By Izeth Hussain –
First of all let me add my own tribute to all the others on the stunning political skill shown in the choice of Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate. The tribute for this, according to public perceptions, should go primarily to Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Bandaranaike. It is worth a song and dance because political skill of a high order has been for the most part been conspicuously absent from our politics. MS is a true son of the rural soil, to a far greater extent than President Rajapaksa, as Premadasa was a true son of the urban gutter. He has a blameless political record, and can be expected to split the Sinhalese Buddhist vote to a substantial extent.
But he is a rather colourless figure, which raises the question of why it has been so difficult to find a credible common candidate. We have come to a crossroads in our politics at which it is desperately important to choose a new road as the present one can be expected to lead to another doom-laden 1989, as I argued in my last article. The need of the hour is therefore a charismatic leader, but none can be spotted on the horizon. I believe that this is not accidental but tells us something important about our politics. It is that there are no ideals in our politics, only interests. When India won independence in 1947 there was a desperate need to forge the unity of a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multicultural nation, which was seen as a noble ideal. Nehru provided stable charismatic leadership over a long period, the unity of the nation has been firmly established, and there is no longer a need for charismatic leadership: a bureaucratic type of leader would do to suit the regime of the quotidian. In 1948 the Sinhalese saw no need to forge national unity as this is the land of the Sinhalese, while the minorities are visitors. The minorities furthermore were seen as privileged; in fact they are still seen as privileged, and therefore the essential thrust of Sinhalese politics from 1948 to 2014 has been to ensure that the lion gets the lion’s share. It is essentially a politics of interest with no ideals worth speaking about, and therefore our political culture is so low-grade that it cannot produce a charismatic leader.
The way the Opposition parties and groups are conceptualizing the present critical juncture in our politics seems to be highly significant. The focus is mainly on the dichotomy between democracy and dictatorship; it is not on the economy and the ethnic problems. This is understandable in the case of the economy because there is probably a broad national consensus about it. Economic growth requires a market-oriented economy, but Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” ensuring a beneficent outcome for all does not seem to be much in evidence. It does not seem possible to combine economic growth with equity under a capitalist system. We can expect corruption and inequality to keep on growing along with the growth of the economy. Probably a Government dominated by the UNP will be even more ruthless in suppressing the economically dissatisfied than the present one. On the ethnic front, the Opposition has had nothing to say up to now about the problem of implementing 13A more fully and working out a political solution for the Tamil ethnic problem, nor about the Muslim ethnic problem which has now to be regarded as a major one. The reason for this is of course obvious: if the Opposition raises a clamor about the ethnic problems it will lose a sizeable chunk of the Sinhala Buddhist vote. There is also the fact that the Opposition is seeing the problem of dictatorship in a simplistic way, ignoring the specificity of the present drive to dictatorship which to my mind is clearly neo-Fascist with racism built into it.
We badly need an analysis of why the family has been so important in our politics. I have argued earlier that dictatorship leads to division and hierarchy. A dictator places himself above the people, and his coterie is also placed above the people, so that it becomes arguable that division and hierarchy are at the very core of dictatorship. In addition to the authoritarian and dictatorial drive shown by several of our Governments – notably those of Presidents Jayewardene, Premadasa, and Rajapaksa – our Governments have also been, to varying degrees and in different ways, racist. In other words our politics have been deeply divisive from 1948 up to the present day. Consequently, our minorities have a deep sense of alienation, and the Sinhalese themselves seem to be becoming more and more divisive. As I pointed out in an earlier article, the Sino-Indian War of the early ‘sixties resulted immediately in a tremendous affirmation of unity across the length and breadth of India, but the coming of the IPKF troops – which was seen by many Sri Lankans as posing a grave threat to our sovereignty and unity – was followed by the Sinhalese butchering each other on a massive scale.
It is in this context of divisiveness that we must try to understand the problem of the family in our politics. It is of course not a problem that is peculiar to Sri Lanka but something that has been pervasive in Afro-Asia. However, there are significant differences of degree in the extent to which dynastic politics are practiced. In India the Nehru dynasty held sway over decades though not continuously. But with the election debacle of the latest Nehru scion the dynasty seems to be coming to an end. A noteworthy fact is that in between spells of power by the Nehru dynasty – Nehru, Indira, and Rajiv – there have been several other Prime Ministers, but none tried to found a dynasty. The case has been very different in Sri Lanka where the dynastic principle seems to be more rampant than ever before, with – it is said – the Rajapakse family controlling 56% of the Budget. The dominance or otherwise of the family in politics seems to be related to the extent of the sense of unity in a country. Where relations of trust and reciprocity are badly in deficit, where there is no vibrant sense of unity in a society, it has to be expected that the Leader will feel that ultimately he can depend on none other than his kith and kin. India has been forging national unity since 1947; in Sri Lanka we have yet to realize the need for it.
I mean by forging national unity much more of course than preventing the division of the country by separatist forces. Authentic national unity has to be based on a notion of citizenship as conferring equal rights on all irrespective of ethnic and other affiliations. National unity in this sense is a requisite for achievement, as I pointed out in my last article, something that is not widely understood. But it is certainly very widely understood that the lack of national unity can lead to a loss of independence. This point hardly needs laboring with Sri Lankans because the history of this country shows that at several critical junctures one group invited foreigners to take its side against another group, the foreigners obliged and took over parts of the country, until the British – the most astute of them all who knew a good thing when they saw it – took over the country in its entirety.
Today colonialism and imperialism are anathematized, but we can still lose our independence in all but name while retaining a nominal sovereignty. Our politics have become so degraded that many Sri Lankans believe that a substantial proportion of our politicians can be bought and sold like potatoes. Will India or some other foreign power buy some politicians to gain control of a future Government? It is the kind of thing that can happen if we continue without any sense of national unity worth speaking about. I am wondering in fact whether some amount of erosion of sovereignty has already taken place. Has there been some foreign pressure behind the very surprising latitude that the Government has allowed for the anti-Muslim campaign? I am raising the question in order to emphasize that at the present political crossroads our first imperative should be the forging of national unity.