By Mohamed Harees –
“At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this? And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?” — Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic
In ‘Night of Camp David’, a political thriller from 1965, written by the late journalist Fletcher Knebel – “the grandfather of the modern political thriller”, the prospect of a President as the commander-in-chief who has lost command of reality was terrifyingly portrayed. The story wrestles with a long-standing debate, never fully resolved, over how the nation’s political system can and should respond if there are suspicions that a commander in chief has become mentally incapacitated. People had all but forgotten this book until Bob Woodward namechecked it in the New York Times in the pre-pub press for his book Fear: Trump in the White House. The Trump Presidency was a good enough reason to give it another day in the sun.
Sri Lanka too is at a similar tipping point. Today, the powers that be in Sri Lanka also, appear to have lost command of reality, with the whole establishment being incapacitated. Economy and the Rupee have tumbled down while Covid casualty figures are shooting up without control. Like a well-oiled family business, Basil was brought in to ‘save’ the nation’s finances but to no avail – a move that further tightened the Rajapakse family’s grip over the island nation. In today’s Sri Lanka, the Rule of Law and fundamental preconditions of a democratic order, viz, an independent judiciary, enforceable rights and freedoms of media have been marred and shattered by an unprecedented centralization of power in the Executive Presidency, the continuation of anti-terrorism laws and the militarization of civil life including corona management strategy as well. Gotabaya ‘Sir’ has gone too far off the track even for his most stalwart loyalists. The strongman who was made more stronger via 20A, and a 2/3rd majority in Parliament and whom the people wanted, to guarantee their safety and bring back economic growth, has today turned into a clown and puppet, in the public eyes.
Gotabaya stated at the start of his tenure that ‘public opinion will measure my success or failure’. ‘Sir fail’ ,which has become a very popular meme in the social media, sadly but neatly sums up the public mood! Sri Lanka began 2020 with a newly elected president whose oft quoted 69 lakhs, consisting mostly of Sinhalese Buddhist supporters claimed would transform the country, based on his election manifesto Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour, which appeared to capture his acolytes’ nationalist aspirations. The country however ended the year, questioning his self-proclaimed technocratic and military credentials as his government failed to prevent a second wave of COVID-19 infections. As expected, as the economic conditions worsened and the regime’s popularity tanked, Gotabaya and his hyper-nationalist entourage appears to have been tempted to whip up ethnoreligious mayhem to mask the political blowback from COVID-19. His hollow reign has thus led the nation, down a path of executive abuses, human tragedies, abandonment of the Constitution, and the erosion of due process and liberty.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is ‘not a traditional politician’
Gotabaya emerged as the man for the top job, exploiting the national security fears the electorate were entertaining, immediately after the disastrous Easter attacks in April 2019. Upon his assumption of office after a historic win, one newspaper reported of him, quoting thus the views of the cross section of the people, under the above sub heading, ‘Known for his no-nonsense approach, Sri Lanka’s new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, is a “man of action” with little tolerance for inefficiency. He is always in a hurry to work and deliver. He does not like to waste time unnecessarily at meetings. His workstyle is like that of a school teacher. “He is like a school teacher, if the math is correct, he will give you 100 marks, but, if you resort to nonsense then he will land you in trouble. He is a workaholic who is always punctual, and is committed to any task given to him, which is very different when compared with many other politicians. He believes in taking advice from professionals, who have a clear understanding depending on the matter. He definitely is not a traditional politician“. To Sri Lanka’s misfortune, the nation once again got fooled by a ‘Cardboard Sando’ sans no character. After close to two years in office, Gotabaya has been at the butt end of funny memes and talks, a NATO (No action; talk only) character; not even coming close to any of the above expectations of the public, who so eagerly vested him with unbridled power. Based on his leadership style and performance, some analysts described him as narcissist.
American psychologist and author John Gartner, formerly of Johns Hopkins University, sounded the alarm about Trump, calling on him narcissist, who needed to be removed from office because he was “psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of president.” The petition garnered thousands of signatures. Narcissism can be described as a grandiose sense of self-importance. Their confidence and larger-than-life attitude, after all, have propelled them to the top. Narcissistic leaders often emerge during times of crisis where followers seek the leadership of a charismatic, confident and creative chief. To the outside world, narcissists appear self-assured, charming and likeable upon first glance. For this reason, they often emerge as leaders.
However, important research has shown the thin veneer of these qualities becomes apparent over time, and there’s often a stark contrast between a narcissist’s perceived leadership abilities and their actual abilities. The narcissistic leader’s weaknesses come to the surface. While their hunger for power and admiration may yield positive results in the beginning, in the long run, narcissistic leaders are bound to leave damaged systems and relationships in their wake. Identifiable negative traits of narcissists include sensitivity to criticism, poor listening skills, lack of empathy, intense desire to compete, arrogance, feelings of inferiority, need for recognition and superiority, hypersensitivity, anger, amorality, irrationality, inflexibility and paranoia.
These traits generally seem to fit Gotabaya. Also, while narcissistic leaders are great at impressing others by radiating confidence, the critical question is whether they are actually capable of navigating a crisis. In fact, research paints a rather pessimistic picture. Managing the Corona crisis in Sri Lanka was a case in point. Narcissistic leaders often prioritize their own egos over the well-being of others. They are known to disregard social norms, ignore expert advice, and distort the truth to justify their actions. When they are confronted with their mistakes, narcissistic leaders may lash out and place the blame on others. Their lack of empathy enables them to continue down this path.
Many of the countries that delivered some of the worst responses to the pandemic—the United States, the United Kingdom, and Brazil—were all characterized by exceptionalism: a view of themselves as outliers, often fuelled by a narcissistic leader. Exceptionalism can lead to lack of preparedness and complacent attitudes, prevent collaboration with global health agencies, and limit opportunities to learn from the experience of other countries. In Sri Lanka, the disastrous militarization of the Covid strategy and the forced cremation policy were other cases in point in this regard.
Racism and narcissism appear to stand at the core of Gotabaya’s government policies. Where racism and narcissism come together is in the constant urge to maximise advantage over others and satiate the desire for greatness and wealth. The Rajapaksas chose ‘Sinhala-Buddhist maximalism’ as their strategic base to launch their political campaign. So long as a majority of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority believe that Rajapaksas are the champions of their race and religion, Rajapaksa rule will stay on. But if economic woes continue to exacerbate (as they are at present), they may gradually detach themselves. However, slavish mentality still reigns in the Sri Lankan voters’ psyche; thus, the detachment may not be a reality in the short to medium term. Still, the Rajapaksa clan will need or even manufacture new enemies and threats for survival, even at the cost of fragmenting the social fabric of the nation along racial and religious lines. Precise the reason why the prospect of real peace or genuine reconciliation in Sri Lanka, will be a distant dream under a Rajapaksa reign, who will use their twisted versions of patriotism and national sovereignty to make the people believe that they will stand or fall with Rajapaksa Rule. Though difficult, this false thinking need to be debunked.
Sri Lanka appears to be inching towards a more authoritarian security politics — governance controlled centrally , leaving very little room for democratic dissident voices and in addressing the enduring grievances of minority communities in the country. Signs are also clear that this Island nation is on the way to become a pariah state, with the likelihood of facing international isolation, sanctions or even an invasion by nations who find its policies, actions, or its very existence unacceptable. History shows that no totalitarian regime lasts for ever – the Rajapaksa regime and Gotabaya Rajapaksa are unlikely to be the exceptions The question is what damage will be done to democracy and the country, by the time they go.
In such a scenario Sri Lanka is facing today, with a narcissist Rajapakse at the helm of affairs, colluders like the moral cowards are the most dangerous for constitutional democracy. They recognise all the signs of tyranny, the trampling of all that is good and fragile in the polity, but they fall silent and/or have no courage to exit. They stay on and slavishly keep the regime running. They stay on because they are too afraid to protest or leave, not necessarily because of the leader’s vindictiveness, but because, through years of not taking principled stands, complicity or slavish mentality has become a habit. These are the ones who when asked to bend, crawl. They are the little men and women of the political system that keep it working, that get inured to the growing danger of tyranny and choose to do nothing. This class of colluders, the moral cowards, see the hazard but prefer to wait for others to protest and storm the Bastille. They are the people watching the protests taking place in the street below from the window on the third floor. This habit must be broken. That is why the progressive workers’ movements and vibrant human rights watchdogs are so important in Sri Lanka today.
As Gandhi said, ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’. It is therefore important that the civil Society take the lead and intellectuals including the lawyers need to act to stop the rot. The public will have to act and say “enough is enough”. Sri Lanka thus has been made to float like a rudderless boat rather than a well navigated ship with no specific destination in mind. In this context , it behoves on the people of Sri Lanka to say ‘enough is enough’ at least belatedly and come out of their apathy to stand up to political dictators and narcissists, hold the undisciplined government to account and cleaning up the stables. Public activism is paramount to change Sri Lanka to become a “a rainbow nation” and never again be seen as “the skunk of the world”(as Mandela once referred to South Africa).