10 August, 2022


Vijaya Kumaratunga’s Life, Death And The Crisis In Governance In South Asia

By Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Prof Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Madam Chandrika Kumaratunga, distinguished friends and colleagues, I cannot tell you how deeply overwhelmed I am by this occasion.  I feel humbled that I have been asked to speak on as momentous an occasion as this, because what we are in a sense remembering today is not just a historical event.   When I think what characterizes Vijaya Kumaratunga’s life history is that like all great men who sort of touched peoples hearts, he was an event an historical event.  But he also becomes part of a memory, perhaps a suppressed memory.  But he has also become in a sense a metaphor, much larger than, as it were, than historical events that he participated in.  I feel humbled because of the school we are speaking in, is a very distinguished institution in Sri Lanka.

But above all else, I think I want to begin with this point.  Humbled by just the enormity of  what Vijaya Kumaratunga’s life and death reminds us about. I think we can’t even begin to imagine the courage and grace that is required to cope with the kind of loss that his untimely death must have represented not just for his family, but for millions of his fans, political followers and so forth.  What I propose to do in the next few minutes, is perhaps ask a question which I gathered from the quotations that we saw on the screen before I began speaking, and which  he wrestled with all his life.  I think anybody reflecting on Vijaya Kumaratunga’s life and death, cannot but help ask this question.

Why was this person who enacted so many screen plays; who brought so many stories to life;  who gave so many songs an utterance; Why was he unable to complete his own story? Sing his own song to its fullest; Bring his own screen play, to the conclusion that he desired? And then if you ask this question, you cannot help further asking a question, why is it that so many in South Asia, suffered the same fate? What was remarkable about the quotation that was put up there ; when he talks about the fact that when a road is built, we forget the workers.  We do not recognize whose pain and suffering has gone into  building that road. We are all too eager to sit in our comfortable cars and drive on it. But in that very simple quotation, I think he seems to have grasped what I would submit is I think  a fundamental challenge confronting all citizens of South Asia  The fundamental challenge was something that I think  his family, all his followers and fans have in a sense had to viscerally experience.  It can be described in one sentence.  Why is there such a conspiracy of silence around suffering in South Asia?  

States want to encourage that conspiracy of silence because any mention of suffering of any kind, seems to put a question mark on their legitimacy.  But we as citizens as well also in some ways participate in that conspiracy.  Because we say look, though we want to drop this veil of silence, we want to move on.  Let the past be the past.  Whether it is the suffering of  a labourer or whether it is the death of somebody in conflict ; whether it’s the injustice somebody has experienced. We also contribute to that conspiracy in our eagerness to move on, its a very understandable eagerness to move on!

But the fact remains, as we are seeing tonight, as we remember Vijaya Kumaratunga’s life, that even this well meaning attempt to draw a veil of silence over suffering in our midst, is a mere delusion.  It cannot be sustained for too long.  Because the facts come out, the suffering will break through, perhaps in a sad song, or worse perhaps, in violent rebellion.  The  question in a sense is, is it a wise strategy even amongst the well meaning  to pull that veil of silence over that kind of suffering. The one thing that I think is common to all South Asia’s  traditions, I am not a big scholar, but my little knowledge of the Mahavamsa or the Mahabharata, all those great epic texts, is that the central message they gave is everything we do, leaves a trace on this world and that trace cannot  be erased; that makes the world that we inhabit; that makes us who we are.  If we don’t confront what we do,  every single act thoughtfully, it will come back to haunt us in some way or the other.

I think somewhere in the songs and the quotations that we see from the Vijaya Kumaratunga’s life is that exhortation to thoughtfulness.  We can all disagree about many things. But  when you have a kind of cultural inheritance, I think it’s common to South Asian  in many ways, whose core teaching is, you cannot erase the effects of your actions, you cannot run away from them; you cannot throw a veil of  silence over them.  I think it is incumbent upon us, to ask this question or at least confront our own demons, not so that we are stuck in the past, but so that we can be liberated, to lead much more thoughtful lives as citizens.

Now my own view is that I think South Asia is at the cusp of a very exciting revolution. I think it’s a revolution that Vijaya Kumaratunga would have loved, had he lived. I think it’s a momentum of history that he would have liked to see.  But, the success of this revolution depends upon whether we, actually as citizens, recognize that this revolution is taking place.  Whether our political elites, and I am talking loosely of South Asia. Obviously there are differences between Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, but I think there are some common features.  Whether our political elites recognize what is this demand bubbling from below and can they  respond to that demand.

In this brief lecture I just want to mention three facets of this revolution and submit to you that if we thoughtfully understand the logic of these three facets, we can perhaps overcome the kinds of traps that we have been mired in.  South Asia is always described as the perpetually under achieving region  of the world! How can we overcome that sense of under achievement ? And the three facets that I want to touch upon are these.  I will make two or three points about Governance.  I will make a couple of points about the Nature of Our Politics and then a couple of points about South Asia’s Place in the Emerging Global Order. And I think these  three are intimately connected.

I think most of you would agree that across South Asia there is a general discourse where we all say that there is a governance crisis of some kind or  other.  It manifests itself in many different forms:  sometimes conflict; sometimes political paralysis; sometimes as it were the breakdown of institutions.  What is the root source of this crisis?

Now the first source of this crisis, in my of understanding of history, is that in all South Asian states despite all their differences, and I don’t want to minimize these differences, politics always has a local colour. But all our states inherited a certain architecture of governance and that architecture of governance is no longer adequate for the demands of the modern world.

Very briefly put that architecture of governance had four elements.  The first element was what you might call Vertical Accountability.  So how do we hold people accountable in our systems? You hold them accountable, to their boss: bureaucrats to minister, ministers to cabinet, cabinet to Prime Minister, something like that.  If we want change, if we want somebody punished we have to appeal to somebody above them to take action. So the principle of Vertical Accountability.

The second principle that bedevilled all our states was the principle of Relative Secrecy.  Decisions were taken in a relatively opaque manner. There is across the world this right to information revolution which is pressuring governments to make their own workings more transparent.  But when I mean information, I don’t just mean secrets, file notings: what did what minister say and about what subject.  That’s a relatively easy problem.  You can actually fix that by a good right to information law. But I also mean information in a deeper sense. Our states acquired power over us as citizens, because they had the knowledge advantage over us.  They are the ones who gave the measure of what society was going to be like.  The State is the one that gives you statistics: how many people are poor, how many people are educated and so forth.  The State was the producer of a certain form of knowledge.

What’s happened in the last 20 or 25 years?  Civil society’s capacity to generate knowledge, now far exceeds that of the state. If the state wants to suppress a fact, civil society in some way or the other, media or NGO or something, will uncover them.  Twenty years ago in India, if the state did not tell you that your air was polluted or your water was poisoned with arsenic, you didn’t know.  Now some NGO, civil society will tell you.    If the state didn’t tell you that your kids were actually not learning anything in school, some NGO will do their own measurement test and tell you.  So we are in the midst of a great revolution where instead of States taking a society’s measure, societies are beginning to find their own measures. And they are not liking what they are seeing!   So Relative Secrecy is the second principle; this asymmetry of information between state and civil society.

The third principle which is again common to all our states, with some variation was, we had relatively Centralized Systems. We have never ever quite implemented the subsidiarity principle, which talks about what function should be performed, at what level of the state quite appropriately.

The last principle of the state was very Wide Discretion. In all democracies, governments need discretion, otherwise you could have robots running a system.  I am not one of those who believes that governments don’t require discretionary power. But the exercise of that discretionary power has to be justified, to all those who are going to be affected by those decisions. 

Now the one revolution that we are witnessing in South Asia is that any state that wants to govern on these four old principles, is going to find it difficult to govern for very long. Not that these principles are mutually reinforcing, Centralization, secrecy and vertical accountability all go together. Wide discretion where you don’t  have to justify what you do, in terms of public reason and public reason has a specific meaning. Will that decision be justified to all those who are affected by it? These principles formed an interlocking old regime of the state. What states are finding, whether in Pakistan, Bangladesh India perhaps in Sri Lanka as well, is  if your administrative practices presume these old principles you will not be able to govern effectively.

Instead of Vertical Accountability, citizens now want Horizontal Accountability.  They are directly participating, demanding accountability for services.  As we saw in Delhi, just literally, over night, a social media movement  has led to changing laws. So instead of vertical we want horizontal accountability. Instead of secrecy, we want not just transparency as it is narrowly understood, but we also want government to take into account all this information that civil society is generating. Government cannot just bury its head in the sand and say this information doesn’t exit.

Instead of Centralization, we want more of Participatory Governance.  You cannot have participatory societies without participatory governance.  When discretion is exercised, when a government takes a decision, it has to justify it to the satisfaction of those who are affected by it. Any state which now doesn’t understand that the old game is up and believe me states are trying to govern by the old game. Old habits diehard.  They are going to find it very difficult to govern without conflict and without violence.  I think, if our political establishments, our civil society leaders, our religious leaders, if they understood, that there is a new order in the making from below, I think they would respond to it a bit more intelligently rather than  go in for suppression.  So that’s on the State.

On politics I will just mention two things which I think are particularly important, again part of this revolution.  Now being a politician I think is the hardest job in the world. For all our criticisms of politicians  and so forth, it’s an extraordinarily difficult job, catering to demands of constituents and so on and so forth.  But the single biggest challenge a politician has to face is the following :-

Politicians derive their legitimacy from the people, they are a kind of social glue. They are what keep societies together.  How do politicians know what the people want ? What is this thing called Public Opinion that politicians are supposedly responding to ?    My humble submission to you is one of the reasons  we are seeing this kind of new complexity in South Asian politics, is that as you get economic growth, as you get the rise of a new middle class; as you get this expansion of aspirations;  large social changes, it is becoming harder and harder to tell any simple story about what it is that people want.

Often the story we get about what is public opinion is a semi-manufactured story.  A small group goes and protests, we think that is public opinion. Maybe, it is so, maybe its not, maybe its just a small group organizing.  Media gets up and says this is public opinion. We all say that is public opinion.  The peculiar quality of public opinion is  that  public opinion  is self-fulfilling.  If everybody thinks that is public opinion, it actually becomes public opinion!  So it is really a big challenge for us as societies;  How do we articulate public opinion in a way in which it actually reflects the true character of the conversations that we are having.  That is important because otherwise public opinion will be hijacked!  It will be hi-jacked by demagogic politicians. It will be hi-jacked by small groups.

In the introduction as was rightly pointed out, one of the admirable things about Vijaya Kumarataunga was that he was a person of conviction. And there is a line from Yeats that we use in India a lot, about describing our current   predicament. Where we say, “the worst are full of passionate intensity but the best lack all conviction”!  But one of the reasons I think the best in our democratic politics  lack all conviction or appear to lack all conviction is they are very unsure of their ground.  So how do we actually ascertain what this public opinion is, in a very very complex world, much more complex than many years ago?

The second danger, puzzle, in our politics, is as we navigate  this complex transition, in  governance, in politics, in our identities. It is very easy to be tempted by a certain kind of impatience with democratic politics. And that impatience usually manifests itself in an impatience with institutions.  In India, we hear that all the time.  I mean,  Institutions are slowing down growth. Some very successful chief ministers are ones that have actually by-passed lots of institutions!  But the fact of the matter is, you cannot govern in a diverse society for long without a respect for institutions.  If you want to understand the contemporary predicament in our countries in all our countries, I think the most interesting readings are not what contemporary social scientists write. One needs to go back to the great histories of the Roman Republic; the great histories of the decline of Rome.  One of the common features you’ll find there is that it’s not economic decline, it’s not cultural decline. It is in a sense the moment where societies come to treat their institutions as mere instruments of somebody’s will, that societies become most vulnerable to long term decline. 

I am just quoting a passage from the  great German historian Heinrich  Meyer from a biography of Julius Caesar.  This passage will remind you of so many South Asian politicians, It certainly reminds me of Indira Gandhi, very vividly, and many other State leaders.  Heinrich Meyer describes Caesar as, being insensitive to political institutions and to the way they operate.  He was unable to see them as autonomous entities. He could see them only as instruments of his power or as instruments in an interplay of forces. He had no feeling for the power of institutions, to guarantee law and safety. But he had only feelings for what he found troublesome about them!  In Caesar’s eyes no one existed or no institution existed, except if it was useful as it were for him  “The people were not the people; they were either supporters or opponents. The scene was thus denuded of any impersonal institutions; and politics became a fight for the leader’s own rights”.  This authoritarian temptation is very prevalent in South Asian politics. I don’t think it represents the majority public opinion. But when you have the best lacking all conviction, you can see the temptation to have things as it were as politicians speak things up.  So how do we move the equilibrium back to  a political culture which understands  institutions. It is going to be the second big challenge of democracy.  Public opinion and Institutions are the two backbones of democracy if you get these two wrong, everything else follows. 

The third feature of our political,  predicament is the following. And again this is true of all across South Asia.  Our politics are very complex. They have to deal with social and economic change and so forth. But somewhere over all our politics hovers the shadow of what I call the Tyranny of Compulsory Identities.  This is the way in which we construct our societies and the way in which we construct our identity politics. Even amongst the well intentioned, really in a sense, it darkens all the kind of exuberant vision that Vijaya Kumaratunga  talked about.

What are the elements of this complex that I call Tyranny of Compulsory Identities.  The first element is that Identity is Compulsory.  We can never escape the identity we have. Valets will remain valets, Brahmins will remain Brahmins.   There is nothing you can do to escape it.  The second element of this tyranny of compulsory identities, is we think of politics as competition between communities.  So the good politicians are the ones that keep the balance between the communities and the bad politicians are the ones that gives one community more power over others.  But the fundamental mistake is not, whether you keep the balance or whether you go for majoritarian domination; obviously balance, is preferable than majority domination.  The fundamental mistake is, why should politics be constructed in a way where it is seen as a competition between communities.  Because that will always be an unstable equilibrium and so we’ve ended up with this paradox, where every community in South Asia, literally there isn’t a single one that violates this rule feels itself a victim. Majority communities in India feel they are victims.

Every community feels that their identity is constantly under assault and been threatened by something.  How did we produce this psychological syndrome? The tragedy is that in this politics of victim hood, which comes from this emphasis on compulsory identities, real victims always become invisible. The veil of silence is about those who actually suffer; those who actually toil.  So how do we create a post-Identity politics, and I am saying that post- Identities are important to people. You cannot build a just society if people feel humiliated simply for being who they are.  But the, promise of a democratic society is that those identities do no matter for the rights you have, those identities are freely chosen. Those identities  inhabit in a sense,  private spaces. 

Now it is very easy and all governments in South Asia since 1905 have been using the same sentence, “you know we promise equal rights for all”. But promising equal rights requires building credible structures of trust.  The only way you can do that is through institutions. That’s one of the reasons why institutions matter. They are  a kind of artificial form of trust.  I don’t have to trust you, but I can trust the law.  I don’t have to trust you, but I know that the structure of electoral politics is such that my interests will be safeguarded.  So unless we are honest about understanding that the syndrome of compulsory identity is a constant temptation for politicians in all our countries.  Its created a trap that is inhibiting us, in some sense is   suffocating us. And it is really ironic that it is South Asia that has created this kind of ubiquitous identity trap. Because again, the one common element of our shared legacy is, the self is always larger than who you are.   You can always be somebody other than who you are, somebody bigger than who you are.  I can’t think of any philosophical culture that has so in a textured way, made the boundaries of a self so permeable in fact almost made it non- existent in some ways, that that civilization should now be trapped in narrow narcissism. Its completely inexplicable. So we have to get over it.

The last and final set of issues,  I’ll end this very briefly, is I think we also have to come to terms with South Asia’s place in the world.  We are all products of  anti-colonial movements. The one legacy that those anti-colonial movements have still left with us, or perhaps we have renewed them combined with this focus on identity politics, is by and large we still see the outside world  as a threat rather than as an opportunity.   Of course there will be forces who are trying to compete and bring our countries down. This is part of global history, world civilization. But  by and large the world is rooting for South Asia.  It’s the one zone of great power and agreement in some ways. The world also knows that if South Asia doesn’t get it right, there is no future for humanity. So unless we begin by saying, look we have to be prudent, sure there are some technical issues here and there, but fundamentally, we have to trust ourselves, that the world is an opportunity and not a threat, We must  liberate ourselves from our narrow horizons.  If you see the whole world as a conspiracy against you, nothing is more disabling than that. Nothing takes your agency away or more than this idea that everybody else is ganging up on.  If you want to exercise agency you say okay here’s opportunity out there let me see what I can do.

The second aspect of South Asia’s place in the world is there was this brief moment in South Asian history I would say 1920’s to may be the 1950’s  again across Sri Lanka, India, now Pakistan, and  Bangladesh,  where the big achievement of South Asian thinking was, that it genuinely wanted to join the stream of global history.  Its critique  of the West was not your exercising power over us and so forth. Its critique of the West was, we want to create a deeper and more authentic universality that is not based on tenets of power.  I think the biggest intellectual failure in South Asia,  there are lots of examples of that. We often say the UN Declaration of Human Rights is a Western document. Nothing could be further from the truth!  Read the accounts of the negotiations of the drafting of the UNDHR and the role actually two women Vijaya Laxshmi  Pundit and Hansa Mehta  played in its drafting.  India was the original non-sovereignist power in the United Nations because it wanted Apartheid  to be an issue that  the global conscience of mankind should confront.  So as a civilization we had acquired that confidence  even despite colonialism  that we want to shape  the moral currents of history.

We wanted to be at the cutting edge of moral progress, not be in this defensive position where we always feel we have been assaulted upon, found short. That project somehow disappeared. We drew these shutters and retreated into a certain kind of defensiveness. Certainly all of us have quite a bit to be defensive about. But the response to our problems cannot be not recognizing  the fundamental fact that, there is a common conscience of mankind that has evolved; after all slavery has been abolished. Apartheid has been abolished. That is tending towards reinstating the core principle of  the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which is the dignity of every individual.  It is something Vijaya Kumaratunga said, again very sharply comes across, in all the quotations that he in some ways uses.  So I like to submit to you, but I think South Asia is at this moment for the first time in recent history, that it can overcome all these demons.

My confidence comes from the fact that, if you talk to young people, even if they do not articulate it, they are ready for a paradigm shift in our politics.  From old administrative practices to new administrative practices; from identities being prisons, to identities being  freely chosen. And from looking upon the world as a  place they can go out and conquer, I am using conquer metaphorically, rather than as a place that  is beating them down and keeping them in that place. I think nothing would perhaps serve Vijaya Kumaratunga’s memory better than if he had actually seized the promise of this moment; all our elites,  political, bureaucratic, civil, military, and recognize that South Asia can now move beyond  being a perpetual under achiever. That we can create a civilization that lives like Vijaya Kumaratunga’s will not be cut short by political violence; that each of us gets to write our own story, sing our own song and  enjoy the exuberance which so manifestly comes out in his movies but which is alas so much at variance  with the politics we experience.

Thank you.

*Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta is the President & CEO of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. His Speech on “The Crisis in Governance in, South Asia”  Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Death of Vijaya Kumaratunga – Delivered on 27th February 2013 at Bishops College Auditorium in  Colombo

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Latest comments

  • 0

    This article should be read and re-read by all the politicians,bureucrats and students of politics in order to carve out an enlightened social milue in Sri lanka.

  • 0

    I met him in Jaffana when he tried to release two goverment soldiers. Vijaya had a real vision for a unified lanka and he was not a racist or anything. His political carrier ended by thuggery and not by any one who believe in democracy!

  • 0

    Vijaya spent his immense popularity and political capital to stand up for what is right. Fearlessly.

    Rare quality in Sri Lankan politics or in politcs any where in the world.

    • 0

      Vijaya was also the last man who managed to unify all lunatics of the left in Sri Lanka.

      United Socialist Alliance under Vijaya’s leadership managed to pull in a lot of voters.

      Since Vijaya’s death these opportunistic & idiotic leaders of the traditional left in Sri Lanka have done absolutely nothing of importance for the people.

      Except disappointing all left leaning voters in Sri Lanka. Time and again.

  • 0

    Vijaya had a vision. Unfortunately we lost a gem of a person.

  • 0

    It starts with Vijaya and then he talks about everything BUT Vijaya! Clearly he hasnt got a clue about Vijaya’s contribution to politics or the envirrons that surrounded him. No clue about the politics in SL now or then.
    LOL, where did they find this chap to deliver a speech?

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