Colombo Telegraph

Vimukthi Kumaratunga And Politics: As Slippery As An Eel

By Deneth Thilakasiri

Vimukthi Kumaratunga

A couple of dissenting online media outlets have reported that the son of ex-President Kumaratunga is about to mark his entry into active politics. Where, one would ask. In Sri Lanka, and not in the United Kingdom, his country of residence. The clientelist, family-based political system of Sri Lanka certainly provides fertile ground for the offspring of politicians, even the lesser known from the far ends of provincialism, to enter politics with relative ease. In this sense, it is only logical that the ex-head of state is intent upon establishing a continuum of her dynasty.

Veterinary surgeon Kumaratunga’s possible role in politics has also been raised in a ‘caste-based’ perspective. A politico from Matara, who represents the Durava caste, is said to be among many others of that caste who see the vet surgeon’s political coming out as strategic. A correlation between the notions of political power and caste, however archaic and prehistoric it may sound, certainly is not a dead weight in Sri Lankan politics, to say the least. Electoral politics have been studded with instances at which non-Govigama castes tried to challenge the Govigama monopoly on national leadership – the Sarath Fonseka case is an example.

What the thinking citizen committed to democracy and conscious of his/her civic rights and obligations ought to raise is the futility that surrounds a political hierarchy that thrives on clientelism and a feudalistic inclination to make politics a family business. Over sixty years after independence, the composition of the Sri Lankan parliament resembles a gathering of feudal lords than a representative assembly of participatory democracy, sanctioned by universal suffrage. Young backbenchers are exclusively composed of the offspring of ex-politicos. As the rivalry between the Boss and the ex-Chief Minister of the North-Central Province shows, politics are marred by family rivalries with a medieval strain, in which a marital alliance between political families A and B causes anxiety in political family C.

It is no news that politics remains the field in which no formal qualifications or education is deemed necessary. The inevitable result is an assortment of sorts, from underworld dons, ex-militants and village thugs to private tuition masters. On this issue, Sri Lanka cannot be singled out. As Professor Stanley Tambiah had it, the meanderings of the galactic polity are such that trends of this nature remain unavoidable. It will take a generation or two for Sri Lanka to evolve towards a political culture in which refinement reigns in the unicameral legislature.

Amidst the realities raised above, the news of the imminent political coming out of our protagonist – the Veterinary Surgeon – is of particular interest. He represents the only male heir to the mantle of Sri Lanka’s most influential political family. His maternal great-grandfather was the exclusive beneficiary of a uniquely prestigious position, the Governor’s Gate. Right from the time his maternal forefathers gained influence under British rule and consolidated their economic strength, they have continued to dominate the Ceylonese/Sri Lankan polity with particular flair. As times changed, his maternal grandfather – the expedient utopian he was – moved swiftly on a par with emergent trends, from the three-piece suit to the national dress, from Anglicanism to Buddhism, from a political outlook based on ethnonational inclusion and equality (as articulated in an infamous 1926 speech in Jaffna) to one based on a Sinhala Buddhist supremacist discourse.

His maternal grandmother – the Kandyan aristocrat she was – ruled the land as she knew best. The long-term repercussions of a Sinhala supremacist agenda were ignored. According to accounts by those who worked with her, she was conscious of managing public finance with caution, with a diligent housewife’s keenness to reduce unwarranted expenses. Clad in her iconic attire, and armed with the best of diplomats on her side, she made her mark on the international arena during the height of the Cold War. Despite the positive aspects of her rule (such as the emphasis on financial discipline and laudable foreign policy management  – especially at a time when a need for both is desperately felt), her United Front government’s shortcomings were instrumental in laying the groundwork for the subsequent secessionist woes and thirty-year war.

The Veterinary Surgeon’s mother goes in history books, whether one likes it or not, as the national leader who performed the burial rights of the precious little liberal democratic space that the Sri Lankan polity possessed. Despite a liberalising youth spent in studying at Sciences-Po and being privy to Paris 1968, she ruled Lanka not unlike a Caucasian colonial patriarch’s rule over colonised natives. As slippery as an eel, she soon proved her mastery of the politics of inversion (i.e. painting a convincingly false picture of reality). Under her dispensation, real power rested in the hands of a circle of friends, who seldom caught media limelight, and operated from within the protective walls of Temple Trees. In the Cabinet, the first six years of her presidency were marked by the prominence of two ministers with no qualms to make a show of their callousness, as one’s sexual overtures to a bright sportswoman (and the other’s evocation of the deed in Parliament) so clearly demonstrated. Sciences-Po never visibly taught her the basic lessons of political configurations and systems, a shortcoming that prompted her to work towards a federal reconfiguration of the Sri Lankan state – despite the elephant in the room – a thin majority of one vote in the legislature. Utopia crumbled in August 2000, when the opposition burnt copies of her draft constitution inside the Assembly. Despite several military successes, crucial miscalculations on the ethnic question led to the wreckage of the military with one tragedy after another, and to an unprecedented deterioration of national security and the economy.

These shortcomings, or ‘bad’ governance, first led to the ‘worse’, and subsequently to ‘the worst’. The ‘worse’ came in the form of the liberal internationalist peacebuilding drive of 2002-2004. Sri Lanka was made an operation theatre of Western-led liberal peacebuilding. The limits and lacuna of this strategy were soon apparent, resulting in an unprecedented rise of nationalism and a rigid political ideology that categorically opposed the slightest move towards a non-violent, negotiated settlement within a united Sri Lanka. Kumaratunga’s strategic miscalculations not only led to an electoral defeat for her coalition in 2001, but also to an ultra-liberalising peace project, which effectively made the liberal democratic minority that supported a negotiated settlement and adopted a moderate, inclusive stance on the ethnic question, increasingly vulnerable, isolated and powerless.

This, in turn, led to ‘the worst’, post-2004. The extremist camp gained a comfortable majority, enabling them to carve Colombo’s official policy on the ethnic question out of their political agenda. The subsequent war, arguably the most violent military confrontation in Sri Lanka’s modern history, not only resulted in unprecedented casualties; it also led to a post-war scenario in which the causers of ethnic unrest continue to thrive. This is complemented by a considerably militarised, and unprecedentedly clientelist and feudalistic pattern of governance. The ailing economy, foreign policy concerns and negative international reputation are the long-term consequences not only of the Rajapaksa administration’s war, but also of President Kumaratunga’s strategically flawed governance, which set in motion a process of dissent to the dodgy times we find ourselves in at present.

If the Veterinary Surgeon is still a citizen of Sri Lanka, and despite the long-lasting negative effects of his family’s rule over the island, he certainly has the right to try his luck in politics. The sheer stupidity of the Gampaha District electorate – as shown in the resounding victory of a drug baron and an inane soap opera actress at the 2010 general election – will guarantee him a seat in the Assembly.  As his presence at the 2012 Bandaranaike death anniversary event demonstrates, his future political feats are likely to be based on the more influential Bandaranaike credential, and not that of Kumaratunga. In hindsight, it is impossible to ignore that the Bandaranaikes have been the foremost exponents of dynastic family politics in Sri Lanka; those who followed suit – despite the idiosyncrasy of some – have inflicted comparatively lesser harm to the democratic fabric of the state than the Bandaranaikes. Another one of them in politics cannot but help cement the anti-democratic, feudal, and oligarchic nature of Sri Lankan politics.

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