By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
When J. R. Jayewardene went back to “Braemar” at Ward Place, his private residence, after leaving the Presidency, he noted ruefully in his memoirs that there was hardly anybody to meet him the next day. Chandrika Kumaratunga too complained that there was no one to put even a spoonful of sugar in her cup of tea once she fell from grace and returned to Horogolla, her ancestral home. Of course, this ”King Lear” syndrome has been enacted in every corner of the earth and it is not peculiar to Sri Lankan leaders. Power attracts mostly the undesirables whose sole objective is to exploit the system for their narrow gains. They swiftly change loyalties and move over to the next power-holder abandoning their former patron.
But there is a remarkable exception seen in the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The stretch of Galle Road running from Matara to Kataragama is chock-a-block in Tangalle, holding up traffic all the way to his “Carlton” residence. Buses from all corners of the Sinhala-dominated electorates are parked around the area, with thousands pouring out to mob the place demanding the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Police and Mahinda Rajapaksa are both having trouble controlling the crowds. It has become a kind of a political pilgrimage to pay respects to a leader who had served them in their worst hour of need. Visitors from Colombo are taken aback when they encounter the crowds mobbing the place.
Once Mahinda Rajapaksa was heard telling the crowds to clear the road to ease the passage for those going to Kataragama. But the people milling round him hardly took any notice. When he urges people not to cry saying that this is not the time to cry they cry some more. The adulation for the defeated President is unprecedented. Ministers of his Cabinet and other well-known faces manage to squeeze their way into “Carlton”. But the lesser known faces find it difficult to go in as the Police check them and refuse to let them in unless the word comes from inside.
Rajapaksa election campaign|File photo
This mass reaction has never been sighted in any post-election scenario ever before. At least not to my knowledge. This signifies some notable political features in the post-election phase. First, it reveals the extent to which Mahinda Rajapaksa has won the hearts and minds of the grateful Sinhala electorate. Second, it means that he is living formidable force in politics unlike Chandrika Bandaranaike, or Ranil Wickremesinghe who were written off as has-beens with no dynamic charisma to come back on their own steam. Third, he is still in command of a sizeable political bloc within the Parliament with around 130 MPs on his side as of now. His weight still has some clout. If the promised glory of “100 days” is to reach fruition the votes at his command will be critical.
Furthermore, even his worst detractors concede that his image is now embedded deeply in the psyche of the Sinhala electorate. The buses that are parked near “Carlton” have come from remote villages. The peasantry, whose standards of living have risen – just not by the construction of roads etc – feel that they are instinctively indebted to him for restoring their lost heritage. They can identify with his “Mahinda Chintanaya” more than any other ideology imported from the West. Apparently, they seemed to have bonded with Mahinda Rajapaksa as no other leader had done before.
He has transformed the village on a scale larger than the “Gam Peraliya” of Martin Wickremesinghe. He pulled Sri Lanka out of the past into the modernity of the 21st century. His successors, whatever route they take, can succeed only if they pursue the path of developing from where he has left off, whether in politics, economics, inter-ethnic relations. and, of course, foreign relations. He has laid down a solid base for the future and any attempt to reverse the history he leaves behind will have to pay a heavy price.
Even his opponent, Maithripala Sirsena, in the last stages of the campaign, came more closer to him than he intended initially when he broke away from the Rajapaksa-wing of the SLFP. Under pressure from attacks of the government Sirisena was reaffirming Mahinda Rajapaksa political culture than the hyped up issues of constitutional changes. Despite the reduction in numbers at the election the fact Mahinda Rajapaksa retained his grip on the Sinhala electorates guarantees that he is still a dynamic force which can rise and gather momentum against the forces that defeated him.
His peaceful and graceful going away was clearly a reaffirmation of the democratic culture which is now ingrained in the Sri Lankan political culture. His reign, as a whole, can be considered as a monumental example of the commitment of the nation to democratic principles. Though fears were raised about the drift towards authoritarianism – it has been there ever since Mrs. Bandaranaike took office, particularly with the Marxists in her bandwagon – it is inconceivable that Sri Lanka will ever tolerate a dictatorship. Sri Lanka took to democracy like the way duck takes to water since 1931 with the introduction of universal franchise. Neither right-wing military coups nor left-wing uprisings has been successful in derailing democracy. Jayadeva Uyangoda, a political pundit of the Colombo University, aired the opinion that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s graceful exit is a triumphant affirmation of democracy. That is true though it has become a routine practice now. The greatest signifier of deep-rooted democracy, however, is in the historic fact that Sri Lanka fought a 33-year-old war against “the deadliest terrorists of the world” within a democratic framework.
If Sri Lanka could come through such destabilizing upheavals with democracy intact then it is nothing but fear-mongering to raise cries of dictatorships at the first sign of strengthening legislation to meet exigencies of the time. Dr. N. M. Perera, a leading constitutional authority, was the first to raise the fears of a dictatorship rising through the De Gaullian constitution introduced by J. R. Jayewardene. But it has retained its essential democratic character despite various attempts to consolidate the powers of the Executive President. This can be attributed to the vigilance of the people who jealously guard their rights and privileges. In fact, in an early assessment of the Sri Lankan political culture, Prof. A. J. Wilson argued that the success of democracy in Sri Lanka is due to the spirit of tolerance in Buddhism. The emphasis on the factors that protect, preserve and promote democracy may differ. What is undeniable is that there is an in-built institutional and people-based mechanism embedded in the political culture to preserve and protect democracy. That is one of the remarkable and commendable characteristic of the Sri Lankan political history.
Our restless experiments with a variety of constitutions alone indicate our commitment to preserve democracy through the best tried and tested institutional/constitutional structures. Besides, the critically defining factor of any democracy is in handing over power non-violently. If democracy is the triumph of the popular will of the people then it can be assessed, established and enshrined only through the non-violent process of electing the alternative government with the consent of the people. A violent imposition of state power runs against the popular will of the people. It is also possible for a fascist dictatorship to emerge from the popular vote as in the case of Hitler’s Germany. But it ceases to be a democracy the moment it take away the right of the people to seek an alternative through the non-violent process expressed in the secret ballot. Democratic institutions, conventions and practices are in place to protect the critical fundamental of transferring power non-violently. Politics is all about power and if the mechanism to hand over power to the electoral victors is denied then that marks the beginning of the end of democracy.
The accusations made against Mahinda Rajapaksa of being authoritarian loses its credibility once he held one of the most peaceful elections for the people to express their will. It was further confirmed when he accepted the will of the people and handed over power non-violently. Bowing to the will of the people is not the conduct of dictator. Besides, there isn’t a single democratic state that has not resorted to authoritarian rule at one or the time in their history. But the ultimate test of a democracy finds its intrinsic value only if the state retains its norms to test the will of the people through a legitimate election. Mahinda Rajapaksea passed the test with flying colours. Those who do not accept this can visit “Carlton” and witness how democracy works the Sri Lankan way.