government has done so much for the country as has the present government. It has liberated the country not only from the jaws of the LTTE, but also from the machinations of the Colombian Sinhalese (the UNP), the ineptitude of the Veyangoda Radalayas (the old SLFP), and the conniving schemes of the Tamil Vellalas. Exhibit-A, in fact the only exhibit, in support of the government’s achievements, is the beautification of Colombo. It is nothing more than an exhibit, and there is hardly a murmur, let alone outrage, about the cost of this exhibit. To wit, the evacuation of people to make room for palatial casinos; the state of the schools and the universities; the collapse of the public health system; the mismanagement of the electricity sector; and the corruption in petroleum import and distribution. There was a time when the GNP was criticized as not being a true measure of the economic resilience of traditional societies like Sri Lanka where the economic activities of the people are not fully integrated into the market system. Now, with the per capita income emerging as the privileged measure of uneven prosperity, it is fair to say that the mass of the people who fall below the average are doomed to remain underprivileged and neglected. Not to mention, the myth of Sri Lanka’s rising per capita income cannot be sustained without the sufferings of the Sri Lankan maids in the Middle East. With a 99 year lease on government, there could be more harbours along the coast, an airport in every town, an interchange at every junction, and many more maids flying out to the Middle East to support not only their families but also the government’s economic statistics.
How did we get to this point in our political development after independence? There can be legions of answers to that question, but the question that is more appropriate and perhaps more difficult to answer is about the social compulsions that would have contributed to our present state of presidential politics. Equally important are the social consequences flowing from the presidential political system. Unlike in the case of Mexico, where the Institutional Revolutionary Party emerged as a device to incorporate competing political forces in a virtually one-party government, the presidential system in Sri Lanka is becoming a system of inclusion and exclusion centred on a single, extended family.
Ironically, JR Jayewardene set out to eliminate family bandyism – of the Senanayakes and the Bandaranaikes – from Sri Lankan politics, and he could hardly have imagined that his artful creation, that is the presidential system, would in thirty years become the institution of a single family that would have been nowhere on JR’s social and political radar. What is more, family-identification of political achievements is receiving a new impetus from unlikely sources with scientific credentials. The SLFP, it has recently been claimed, is as much a Party of the Rajapaksas as it is (or, was?) of the Bandaranaikes. That is rational progress of some kind.
To end on a different note, see what the Sri Lankan presidency is doing to the Catholic Church in Colombo. The Church officials are facing a different season of Advent this year. More anguish than Advent, perhaps: Will the Pope come, or will he not come, that is their question. It is the anguish of having to serve two masters, the spiritual Master of their calling and the temporal master of Sri Lankan politics. History has seen this tussle many times over. Recalling its most celebrated instance, it will not be charitable to expect a Sri Lankan Cardinal to be the Thomas More of our time. Equally, and not at all irreverently, it will not be uncharitable to say that no Sri Lankan Cardinal or Bishop should stoop to being a new Cardinal Woolsey. In Pope Francis, many see a new Pope trying his utmost to be different from the Church Pharisees. All one can hope for the Church leaders in Colombo is that in regard to the timing of the Papal visit, they will be led by their spiritual light and not by political expediency. The President of Sri Lanka is powerful enough, and he does not need divine help or Papal blessing, to secure not merely a third term but a 99 year lease on government.