21 June, 2024

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The Exit Of The Old Guard & The Arrival Of The New  

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

President Wickremesinghe’s political days are numbered in more ways than one. There are virtually none left for Mahinda Rajapaksa. The oldest of them, R. Sampanthan, is under pressure to formally retire. Vasudeva Nanayakkara has not been heard in a while, but he too belongs to the cohort of politicians who entered parliament in 1970 or 1977. They respectively came from Colombo, Hambantota, Trincomalee and Galle/Kiriella, and belonged to the UNP, the SLFP, the TULF and the LSSP – four parties that spanned the entire political spectrum of Sri Lanka in the 20th century. Vasudeva Nanayakkara was 30 years old, and Mahinda Rajapaksa was 25, when they entered parliament in 1970. Ranil Wickremesinghe was 28 and Sampanthan was 44 when they entered parliament seven years later in 1977. As they are on their way out they are also symptomatic of the state of their political parties, if not the state of politics in the country. Not to mention the economy.  

Not many are waiting in the wings to replace them. The public focus is on two men: Anura Kumara Dissanayake (55) and Sajith Premadasa (56). The latter leads the SJB with a larger representation in parliament and is the leader of the opposition. The former has only two JVP/NPP MPs with him in parliament, but is steadily rising in political popularity in the country. Both are untested in national leadership, and they are waiting for their turn at a time when the country is waiting to overcome the most trying challenges it has ever faced in its modern history. 

Historical Parallels

Historical parallels may not mean much but are useful to assess the seriousness of the current challenges and the scarceness of national capacity to meet them. Politics in 1970 and 1977 was both energizing and optimistic with two opposing visions that were advocated by impressively talented leaders. The public was engaged and had clear alternative choices. Neither is the case now. That does not mean either Dissanayake or Premadasa cannot mobilize their organizations and rise to the occasion. It only means that the onus is on them to show what they are made of and what teams they will assemble for the next parliament – teams with depths of talent and dedication, and nothing of the corrupt and the incompetent. The time for demonstration is now, well in advance of whatever election that comes first sometimes next year. 

Another parallel can be drawn from the time of independence when political competition was between DS Senanayake, who was emerging as the elder statesman – from being nobody to somebody, as Kumari Jayawardena has chronicled, and the young Turks of the time – SWRD Bandaranaike, GG Ponnambalam and Philip Gunawardena. For nearly 15 years preceding independence, the three men, with remarkable abilities and even more remarkable ambitions, had been stalking DS Senanayake to wrest control of the country’s political leadership. Each was on his own path that was exclusive to himself either egotistically or ideologically. Yet their politics was of a high order.

SWRD was the centrist of the three, jostling for position both within and outside the orbit of DS Senanayake, discretely building his independent base through the Sinhala Maha Sabha, and being strategically ambivalent in confronting colonial rule. GG Ponnambalam was unabashedly pro-colonial and was trying to project himself as the representational champion of the minorities with his technically sound but politically untenable 50-50 cry. Philip Gunawardena was the implacable anti-imperialist, cantankerous by nature, but yet the inspirational leader of Sri Lanka’s first political party, the LSSP. 

What was common to all three men was that each was convinced that he was far more able and equipped for political leadership than DS Senanayake during what were clearly the twilight years of colonial rule. But the wily old Senanayake bested them all. Bandaranaike and Ponnambalam became Ministers in the first Senanayake cabinet, although Mr. Bandaranaike would soon leave to set up his own political party, the SLFP that became his vehicle to power in 1956. 

Ponnambalam dazzled for a while as Minister of Industries and as the defence lawyer of the government in parliament (NM once called him the “Devil’s Advocate’ from Jaffna”), but his political fortunes dwindled quickly after DS Senanayake’s sudden death in 1952. Philip became isolated even within the left movement and except for a brief cameo as a consequential cabinet minister in 1956, his early promises gradually evaporated. 

Contrast DS Senanayake and his detractors with Ranil Wickremesinghe and his rivals. Nothing more needs to be said. Or contrast the promises of that time with the predicaments of today. The predicaments that our current contenders for power, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa, have to deal with had their origins in the political questions that preoccupied the time of independence and the years after it. The 20th century legacies of the constitution, the ethnic question and the economy are haunting us still.  

20th Century Legacies

First, there was and there is, the constitution. Independence arrived on the back of a new constitution, the Soulbury Constitution; rather, the Jennings Constitution. Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama recently described it as the finest of the three constitutions we have had over 75 years. The late Newton Gunasinghe, Marxist and Socialist, used to say the same thing. Here we are today debating the possibility of reverting back to parliamentary democracy that characterized the Jennings Constitution, and jettisoning the current presidential system that is enshrined by the Jayewardene Constitution. 

Second, and inextricably tied to the constitution was, and is, the ethnic question. The Jennings Constitution was predicated on what AJ Wilson called the “communal compact,” a supposed understanding between the leaders of the different ethnic communities about the constitutional safeguards for minority rights. The safeguards were primarily Section 29 of the Constitution, ethno-neutral public sector hiring, and the formula for political representation based on population and electoral areas. As it turned out, the safeguards were breached almost from the morrow of independence. The judiciary was independent, but often sided with the government on constitutional questions affecting minority rights.  

The first breach was the disenfranchisement of the estate Tamils soon after independence. The mass of stateless people in the estates along with the mass of settlers from the south colonizing the eastern province under state sponsorship, totally invalidated the constitutional formula for minority representation in parliament. Then came the language question and the opening of the ethnic floodgates first in public sector hiring and later in university admissions. The 1972 and 1978 constitutions simply removed the pretense of safeguards that the 1947 constitution had included in its provisions. 

The 13th Amendment to the current Constitution belatedly addressed the earlier breaches, but there is more debate about 13A-plus than there is real commitment to implementing what is already part of the constitution. In addition to the 13th Amendment, the citizenship question of the estate Tamils has also been ‘resolved.’ There was never going to be an equitable resolution after nearly half the estate population was repatriated to India, but there is now some finality to it. 

It so happens that this month of November marks the bicentenary of the first arrival of the ancestors of the estate Tamils as indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu. The have been commemorations and celebrations throughout this year under the rubric, “Naam 200” (We are 200), but the most recent one at the Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo would seem to have bordered on the farcical. 

The event was organized under the auspices of Jeevan Thondaman in his capacity as Minister of Water Supply and Estate Infrastructure Development (another instance of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s bizarre mixing of ministerial portfolios). More famously, the young Thondaman is the grandson of the CWC patriarch, the late S. Thondaman. The event had more to do with who was invited and who was excluded, and less to do with the people on the estates. And the invitations were selectively extended to the BJP in India and the BJP put on a better show in Colomo than it could ever do in Chennai.

The resolution of the citizenship of the estate Tamils, the emergence of territorially defined Muslim political parties, and the exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils after 1983, have transformed the ethnic question from what it was for most of the 20th century. The Sri Lankan Tamils are no longer the ‘majority’ in the minority question. The tri-lingual fluency of the Muslims and the estate Tamils is also transforming the linguistic landscape of the island. The retirement of the TNA leader, R. Sampanthan will create its own unique vacuum. President Wickremesinghe tried to fast track reconciliation, but his efforts were undone because his motives were self-serving. 

It was known then that it was Sampanthan who persuaded Ranil Wickremesinghe to support Maithripala Sirisena as the common opposition candidate for the 2015 presidential election. Now, there are no indications as to which way the minority political parties will sway, and what offers will be made by Anura Kumara Dissanayake or Sajith Premadasa to make them (minorities) sway their way. 

The elephant in the room of course is the economy. It was the most promising of all the prospects at the time of independence. Today it is the biggest burden on the country and its future. It is not just the abstract economic fundamentals that are bad, the people are fundamentally hurting. Ranil Wickremesinghe often brags about the state of the economy under DS Senanayake, even though much of the economy at that time was leftover from colonial rule. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, on the other hand, once blamed the entire political history after independence for the economic mess that Gotabaya Rajapaksa singlehandedly created. 

Mr. Dissanayake’s rhetoric was obviously over the top although it was understandable in the context of his insisting two years ago that the JVP/NPP was ready to take over the leadership of the country. Now that Mr. Dissanayake is becoming a real contender for power, the people will expect to hear from him as much substance as political rhetoric. There will be similar expectations and pressures on Sajith Premadasa who is currently trailing the JVP leader by some distance in opinion polling. It is always a long way to power. The journey is still starting. 

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Latest comments

  • 7
    0

    It is a very good analysis of the historical development of politics by westernised colonised political institutions and leadership which should end and a new era for Sri Lankans have to create whether they like it or not. The people should understand that our political and religious leadership have failed in their duties to bring peace to this country or better economic environment to the people or good relationship with international partners. Politicians should understand that the power given to them by people are not to create any divisions between different cultures internally or different international partners. Of course, the mess created by the leaders in past need more challenges and more sacrifices by politicians, religious leaders and people.

  • 7
    2

    “Mr. Dissanayake’s rhetoric was obviously over the top although it was understandable in the context of his insisting two years ago that the JVP/NPP was ready to take over the leadership of the country”

    His answers to audiences on his recent round-robin tours and stage presentations across the United States have blown my mind time and time again. He is right in arguing about the nature of the various breakdowns in our society, however, how can such a novice overcome all these huge issues left by many big parties….. that blocks my head? A new era begins where people don’t know enough but are easily taken for a ride…………..
    .
    . One of his ways to boost the sluggish economy was to produce graphene from graphite and use local cinnamon for export. However, these are not easy and productive within a few months for a nation that obviously lacks patience and cooperation, hard working nature than any other comparable nation. Our people are not at all realistic about their productivity.

    A manufacturing-oriented economy is a fairy tale for a country where ordinary people are more lazy than others in Southeast Asian countries. Dr Harsha de Silva is always right, we should open our borders to other countries so that they can enter into bilateral and multilateral treaties and agreements with us easily. #

  • 8
    10

    When Covid hit us ranil who knows everything said that we should make ventilators.

    No other country leader acted like he knew all the answers.

    This guy is a total joke.

    Now he is trying to fix Cricket

    • 4
      2

      The position of Rajan Philips that ‘inextricably tied to the constitution was, and is, the ethnic question’, needs another look.
      The Sangha and the chaotic resurgence of religiosity is the elephant in the room, not the economy.
      ‘the disenfranchisement of the estate Tamils, along with the mass of settlers from the south colonizing the eastern province under state sponsorship’, rank among the top of the causes of our ills.
      .
      AKD would be far better than Sajith. But, neither would be good enough to put Sangha in its place.

    • 7
      0

      “This guy is a total joke.”
      Which other leader is not?

      • 0
        0

        S J ,

        My worry is about the future of those resting in cemeteries as
        the olds are already packing in secret !

  • 3
    3

    “The Exit Of The Old Guard & The Arrival Of The New”
    Do the ‘new and young’ have much that is new to offer?
    *
    Sajith? He is not even a shadow of the old man RP.
    *
    If AKD (not our mutual friend) is to continue with Wijeweera’s policies on key issues like devolution of power what difference can he make?
    *
    You cannot be serious about Vasu. The only alternative left leader in the LSSP tradition retired hurt by getting close to RW.
    *
    Sampanthan? The inability of the TULF to retire him a least by 2009, when he lied that the TULF did not ask for a separate state shows its bankruptcy. The TULF has no policy worth talking about. It is the TULF that should retire together with Sampanthan.

    • 3
      3

      With AKD or SP country will be in worst situation. If the country is to have a chance a new leader is required.

      • 4
        4

        AKD s will definitely be the second episode of Gota-baya. Anyways let people try it. Not only debts restructuring but society rebuilding is the need of the hour. People are easily misled by youtubers’ 🙄 hearsays. Latter is the latest curse 🤬 of the lankens. ICC ban on srilanka reveal the danger of YOUTUBES to the public soon.

      • 1
        3

        D
        Not leader but leadership.

    • 6
      0

      Do the new and young have much that is new to offer?
      Even get rid of the old who proved undoubtedly they are not worth to govern this land and they are not good to the country is a great change.

      • 0
        0

        Then what?

  • 4
    0

    The “CRISIS” in politics as seen today has brought in a crystal clear line of demarcation between TWO camps. (1) The “GROUP” of political parties (UNP, SLFP, LSSP/CP, NLSP – (in coalition) presently SLPP, the newly break-away group in SJB) and their members who alternatively ruled the country for a little more than SIX DECADES (from 1956 -2023). (2) A “GROUP”- newly formed as National Peoples Power (NPP) along with JVP and Scores of other political/social groups.

    This is a unique situation, in that, the PEOPLE have to make a CLEAR CHOICE between TWO Groups.

    The “Group” I mentioned in (1) is a TIME TESTED and FAILED conglomerate that ruled the country for nearly Seven Decades and the PEOPLE have had both “Sweet” as well as more “Sour/Bitter Tastes” that have RUINED their lives of all old and young. This “Group” MUST be REMOVED because it is no more a CHOICE.

    The ONLY and the BEST choice would be the “Group” I mentioned in (2) above. Of course, this is the LAST attempt, and as such making that “Choice” is very critical. Therefore, that decision must be WELL-INFORMED, STUDIED, and FUTURISTIC to turn a leaf in our lives. Hope for the BEST.

  • 1
    1

    if this is the “NEW” I suppose you can say thing country will be a hopeless basket case.

    From what I see and think this country has to get rid of this massive useless government service , CEB CPC ,Airlines Railways in a strategic manner. I was hoping Ranil would do it but to be honest I see a lot of words and no actions. The rest will be even worse as inorder to get elected that will have to promise the sun and the moon .

    It all looks hopeless to me .

  • 8
    0

    Enough about Motherland’s wretched political history!

    It is only talked about again and again, over and over, because the oldsters and their descendants want to remembered, desire remembrance, and want to keep their descendants ruling forever.

    Political question also loves to creep in, together with the estate Tamils issue. No, we never needed the tea!

    Actually, it’s all about the political question. And our Sinhala leaders suck into it, indulging themselves all the way….all things that have that have dragged our country down for over a 100 years.

    A complete overhaul with a fresh new perspective should erupt, with ADK leading the way!

    • 4
      1

      National question, I mean.

    • 0
      0

      Ramona,
      “A complete overhaul with a fresh new perspective should erupt, with ADK leading the way!”
      Yes, I agree with you totally. But I wish I knew who ADK is….

      • 1
        0

        old codger

        “But I wish I knew who ADK is….”

        The JVP old guards are holding Hammer and Sickle over his head which could be used any time ….. Even ramona therese fernando may not be able save him.

        • 0
          2

          NV,
          Hammer and sickle means unity and egalitarianism between the working classes, of which all will be of working class with no one sitting in idle glee (or working towards that end) making money over the hardworking – suffering-Lankan-worker with the aid of water-cannons, poison gas, truncheons, torture chambers, and death.

          In modern terms it means Motherland working with the capitalistic countries to ease the burden and shame of our long suffering hardworking-Lankan-masses, thus building up from ground level to create an ingenious, humane, and normal society in line with international standards.

  • 8
    4

    It looks inevitable that AKD will be easily elected, with a huge majority.
    .
    May he remain the same straightforward, simple man that he is now. It won’t be easy for him; may he succeed so well in his task, that when he he hands over to his successor ten years from now, that successor will have an easier time.
    .
    Panini Edirisinhe (NIC 483111444V)

    • 6
      1

      Dear S-M: I think it is time to distance ourselves from “Person Veneration” and change to a “Cooperative” entity that works on a “Multisensory” human base sharing very differently than the “Five Sensory” humans. All along our biggest mistake was “The Man” reliance (e.g. DS, Dudley, SWRD, JRJ, RP, Chandrika, Mahinda, MY3, and now RW) What have we achieved and where are we today?

      These “Five Sensory” people work on the basis of “EGO” and do not work on “Sharing”. On the contrary, “Multisensory” persons have no “EGO” (I am the man), and “Sharing” is spontaneous and calls to be thought out, such as planning for the future of a worthy endeavor and that arises from the “Heart”.that does not withhold. However, I do not discount the need to have a “Leader” but that leader must be a “Co-operative Entity”. So I would suggest everyone rate “AKD” as a “Multisensory” person who belongs to a “Co-Operate” entity which is called NPP.

  • 7
    0

    “Life is a sieve through which our anarchy strains resolve itself into words. Chaos is the score on which reality is written…”. — “Delirium of Disorder” — punk band Bad Religion

    “The Exit Of The Old Guard” …….. GROBR

    “& The Arrival Of The New” …….. Hope? New dawn? ……… What odds do Ladbrokes, PointsBet, Sumathipala, ………. offer?

    “The weather will continue bad. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves.”

    Tropic of Cancer: “It was because to me cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch.”


    It’s been a long
    A long time coming, but I know
    A change gon’ come
    Oh yes, will it?

    We live in hope ……. although living in hope is what kills us all ……… in the end.

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