By Mohamed Harees –
If you fail to honour your people,They will fail to honour you; It is said of a good leader that when the work is done, the aim fulfilled, the people will say, ’We did this ourselves’ ~ Lao Tzu, 604–531 B. C., Founder of Taoism, Tao Te Ching
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Defence Secretary in the former MR regime became the 7th Executive President. He needs to be congratulated for his unprecedented victory, receiving more than 52% of the nearly 16 million possible votes, defeating his nearest rival Sajith Premadasa by about 10 percentage points. Although analysts attributed populism with the crucial voting bloc: Sinhalese Buddhists as a major contributing factor for his victory, Gota, as he was commonly called ,upon his massive victory promised to be a President for all Sri Lanka’s races and religions and tweeted ‘As we usher in a new journey for Sri Lanka, we must remember that all Sri Lankans are part of this journey’, indicating his resolve to be made his historic victory an inclusive one as much as possible. Sajith who did relatively well in Tamil speaking areas in the North and East in contrast, conceded defeat in a gentlemanly manner. Despite, Gota’s lack of political experience(in parliament or in other representative bodies), his result oriented track record as a top level military cum civil officer in times of war may have served in part as an “outsider” appeal that ultimately contributed to his success.
Be it as it may, according to the Election Commission the contest was, however also one of the worst ever for hate speech and misinformation and partiality in terms of media coverage. Therefore, Post- election; the challenge before the new President will be how far he will be able to provide transformational leadership with a national mind-set at a crucial time in the nation’s history, without being a tribal leader, blindly caving into the demands of his populist electorate, which led to his superb feat. History will ultimately judge him with toothcomb precision, how he set about doing this task of healing past wounds and building the broken nation in the Post-21-04 era, with missionary zeal as he promised he would.
The track record of the new incumbent in this office – Gota, has been largely controversial, ever since he set about to provide leadership, during the regime of his brother MR to end an (‘what was called) unwinnable war at that time. He, along with his brother MR, proved to the amazement of the world long fatigued by the menace of terrorism that it is possible to beat even the most ruthless terrorist organization, provided there is both political and administrative will, by defeating the Tigers. However his credibility suffered immensely among the minorities particularly mainly because of the rights abuse allegations from the final days of the war against the Tigers, and for acting as a patron saint to hate groups like BBS, which launched a well-orchestrated hate campaign against the Muslims during MR regime, which culminated in the Aluthgama anti-Muslim violence. Nevertheless, both Gota and MR have both etched their names in the hearts of the majority Sinhalese as champions of their cause – with a profile which they now expect from a President who is taking over the mantle of office from a crackpot in the person of Sirisena whose political marriage of convenience with Ranil became the laughing stock of the world; let alone the country. Obviously, the strong leader in Gota thus made him the candidate of their choice at a time when there was (driven) fear among them by hate groups that their race is at risk of extinction as once predicted by Angarika Dharmapala.
The populism which brought Gota to power and the electorate’s preference or demand for a person of Gota’s stature to take over the leadership was not just on account of his track record per se; rather the weak and inefficient Yahapalana leadership of the Sirisena-Ranil duo duly facilitated this too. This was clearly demonstrated in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday tragedy this April, when it was revealed that multitude of intelligence reports were totally ignored at the highest levels of government which would have prevented this tragedy. Further, this government also failed miserably to prosecute any of the so-called Rajapaksa regime bigwigs including MR as well, despite their much publicised promises to such effect, to come to power. Even those who voted for Sajith did so more of as a protest vote against Gotabaya ,with Tamil voters having long indicated a preference against the Rajapaksas, mainly because of the rights abuse allegations from the final days of the war and traditional Muslim vote back being constantly reminded about the hate campaign launched against the Muslims during MR regime . It was a fact however that even during Sirisena-Ranil era, Muslims faced similar attacks and the present rulers themselves like MR, were accused of impunity for racist crimes too. In this context, Gota’s claim for power made sense specially among the majority Sinhalese while there was a growing view that this style of strong leadership properly exercised will also help to curtail all forms of extremism and ensure a climate of security and safety for the minority communities too – the need of the hour.
This was precisely, why Gota’s campaigning heavily on a platform of national security, based on triumphalism arising from his leadership on defeating the Tigers, capitalizing on public outrage at the current government’s mishandling of intelligence reports warning of Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka stuck a chord in the hearts of the majority Sinhalese. During his campaigns, he inter-alia, vowed to take a tough stance on terrorism as President and to bring stability to Sri Lanka, which became an attractive proposition to the Sri Lankan electorate, which was beginning to wake up from decades of terrorist menace; most recently on Easter Sunday. This, along with the struggling economy were enough to allow another Rajapaksa to rise to power. His campaign was also backed by Sinhala Buddhist monks who have called for greater controls to be placed on the Muslim community, who were asked to unfairly assume collective guilt for the Easter Sunday tragedy apparently carried by a Muslim fringe terror group. In this context, the Modi-style impressive election performance without relying on the traditional minority vote bank thus proved how effective this focussed and well-orchestrated campaign, was at the grass root levels of the Sinhala peasantry..
On the other hand, there were widespread fears expressed about his rise to the topmost position of power, in view of his alleged dismal human rights track record as the Defence Secretary in his brother’s government, which then created a climate of fear specially among their political opponents and minorities. It was interesting that he declared his intention to contest in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks. There were also widespread allegations of a crackdown on dissent, with rights activists and journalists subjected to enforced disappearances and oft-mentioned white van disappearance episodes. The curtailment of liberty, democratic rights and freedom of speech, too was commonly experienced during the previous MR regime.
In this context, his opponents and critics both in Sri Lanka and beyond echo the views of what Dr. Saravanamuttu, the executive director CPA, an HR advocacy group says, ‘Sri Lankans had elected “a majoritarian, authoritarian government”. Speaking to New York Times, Asanga Welikala, the director of the Edinburgh Center for Constitutional Law and an expert on Sri Lanka, too opined this view thus: ‘Gotabaya Rajapaksa won this election by leveraging the same hard-line approach to national security and “social discipline” that has propelled populists to power around the world. This is a mandate that rejects reform, democratization, civil freedom and broad tolerance of pluralism’.
Talking of populism, in our own backyard, there is a ready example of Narendra Modi obtaining a similar historic mandate. India’s Modi has been a bellwether for global populism. At that election , the results are astounding, and depressingly showed that religious hatred and sectarian politics can be exploited to lure voters. Mirroring what happened in Sri Lanka in this Presidential elections, in India too, while we cannot ignore the epic lies, obfuscation, jingoism and hate that the BJP used against Indian Muslims and Pakistan to win the election which led Modi to power, we also have to acknowledge that the opposition effectively failed (like Sri Lanka) to call Modi’s bluff and expose his failures on every front. Hindu nationalism is a major plank of the BJP, just like Sinhala Buddhist nationalism for those connected to the highest levels of SLPP. Many analysts expected Modi to push a more aggressive Hindu nationalist agenda, and it became a reality when the controversial supreme court decision came up regarding the issue of the construction of a Hindu temple at the site of a destroyed mosque in the city of Ayodhya.
Anti-minority hate lobby has been doing overtime to drive fear among the largely peaceful Sinhala Buddhist population about the ‘other’ whether Tamils, Muslims and even Sinhala Christians. The social media as well as even religious places have reportedly become a source of hate peddling to infuse hate among the youth and school children too. All these moves led to the populist wave which brought Gota to power. The continuation of this trend could unsettle the minorities who have already faced numerous hate incidents in the Post-war history. It is the duty of the new President to re-assure them and make them feel inclusive. It will be a big challenge however to change the mindset of people about what sort of country they want to live in and about the strength of diversity to achieve progress rather than being in a theocratic state.
Transformation is not quick-fixes to difficult problems. Transformation creates something never seen before. Transformational leaders bring something new into being. Such leaders have the ability to connect with the hopes and dreams of people and make them real. Transformational leaders embrace inevitable conflict in their fight for justice and fairness. They are willing to make enemies. They do not shun conflict; they confront it, exploit it, and ultimately embody it. Because transformation is from something familiar to something new, transformational leaders often do not have experience in what they advocate. One of Mandela’s greatest legacies is starting the national healing process from the moment he was released. He set an example of reconciliation and vision for his countrymen and then let them know he expected them to live up to it. Most of the candidates are not transformational leaders. Some are reformers: people who want to improve on existing programs and approaches. Unfortunately, governments in Sri Lanka have had transactional and populist leaders without a vision and personal ruler ship, for most part. The transactional leader turns his entire state into a machine for his own profit and that of a few friends.The ‘will’ of the people and ultimate sovereignty of the people have thus become a myth. Post war Sri Lanka is experiencing rising levels of authoritarianism, denigration of the rule of law, alarming levels of nepotism, cronyism, politically motivated religious violence and disturbing levels of human and financial corruption. Sri Lanka needs a transformation.
The Sri Lankan electorate has now made their overwhelming choice to have a leader of Gota’s stature to put things right. Democracy demands that the majority must be respected. It is imperative that grievances which created the populism wave to power be looked into to make redress. But, overall, there should be revolutionary change in how politics works in this country. No longer should the corrupts, cheats and those with criminal track records be entertained. Parliamentary system should be cleaned up. Gota should therefore rise above his ‘Rajapakse mixed credentials (heroes to some and a corrupt/tyrant/racist to others) cum identity’ and prove that he is more of a transformational leader than a populist. Viyathmaga should not be another fad like ‘Yahapalana’. He should move from personality based politics to policy based politics; from nepotism and corrupt politics to a meritocracy as he promised. He should leave behind his autocratic leanings and facilitate and encourage free discussion and criticism. He should be a leader for all communities rather than play to the gallery. He should tread carefully about religious and cultural sensitivities and not just be blindly guided by those in robes. Only such a leader can provide hope to Sri Lanka which is sadly on its’ way to become a racist and a failed state in the eyes of the world. Only such a leader can provide social justice and empower communities so that they will be partners in progress, and overcome poverty without depending on State hand-outs or benefits.
Many leaders missed golden opportunities of leaving behind a legacy of a revitalized, united Sri Lanka. Gota cannot afford to miss this last opportunity to create an inclusive and a progressive Sri Lanka where all communities will feel safe as equal citizens. It however falls on the shoulders of public activism to hold the rulers to account. The intellectual wave created by NPP should be boosted and NPP intellectual base should not get discouraged by the dismal results, as transforming people’s thinking takes time. This wave of transformation and intellectual activism is the need of the hour.