By Rajan Philips –
Sri Lankan political leaders have had their inspirations from and seen their role models in national political leaders in other countries. In the last century, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were standard inspirational sources and role models for the entire spectrum of the nascent political class in Sri Lanka. The irreverent left looked up to Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and Stalin and Mao. SWRD Bandaranaike, according to his biographer, betrayed intellectual fascination for the Aryan emphasis in the Nazi politics of Germany, but the Oxford orator would not have tolerated any role-modelling to “be a Hitler.” GG Ponnambalam, SWRD’s Cambridge counterpart, briefly savoured the slogan “Ponna is Jaffna’s Jinnah.”
In fairness, Ponnambalam would have never thought of himself as Jinnah. Even his controversial Fifty-Fifty representational formula was predicated foursquare on a single island polity. And he would later (1968) wax eloquent in Parliament: “In fair weather and foul, in sunshine and in rain, I have always held aloft the ideal of a united Lanka.” To the Tamil Federal Party, SJV Chelvanayakam was not only a father figure but also the Tamil Gandhi. In the 21st century and with no connection to 20th century politics, Gotabaya Rajapaksa found his political calling in Donald Trump. From the sublime to the ridiculous, so to speak.
In this sequence, it is interesting to recall the fascination that JR Jayewardene showed for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a Field Marshal in the Ottoman army during World War I, and later the founder and builder of modern Turkey. Ataturk was also a dictator, one of a handful who arose from collapse of the Ottoman, Hapsburg and Tsarist empires after World War I. In his parliamentary and public speeches, Mr. Jayewardene held out Ataturk as an exemplary nation builder within the framework of secular modernity and eschewing all the hangovers from the ages of the dead. It is possible to see JR’s fascination for Kemal Ataturk in conjunction with his (JR’s) induction of the presidential system of government in Sri Lanka.
As Sri Lanka’s most consummate urban bourgeois politician, JRJ had every reason to be impressed by the example of Kemal Ataturk founding and modernizing a non-western nation. But JRJ himself could and did not become one – Sri Lanka’s Kemal Ataturk. He was too old to be ruthless, he is known to have confessed to his close advisers. He apparently viewed his old age and lack of ruthlessness as Sri Lanka’s blessings in disguise. He was also far too inextricable from his political IOUs to chauvinist troublemakers like Cyril Mathew. Colombo Tamil notables who supported JRJ and welcomed the executive presidential system as a consociational apparatus for forging overarching national unity, would later criticize him for not acting like a real president and not using his powers in an inclusively constructive way.
We do not know if President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ever came to know about JRJ’s fascination for Kemal Ataturk. Nor if he (GR) cared to find out and study about the proclivities of JR Jayewardene or other 20th century Sri Lankan political leaders. The way GR said he was going to study about Donald Trump. Objectively and unbeknownst to himself, GR could have become Sri Lanka’s Ataturk and fulfilled JRJ’s ultimate presidential wish. This was a possibility given GR’s military background and his potentially modernizing exposures as a US Citizen and a resident of California – two factors that encouraged Sri Lankans in large numbers to support GR’s candidacy and vote for him in the 2019 presidential election. As it turned out, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been using the military as a political fortress and instead of moving forward and modernizing the country, he has been falling back on atavistic assertions and civilizational obsessions. Compounding the two is the gross incompetence of the administration from top to bottom.
This is how things are as Sri Lanka enters the third year of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency and the people are looking for better things in the New Year. It is a rather depressing start for a New Year, inasmuch as 2022 appears to be a seamless continuation of 2021 with Covid-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating. The effects of the pandemic, both in public health and in the broader political and economic spheres, are likely to be significant through much of this decade. Add to that the effects of climate change and the challenges of adaptation to its recurrent fire, drought and flood disasters. The picture is grim.
Denials and Dismissals
Sri Lanka and the world were in a very different place in 1922, one hundred years ago. While other empires fell around it, the British Empire was at the height of its imperial-colonial powers in 1922, commanding over a quarter of the world and its peoples. Sri Lanka was a British colony and was in the nascent throes of communal convulsions and constitutional trial and error. The bickering over a Tamil seat in the Western Province was the sum and substance of the political differences between Low-country Sinhalese leaders and Colombo-Tamil elites. The now familiar terminology of the national question was not in anyone’s vocabulary or part of their material experience. Moreover in 1922, Sri Lanka was under the “Temporary Constitution” of 1920. It would be nine years before universal franchise, 26 years before independence, and fifty years before becoming a republic.
It would be another fifty-six years before the sacking of parliamentary democracy and the imposition of an executive presidential system by President JR Jayewardene. And a full hundred years before the midlife presidential crisis of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 2021 by far has been the worst performance by a Sri Lankan Head of State and Head of Government in 73 years. President Rajapaksa’s apologetic admirers have been hoping for a course correction in 2022, aided by the hidden or unhidden hand of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The emergent signs are not of any course correction, only a continuing course of denials, dismissals and resignations. There is no evidence either of any helping hand from Mahinda Rajapaksa, despite the latter’s pilgrimage to Tirupathy.
In his year-end meeting with a group of newspaper editors, President Rajapaksa provided only denials and dismissals on all the issues that have been bedeviling the country throughout 2021. On the controversial Yugadanavi LNG agreement, the President offered no explanation for the deal or an exposition of its benefits. He only blamed the Weerawansa-Gammanpila-Nanayakkara ministerial trio for their alleged failure to abide by their collective cabinet responsibility. Notwithstanding Justice Mark Fernando’s ruling that the President seems to have been tutored on, it is not the trio’s collective responsibility that is at issue. What is at issue is how and for what reasons did the cabinet headed by President Rajapaksa decide to grant New Fortress Energy the contract to build an off-shore liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal for Sri Lanka.
On gas leak explosions, the President reportedly said: “I do not see the gas explosions as incidents that occurred only under this government.” This is executive temerity in spite of all the evidence this year and the number of incidents in the months of November and December alone. The President seems annoyed with the “media publicity” given to the incidents of gas leak explosions on his watch. Media publicity only reflects the number and frequency of recent explosions. Still no explanation of what went wrong primarily at Litro Gas, who has been held accountable, and what steps have been taken by the government to ensure that standards are set and complied with, and to provide a safe supply of cooking gas cylinders.
On the fertilizer issue, the President finally seems to have conceded, “I admit that there has also been a mistake with regard to the fertiliser issue. The content of the Chinese fertilizer stock should have been tested before the issuance of the letter of credit to import them.” But who authorized the letter of credit, and why? There are no answers. Only blame, again, this time it is the fault of the Ministry of Agriculture for not correctly implementing the President’s “green agriculture programme.” Agriculture is always green, but what advice did the President ask for and receive from the Ministry before launching the programme by gazette notification?
On the ills of the economy, the President seems to be quite at peace with himself that he has nothing to do with it and it is all blamable on Covid-19. And he seems peeved that he is not being given due credit for the government’s commendable vaccination launch. Others see things quite differently and people’s experiences are diametrically opposite. And the President had nothing to say on what the government is going to do about the economy in the new year. And not a word about the IMF either. Is the government going to seek IMF help, or not? When will the cabinet, with collective responsibility, decide on this? And is Nivard Cabraal speaking for the cabinet when he insists that Sri Lanka will not seek IMF help?
Finally, as the new year dawns, the man behind the President and the source of all executive fiats and gazettes for the last two years is about to resign. The media has been reporting that Secretary PB Jayasundara has tendered his resignation to the President and is expected to vacate office later in January. The resignation apparently is the result of criticisms of Dr. Jayasundara by several Ministers for his exercising power over all ministries without being accessible to the subject Ministers. The President has publicly defended his Secretary, which is understandable, even though the same courtesy was not shown to other officials who have either resigned or gotten fired via WhatsApp. Puzzlingly, however, the President also chose to publicly berate the Ministers who have been criticizing Dr. Jayasundara, and suggested that some of the Ministers “maybe doing it to cover up their own weaknesses by just ‘playing to the gallery’.” The latter is a time-worn, old-English phrase that is hardly appropriate for a Sri Lankan President whose singular referential point in politics is the 6.9 million voters who voted for him.
Those who supported Gotabaya Rajapaksa and voted for him in 2019 deserved a very different, more beneficial, and less harmful presidency. On the contrary, the last two years have seen the GR presidency unfolding as it should not have. Of all things, the President picked constitution as his top priority and outsourced it to a committee of experts, so called. Their magnum opus of a draft is expected to be presented in parliament this January. There is nothing to write home about any positive achievement. Only tales of woes.
Agriculture has been temporarily destroyed by the stroke of a gazette ban on inorganic fertilizers, and there are fears of food shortage, as well as cuts to electricity and water. For the first time since its inception 51 years ago, the island’s petroleum refinery has been shut down for want of cash to ship in crude oil. In addition, the turbines at the Sapugaskanda 72MW Power Station have also been shut down for want of fuel. In sum, the government offers no pleasing prospect that people can look for in 2022. It is a depressing start and there is no point in denying it. JR Jayewardene wished for an Ataturk. Sri Lanka has got its Gotaturk.