By Malinda Seneviratne –
The faith of South Asian people in dynastic rule is astounding considering all the braggadocio about democratic traditions. There have been the odd ‘outsider’ of course but by and large the political stories of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and as of late the Maldives have been about fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, brothers and sisters. It’s not a two generation thing either, for there are grandparents and grandchildren as well.
And it’s not just head of state we are talking about. Dynastic aspiration is something prevalent across the board and at all levels. We see it in local government bodies, provincial elections and even within political parties. It can’t be the political fascination of the powerful or those who crave power. Sure, they tend to have lots of money or draw from moneyed backers and this helps secure votes, but that’s exactly the point – unlike monarchies where there’s no-sweat succession, here you have to be voted in. Well, it looks like the general public is not averse to dynasty.
What this has produced, naturally, is for the progeny of politicians to operate as though they are endowed with some kind of ‘gene right’ to power. The legitimacy or at least the logic of Sajith Premadasa’s political ambitions can perhaps be explained by the obvious ‘genetic edge’ and an electorate that is confused about monarchy and democracy. What is important is for Sajith, the United National Party and the nation as a whole to check if the prince-in-waiting has king-credentials on non-genetic counts.
He’s been in Parliament for 14 years. That’s long, after all Chandrika Kumaratunga became President with just a fraction of that ‘experience’. He left the comfort zone of his father’s electorate and built a base far away in Hambantota. He has decent crowd-puller credentials. He is accepted either as the Best Bet or as the Next-Best-Thing of the party by the majority in the UNP. Part of it is of course ‘default’ on account of real or perceived incompetency and authoritarian tendencies of the leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Still, Sajith seems the best pick as of now even if gene-right and default-clause are discounted. Is it enough, though?
Sajith’s political record has a less than attractive underside though. He wanted to oust his leader. He once said that the only person who can unite the party was Karu Jayasuriya. When the party leader agreed to set up a leadership council, Sajith opposed the move. Today, it is reported that he is willing to be No 2 to Wickremesinghe provided that the Leadership Council be abolished. He would support Wickremesinghe in a presidential campaign and this would certainly boost the UNP’s chances. However, all things considered, it won’t be enough to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sajith would want Ranil to be the candidate of a common opposition, contesting under the elephant symbol. That’s a recipe for keeping out other sections of the opposition, effectively strengthening the incumbent. It doesn’t take much to figure out that No 2 can make a bid to be No 1 should No 1 lose out on yet another presidential bid. It would be a win-win situation. One thing is clear in this history: inconsistency. It makes him just another ordinary politician.
There is another problem. Sajith doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of gratitude. The man he wants to oust, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was one of the few who supporter his father Ranasinghe Premadasa during the dark days of the impeachment motion of 1991. Karu Jayasuriya was similarly a staunch supporter of his father. In politics there are no permanent friends or enemies, this is known. Nevertheless Sajith’s machinations at various times against Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya have been crude and motivated by greed.
As of now, gene-right notwithstanding, Sajith Premadasa’s politics can be described as one of taking IOUs from the rich to dole out money to the poor. If he ever comes to power there will be many waiting in line to cash these checks.
There is nothing to say that he won’t change, become better and acquire some statesmanlike qualities of course. Then again, he’s close to 50 now and no longer ‘young’. Maturity ought to have made an appearance by now. As of now, therefore, his moves can only be read as outcomes of other people’s plans, designed for their benefit and not necessarily Sajith’s or the UNP’s.
Genes count in South Asia, yes. Not all, though. And not all the time. Sajith Premadasa looks like one not destined to live up to genetic potential. Unless of course he becomes consistent, obtains a better understanding of himself and learns that although gratitude might not add up to much, it can tip the scales in his favor. Time will tell.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com