By Sarath De Alwis –
“ The war on privilege will never end. Its next great campaign will be against the privileges of the underprivileged.” – H.L.Mencken
Sri Lanka is witnessing a constitutional experiment that is fast turning out to be elitist and exclusionary. A popular mandate seems to be dwarfed by an unelected Regency.
The President was voted in to office by a rainbow coalition on a platform of reforms that produced an electoral activism of exceptional outreach.
There is now a clear and present danger of the ‘Maithri’ Mandate being misread as a partisan power enterprise instead of the reform project as was intended by the coalition. The mandate for reform received by President Sirisena is a personal triumph of a self-less leader. He disregarded unimaginable risks of a defeat outrageously demonstrated by a pitiless opponent. Seeking high office in order to curb its excesses was a fascinating covenant. With it he created a movement that succeeded in dismantling a ruthless machine which deployed an estimated Rs.250 billion or around Rs.43, 000 per voter.
With the first hurdle cleared we now have the titular alternate Prime Minister of the last decade and half as the Prime Minister with a cabinet of Ministers who were not voted in to office but are in charge.
There is a sizable part of our polity that finds awkward to come to terms with this quirky component of our ‘soft revolution’. They argue with some vehemence that the victory of President Sirisena is not an endorsement of the UNP given willingly or reluctantly by a constituency that split nearly even.
Diving deep in to the digital realm the new breed of data scientists have provided analyses of the elections results that show how close it was. It justifies the lingering anxiety among many about the Prime Minister heading a minority government who prescribes solutions of his own to the majority. The care taker Prime Minister, it is feared is himself a closet autocrat with equally unfathomable links to the oligarchs and puppeteers of the earlier order.
Thirty six days after what many hoped was the beginning of an epochal transformation, Alumni Association of Royal College held a special assembly to felicitate the new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and 14 Ministers of the Government who are old Royalists. Also present were the newly appointed chairmen of Boards and secretaries to the ministries who are old Royalists.
The principal of Royal said. ‘Today marks another significant day in the history of this hallowed institution as we witness our alumni holding a majority of the highest level of authority in our nation,’
It was eerily funny. Highest level of authority reached without the bother of elections!
It reminded this writer of something very political about Royal College. Dr. Dayan Jayatillake who is never hesitant to make a judgment call on people and institutions once described Royal College, Peradeniya University and Lake House as the “ three most powerful ideological apparatuses of modern Sri Lanka”. Not anymore.
In postmodern Sri Lanka the ideological apparatuses are being forged anew by men and institutions far removed from the three Dinosaurs languishing in irrelevant splendor at Reid Avenue, Beira Lake and Hantana hills.
The Principal of Royal College was unwittingly giving credence to an aspect of the hundred day’s administration that has created deep foreboding amongst those who spearheaded and nurtured the movement for a just society.
The secret of Royal alumni holding a majority of the highest level of authority is not its academic excellence but its octopus tentacles that offer opportunity, irrespective of talent or merit, to their own kind. Royal college is no match as an ideological apparatus to Dharmasoka Ambalagoda Ananda at Mardana or Rahula at Matara in the Sinhala south. The center of gravity has moved from the elite to the ordinary. Perhaps the ordinary has replaced the elite.
Maithripala Sirisena an old boy of Thopawewa Maha Vidyalaya and Rajakeeya Vidylaya Polonnaruwa announced his common candidacy at the New Town Hall on 21th November last year.On stage he was flanked by a redoubtable Bridegtean, two Anandians –one worldly wise and the other World renown , two Thomians one academically aloof and the other despite obvious youth exuding Gladstonian charm. There was a lone Royalist who was there not so much for his Etonian credentials but for his deep roots in the backwoods of Anuradhapura.
The purpose of this article is to persuade Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesighe that the Children of 1956 have not only come of age but have also come to stay and participate. The oriental mind has a special partiality to the spirit of detached power. What few realized in the heat of the campaign was the frequency of the use of the Sinhala word ‘Senehebara’ by the challenger. It is new to the lexicon of Sinhala political oratory. The word does not appear in any of the writings of Martin Wickramasinghe. But it appears in the Ballads written by Mahagama Sekera and often heard in the haunting melodies of Nanda Malini.
‘Sneha’ is the name of my granddaughter. It means not plain and simple love but caring love. ‘Adaraya saha Senehasa ‘is an essentially Sinhala idiom. It nuances continuity and consistency in human attachments. ‘Senehebara ‘implies an abundance of caring love’.
President Maithripala Sirisena extended an abundance of caring love to his fellow citizens, mountains, valleys, meadows, streams, creeks and rivers. It is this appeal of poetry and passion that made people vote him in to office. The Maithripala Sirisena ethos is light years removed from Ranil Wickeremesinghe’s corporate elitism, where by virtue of strategic location the likes of his old school alumni can impact political outcomes regularly and substantially.
Maithripala Sirisena speaks for the Aam aadmi of Sri Lanka. Arvind Kejriwal who scored 67 out of 70 and beat both BJP and Congress did not go to Doon school – the Royal College of India.
In these transformative times, people want the system changed. Constitutional amendments are only a means to an end. Changes are meaningless if it perpetuates tyranny by other means and other forms by other people.
Mr. Ranil Wickeremsinghe no doubt has a historical task before him. It is not that of a Cromwell or a Richelieu. It is that of an Ambedkar. Frankly, despite the muddled haze of the Lichchavi traditions this writer is not convinced that he has the makings of an Ambedkar. Granville Austin the Constitutional historian describes Ambedkar as the towering figure in the constituent assembly who made the “Indian Constitutional fortress impregnable to sapping by private interests.” Austin makes another point that Mr.Wickeremesinghe should take note of. Ambedkar had only one concern. The constitution should serve the will of the many and not the interests of the few. Strangely this happens to have been the principal concern of Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha thero too.
The 21st century nation-state is an amalgam of politics of the individual and the politics of the community. It is extensive enough to encourage global reach but not restrictive to make the citizens helpless and complain that they have lost control of their lives. It demarcates the arena of political contestation from that of collective action by citizens. That is what it is about. We need the space and the means to call the government to account.
If persons who served as directors on boards under previous UNP administrations are reappointed under the Maitripala mandate the country must be told why their expertise is indispensable in these transformative times. Perhaps in their earlier stints they made exceptional contributions to the profitability of those enterprises. But if the criteria of those reappointments were the same as what President Rajapakse adopted in gifting baby elephants, then it becomes a definitely non Lichchavi travesty.
In sharp contrast to the previous chairman of Sri Lankan Airlines, the new Chairman of Sri Lankan Airlines has spent many hours in First Class lounges in many international airports at his own expense. If the priority of the Airline is to ensure measurable value delivery either in the first class cabin or in the many lounges on its losing network the choice is justified.
Karl Lagerfeld the Paris based head of Channel says something relevant to today’s Aviation economics. “Never use the word “cheap”. Today everybody can look chic in inexpensive clothes (the rich buy them too). There is good clothing design on every level today. You can be the chicest thing in the world in a T-shirt and jeans — it’s up to you.”
However if the priority is to stop its financial hemorrhaging a Presidential Commission to review aviation policy is the correct step forward.
It is quite possible that restructuring state owned banks is an Olympian task. A skeptical public will be reassured if the new appointments were accompanied by a rationale that explains ‘why’ and the ‘what for.’
In the case of Mr.Tilak Karunaratne the question does not arise. Returning from exile has its built in logic.
A subcommittee of the national executive council holding public hearings on sensitive appointments would have appeased a public that is now expressing its discontent quietly. It will turn loud and ugly before long.
Securing an uneasy cross-party agreement is not enough to deliver constitutional reform. The dilemma of the proponents of electoral reform is not that the change require lengthy consultation. It is the inability to persuade some leading lights who may not get elected at all because their national stature is constructed not by a loyal constituency but by their grip on the party machine.
The reforms suggested, will eliminate backroom operators in the big parties who are adept in backpedaling, backstabbing and poisoning the water.
The price of electoral reform may be a new parliament committed to a power sharing agreement where the national list may help the powerful but unelectable!
The only certainty is that people want promised reforms within the hundred days. Incremental reform though possible is not what was promised.
C.S. Lewis an intellectual giants of the twentieth century has summed up our present predicament.
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
We simply must reject a Ranil Regency in what remains of the one hundred days.
*Sarath de Alwis is a former journalist and a retired professional in leisure and aviation industries