By Ravi Perera –
“There are two ways of being a politician. The first is to bring to politics all one’s ideas, energies and even possessions, to enrich it, and yet in the midst of it keep one’s own intellectual and inner preoccupations, so that the management of public affairs may be ennobled by them.
The second, is the exact opposite. It consists of taking from politics, all one’s ideas, along with power and other resources.
This is living off politics.”- Paul Valery
The present day United National Party (UNP) may lack many things, most importantly for a political party, a popular following; its abysmal failure was displayed so starkly at the last general elections, when the old warhorse failed to win a single seat in parliament. This was not the case in the past, even when it could not form the government at the elections, the UNP generally commanded the confidence of a very large number of voters, sometimes even more than the governing party. In order to defeat the UNP, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, its historical rival, had to invariably resort to coalition tactics with left parties such as the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party. However, as a single political party, contesting more seats, the UNP would usually garner the highest number of votes.
A famed CEO of an American behemoth once advised his investors not to assume the continuity of the company leadership. Under his redoubtable leadership, the company had flourished globally, becoming a much admired fortune 500 company. He was equal to the challenge of their competitors; was a visionary, dynamic, popular and much respected for his integrity. That would not however be a permanent state he cautioned. On a future day, the company may well end up with a leadership lacking in some, or even all the attributes he was admired for. In such a case, the basis of their investment ceases to be, they must therefore be alert to any shifts in the company profile, particularly its moral strength.
Clearly, the stakeholders of the UNP have not been vigilant. Confused, even mystified, they waited while in the larger society their party steadily descended into irrelevance. True, every institution rises and falls in time, that is the nature of the world. In the case of the UNP, the drop was devastatingly rapid, one day the party was in power, the next, it had lost every seat in parliament.
But where the UNP is concerned, it seems not all is lost. Politically it may have hit a wall, but other, latent talents, are emerging, particularly in the literary field. I refer particularly to the recent newspaper article “Mahatma Gandhi – the great son of India” by Wajira Abeywardena, a provincial politician, now made the Chairman of the UNP.
We understand that as a writer Abeywardena was preceded in the field by his leader Ranil Wickramesinghe, writing not so long ago, a book on Buddhism. For a person who has been immersed in the glutinous slush of our politics for much of his life, an intriguing choice of subject to expound on, to say the least. Hopelessly trapped in the endless cycle of cause and effect, for the less fortunate like us, the metaphysical reaches of that esoteric teachings are a philosophy too difficult. To contemplate the illusoriness of the plate of rice and curry on the table; a meal obtained with difficulty, cooked with the now very expensive gas; we will leave for a better day. We however thrill to learn from this writing that all glitter and glamour of office, stardom, riches, presidential ambitions, diplomatic postings, are essentially unsatisfactory, bring no happiness; those elevated personalities and we the common folk, share a community of discontent!
Abeywardena as the Chairman of that conservative political institution, a pillar of traditional values, seems unlikely. It is a position that is more appropriately held by a person not in active politics, and, of wide social recognition. A person who is a symbol of what the party stands for; an inspiration to its followers. Somethings have changed in the UNP, even given out.
Mahatma Gandhi has been the subject of thousands of essays, from callow students to the most sophisticated minds on earth, have interpreted the life of that complex figure; from nonsensical drivel to the most sublime thoughts have been written about him. Albert Einstein puts it like this – “Generations to come, people will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”.
Gandhi, like all other public men, has his distractors. Far from the heat and the passions of those times, we can now see the many failings, frailties, as well as the slipups of the great man. This is the purpose of history, as we evolve, so does our perception of the past.
Nevertheless, in the portentous first half of the 20th Century, Gandhi’s work was epochal, titanic; a devout austere man with scarcely a paisa in his name, yet, acknowledged by millions upon millions of poor humble Indians as their undisputed leader, challenged the mightiest empire on earth. Battling the forces arrayed against him, not with violence or a convoluted ideology, but by the righteousness of his soul, justice and the truth.
From a person who has come forward to represent the people, and, now is the chairman of a political party, one is justified in expecting a profound interpretation of Gandhi, a nuanced approach to a life which impacted all, especially us living in South Asia.
We however come across only the banal, the bombastic and mushy sentimentality.
I quote from the Wajira Abeywardena’s article:
“Mahatma Gandhi was a gem of a human personality, who was not confined to a single country or a single religion. He belongs to the whole universe”
“English rule was never welcome by the Indians. They ridiculed the dignity of India. The Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Harijan castes were desperate to get rid of the colonial rule. It was Gandhi of the Vaishya caste that pioneered the freedom struggle by giving it the spiritual as well as philosophic leadership. Shri Jawaharlal Nehru of the Brahmin caste came forward to support Gandhi in his endeavour. Gandhi means India and India means Gandhi”
“JR Jayewardene followed the Gandhian principle to the letter. He organised the first ever protest march from Colombo to Kandy against the policies of the Bandaranaike government in 1956.Again, he organised a ‘sathyagraha’ campaign advocated by Gandhi against the activities of the government formed in 1970 and that government was shocked by the success of that protest movement.
Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who became leader of the United National Party in 1994 had also practiced that protest march in his political campaign. It was named the Jana Bala Meheyuma”
“Gandhi never engaged in politics. He never wanted to be the leader of the independent India. He allowed Shri Jawaharlal Nehru to be so. Nehru treated Gandhi as the father of the nation. Shri Nehru had a strong respect towards Sri Lanka”
From these randomly picked lines of the Abeywardena essay, the reader will be able to get an idea of its pith and substance. One line struck me particularly, “Gandhi never engaged in politics”. The man who stood bravely against race based discrimination in South Africa, mobilized and led the Indian nation to independence, whose ideas and methods inspired millions, never engaged in politics, says Abeywardena!
Aristotle defined man as a political animal, because, man is a thinking animal, has a moral sense, lives in a community and always looks forward for something better in his life. According to Abeywardena, only those like him, dressed in neat white clothes, is surrounded by bodyguards, goes about in vehicles provided by the people, contests for a reprehensive body like a Parliament or a Provincial Council, can be considered to be engaged in politics.
Some time back I came across this Gandhi tale, there are these stories that are developed around prominent personalities, difficult to verify or authenticate. They however, underline the general perception of the man, often offering a moral.
A rich ambitious Indian wanted nomination to the Working Committee of the Indian Congress. When the list went to Gandhi, he placed a question mark in front of the name. Piqued, the man questioned Gandhi. Whereupon Gandhi showed him a postcard referring to a complaint on the man’s failure to honour a large loan he had obtained many years back. The man argued that this was decades ago, and was now time-barred in law. The great man’s answer was pithy, this is not a legal issue, this is a moral issue, thus there is no time bar, Gandhi replied.
We are not suggesting that all politicians be proficient writers. But they ought to enrich us; with ideas, knowledge and example. There is a lot we now know about pre-independence India, the freedom struggle, meaning of Gandhism, India’s relationship with Sri Lanka, and more importantly, the mind-set, preoccupations and the limitations of our Sri Lankan leaders referred to in the essay.
We descend from the sublime to the ridiculous when we claim Gandhian impulses and methods, to our political claptrap. The banners of Gandhi can be used freely, lesser the compunction, easier the adoption.
Is the composition well thought out, does it provide us with a deeper insight into the life of one of the most pivotal figures of the 20th Century? It left me dejected, is this the typical mind of a politician of today, those clamouring for power, those coming forward to lead the country?
Materially, Sri Lanka is a poor country, a small country with little resources. In the recent past, there are several countries, even worse off, which have found ways out of their poverty. Material poverty can be conquered.
There is another kind of poverty, more true, more deep-going; a poverty of philosophy, soul and being.
The way out of that poverty, is difficult.