By Vishwamithra –
“One thing we forget to know is that failed states once had civil, constitutional laws that were put in place. When these laws don’t work for all, that’s when dictatorship arises and injustices hug the land, and prosperities become the luxury of the few, not the masses.” ~ Henry Johnson Jr
Contemporary history has recorded many failings of many a government. But all governments that fail in many aspects of governance could be called failed governments but not necessarily leading to a Failed State. For instance, the Sirimavo-led coalition government of 1970 to 1977 was definitely a failed government, but despite the fact that it created economic chaos and most excruciatingly agonizing hardships to the people of the country, it did not lead to a Failed State.
At that time, the country was totally polarized along ideological lines. While the Sirimavo-led coalition of the left-wing politics believed in socialism and rationing out poverty among the people, the J R Jayewardene-led United National Party (UNP) disseminated a more balanced and non-doctrinaire approach to the resolution of economic issues along capitalism based on an open-economy and free enterprise path. Fortunately, the people trusted the J R-led UNP in 1977. The economy improved, not so much as a macro national indicator but more so as alleviation of poverty and economic betterment of individual lives of the greater majority of the country, not to mention self-sufficiency in rice.
But that was on the battlefront of the economy. Governance had a different story to tell. The nuances of governance, as was manifest during the Sirimavo-era, were not as vividly defined nor identified as an essential element in a country’s progress towards a more perfect process of self-governance. The second-in-command under Sirimavo was not either more experienced Dr N M Perera or Maithripala Senanayake or T B Ilangaratne. It was Felix Dias Bandaranaike.
“Ape Aanduwa”, the political concept and the resultant notion that was introduced by S W R D (Sirimavo’s late husband) was taken to its utmost extreme by the Sirimavo-Felix combine and the chaos and confusion that it created among the less educated citizenry paved the way for an accelerated decline in the discipline and poise that political leaders need to pay acute attention to. The concept was hijacked by those who had a legitimate cause for grievance but still lacked the necessary education and decorum tempered by self-discipline to achieve their mundane life-objectives. This erosion of disciplined ways of leading robust lives and professions ultimately led to a radical change in our collective evaluation of nation-building and responsible governance.
Along with this degeneration of our value system, the new-rich classes that emerged with relentless assault on character as a whole gave way to an alarming circumvention of traditional routes and paths to power politics. Capitalism not only paved the way for a free market and open economy, it also, if not prudently regulated, gave rise to another nation-destroying belief which is ‘making a fast buck is the norm of the day’. Avenues were opened for astounding amounts of money to be made if shortcuts are created by bribing this official and that politician, resulting in takers being aplenty to reap the harvest of such newly-opened avenues.
The process started with the opening of the economy but one cannot point the finger at the open economy alone. That is when the introduction of the Presidential system along with the Proportional Representation system became part and parcel of the degeneration that occurred in Ceylon. This graduation or more appropriately termed, degradation, took shape more profusely when proportional representation (PR) characterized electoral systems in which divisions in an electorate are reflected proportionately in the elected body. The concept’s application was, instead to an electorate smaller in size and diversity, a would be parliamentarian had to travel around and canvass among much larger districts that were made up of so many electorates. Those who wished to enter the legislature had to canvass for his or her votes in a much larger portion of the land and amongst so many more voters. The financial wherewithal for such campaigns demanded much larger kitty of cash and manpower.
The stakes, in fact, became far beyond the average would-be-parliamentarian’s purse. He or she had no alternative but to resort to extra-legitimate earnings in order to finance his or her election campaign. This is precisely where the new-rich class that became rich thanks to the opening of the economy and consequent bribery and illicit earnings came to assume a more active and a robust role in the theatre of power politics. The unhinging of another aspect of human behavior began its maddening and warped journey. Values were subordinated to prices and character was bartered for entry into the power circles.
An invite to a cocktail party hosted by Ministers and other parliamentarians became rare and mouthwatering and these new-rich merchants of fortune would pay any price to obtain one. They not only were too busy oiling the palms of politicians, they also created their own avenues and routes to enter into the hallowed halls of civil service. What was once known as better than the great Indian Civil Service, Ceylon Civil Service began its quick and hurried deterioration into a den of corruption and bribery. Ministry Secretaries, Government Agents and others who occupied higher echelons of office began competing with each other to build new houses, buy new cars and send their children overseas for education. The same old saga of societal squalor took ahold of our government service. From top to bottom the decomposition started setting in and whichever way one looked, there was nothing but financial and social excreta flying across administrative walls, and instead of making any attempt to stem the unruly decadence, our leaders most eagerly became part of the corrosion.
If there were one family or one clan of politicians who gained most by this whimsical social nihilism is the current ruling family – the Rajapaksas. What R Premadasa practiced in earnest in the early nineteen nineties, the Rajapaksas, firstly Mahinda and thereafter Gotabaya and Basil and the rest, sharpened the craft and made it more and more lucrative. This process made politician become a persona non grata in the average household in Ceylon and the very mention of any politician or a supporter of his became to be tarred by the same brush and with the same unpleasantly nauseating blood, so to speak.
It is in this unglamorous context that Anura Kumara Dissanayake, untested so far as a political leader and the rest of the Sajit-group of politicians fall into. It is not a very inspiring thought. Sajit Premadasa might be thinking in terms of becoming the next President of the country. He might be dreaming about a Presidential run so much akin to his late father’s. But he has a very burdensome and disagreeable baggage to carry. Roaming around the country with an avalanche of promises after promises that he would offer this solution and another without suggesting any long-term solution to the country’s depleted foreign exchange earnings and growing poverty levels amongst the rural masses is no solution the electorate would accept without a whimper of second thought.
The country as one single entity must rise against such empty promises with the same venom and vehemence that they display against the corrupt Rajapaksa regime. Offering short term and oft-repeated pledges to a hungry and thirsty electorate will not overpower the cruel nature of seventy four-year old stagnation at first and then steep spiralling down on a cataclysmic journey.
Sri Lanka is fast approaching a status of a real ‘Failed State’. It’s not only the government and its caretakers that are at fault; it’s not only the Covid-19 pandemic that caused this debacle; it’s not only the successive generations of political and religious leadership that have to answer. It’s the total country. Election after election, the voter too has very subserviently submitted to his leaders. When the voter knew that the politicians they elected one after another election are corrupt, corruptible and above all else corrupting, he still continued to repose his faith so blindingly and unquestioningly on his leaders.
Therefore, the voter himself is as responsible and accountable for the misery that each election imposed upon himself and the country. The brain-drain that began its alarming outward voyage a couple of decades ago is accelerating at breakneck alacrity. Stormy seas have surrounded our isle which we used to call the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’. Neither any religious belief system nor any secular ideological schools of thought have come to grips with the brutal realities of starving children and empty vessels whom we call political pundits and leaders.
Parliamentary seats and portfolios of ministries are for sale for the highest bidder. In this convoluted environment, the current voter, especially the youth for whom the 1971 insurrection or the terror-era between ’87 and ’89 are not even a memory. They are too young and those outside-the-box episodes are a distant recall. Even remembrance of the thirty year war between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) is fading away loosely.
Whoever comes to power after the next Presidential and Parliamentary Elections has his bagful, not of goodies to distribute amongst a starving population but a fertilizer load of problems and issues. All these issues cannot be solved overnight and nor are there any palatable solutions or answers. But if our leaders make an attempt to be truthful and honest and present a scenario wherein a joint journey, leaders with the electorate together is not only possible but may exist within the realm of probability, then that will be the day Sri Lanka will breathe a collective sigh of relief and honesty. Or else we will end up in that inglorious state of a ‘Failed State’.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org