By Vishwamithra –
Last week Karu Jayasuriya, the former Speaker of the House and Deputy Leader of the United National Party (UNP), summoned a meeting of all Opposition political parties for an open discussion. Given the precarious position of the country’s economy and the looming threat to the very survival of its democratic institutions, Karu J could not have chosen a better and more opportune time to summon such a meeting. In the same strain, the writer could not have chosen a more apposite time to pen a few thoughts in the context of this event.
Every now and then history bestows upon certain individuals a rare honor and fortune of leadership of a movement whose necessity has not only been proven inevitable but also matchless in occurrence. Such an occasion has come upon all of us who call Sri Lanka our motherland. When such an occasion arrives, history itself has in its own conspiratorial fashion sprung up leaders who have embellished the pages of times and served to make its own path more passable and pleasant not only in the short run but also for generations to come.
Dawn of human inquiry has taken an arduous journey, more winding and stormy than straightforward and calm and quiet. Yet leaders of stature who have broken from the traditional ways of achievement of sociopolitical goals, for they themselves have realized that trudging the same old wayward paths would not bring forth the desired results; nor have they achieved anything worthwhile for the masses at large.
Such calls of history challenge the pressure and significance of the moment; it also brings into focus the needs of those whose fate in normal times has been relegated to the dumpsters of social movement. Sri Lanka in her short but eventful post-independence history has been producing leader after leader in whom the great majority of people have reposed faith and confidence. They had done that ever so willingly and readily, not suspecting the deceitful politicians. With mountainous expectations, some parents strived to obtain admissions for their children a better school, some of them hoped for a simple job in a government department and yet a plain young village girl waited with enormous hope to get a teaching job. But after each election, whether it was Presidential or Parliamentary, same tragic cycle of treachery continues to make its wild and muddled turns.
What was once restricted to the uneducated politicians who indulged in the evil trade of bribery now has found its way down the government service, from the very top to the bottom. Dear Sir, corruption has been the only lasting and consistent feature in successive administrations. Especially during the last three decades, politicians have been living on, not their monthly salaries or their personal wealth, either from their ancestors or via spouses’ incomes, but exclusively from the corrupt dealings and crooked transactions. What is most astounding and saddening is the complete apathy shown by the masses that elected these fellows to office.
Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, Sir, here is that very moment. The moment, not when great leaders are made, but which are eagerly awaited by great men and women to display their great skills and talents so that not only suffering men and women but also those institutions that sustain the continuance of decent and free society, would gather around and accept as a credible ‘leader’ instead of being a just a ‘performer’.
Authenticity, not cosmetic performance that matters; sincerity, not cynicism that counts; pure courage and not empty bravado that takes a nation beyond the threshold which is not usually crossed by ordinary men and women.
Impending doom is evil; its economic dimensions could be wide and fearsome; the socio-political consequences could be devastating. It certainly is not a crisis that confronts a nation-state every other year. The Covid-19 pandemic plus corruption is a crisis of great magnitude and such a disaster occurs, maybe, once in a generation. Such an economic calamity brought untold miseries to the country in the period spanning seven years from 1970 to 1977. In fact that period was dubbed as the Seven Years’ Scourge, quite aptly so. But the last eighteen months, since Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed the office of Presidency, has dwarfed the seven years scourge and many an unspeakable misfortune has visited the country’s socio-economic landscape and made changes beyond all recognition.
There is one single trait both the Bandaranaikes and the Rajapaksas share; that is failure to demand accountability from their subordinate members of the party, including some Cabinet Ministers and prominent parliamentarians. As much as Sirimavo Bandaranaike ignored the brazen corruption and lack of decorum of some of the most leading SLFP parliamentarians, the Rajapaksas have outdone Sirimavo by many strides. When Sirimavo did not take any action when some parliamentarians attended the sittings fully drunk and in no position to keep standing without support, the Rajapaksas’ supporters conduct in that fateful October in 2018 was deplorable. You, the Speaker of the House, were physically threatened and Mahinda Rajapaksa stood idly by, without making any attempt to bring calm and dignity to that august assembly. You and you alone stood your ground with true grit and dignity and a total national debacle was avoided.
But today’s situation is entirely different. A new Rajapaksa is on the throne. His own elder brother is the Prime Minister and another younger brother is the Minister of Finance. More than 75% of the national Budget is divided among the brothers. The Rajapaksas think that Sri Lanka is their private enterprise; a source that provides tools and wherewithal to enrich themselves and their kith and kin.
Hence the approach to a meaningful political opposition must assume a national character and the purpose and goal of the opposition’s movement must reflect a national purpose, not merely to oust the Rajapaksas from power. The moment you bring in the ouster concept, you fall back on your supporters’ daydreams and fantasies. Bringing together a gallery of opposition parties is an extremely formidable task and when national priorities are sidetracked, the leaders of the coalition parties begin thinking in terms of positions for themselves.
Who becomes the Prime Minister and who becomes the Minster of Finance and Minster of External affairs is utterly meaningless in the context of a national struggle. Those nuts and bolts can be tightened during a campaign time. It is my fervent advice, if I’m ever to advise you, Sir, put forward a ‘national purpose’ for a ‘national agenda’. If you can’t come to a consensus of opinion, hold a couple of open fora so that different parties can discuss in detail the solutions to the national issues at hand. Without the National Purpose, your coalition will fall flat, before it starts to take root.
There is no leader of any national stature other than yourself. The absence of a leader whose credibility is unwounded and beyond question is our perennial problem and that void can be filled by you. That is not my personal opinion but the opinion of a great majority in Sri Lanka. You have to prove that you are worthy of that honor.
Dante Alighieri, the author of Divine Comedy wrote that “the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis”. This is not the time to be neutral, please take a side, take the side of right as against wrong, honest as against crooked, pure as against corrupt and corruptible. The people of the country may not demand in loud voices; they may not even write about it but that is the unexpressed yearning they have. You have to come out of the facilitator’s garb and conduct the affairs of the political opposition as a leader. Then the people will come and rally around you; they will be ready to sacrifice their time, money and sweat and tears and even blood, but for the sake of goodness and for the sake of the country, please don’t say that you are neutral in this and neutral in that. In politics, the ground of neutrality is the ground trodden by those who cannot decide.
With the dawn of this century and the advent of the social media, the country has become smaller and the alacrity at which information flows from one end to the other is exceedingly fast and furious. The country’s crisis is a moral crisis. Murderers are pardoned and bestowed with chairmanship of government authorities. Such brutal insults hurled at the ordinary citizenry of the country are unforgivable.
When the nation’s conscience is so wounded by the Rajapaksa cabal, when the ordinary villagers are not attended to by a planned out vaccination program, when incompetence and corruption reign and when the people at large are silent and apathetic, it is a direct reflection of the leadership of the Opposition. One must be so shameful to bear that ignominy
*The writer can be contacted at email@example.com