End of an era
H. L. D. Mahindapala
With a heavy overload of historical memories, some tragic, some triumphant, some futile, and some memorable and everlasting, we have arrived, on the backs of the long-suffering people, in the 70th year of independence – the Biblical watershed to sit back and consider how far we have advanced or regressed in the intervening years. If you take a panoramic view of the political landscape and pause to assess the agonies and the ecstasies of our journey through the first seven decades, we are entitled to marvel at the fact that we have arrived at where we are now in one piece, thanks to our courageous and self-sacrificing Security Forces. To some extent we may be excused for believing that we have come out in commendable shape considering the destructive fascist forces that came up from the north and the south against the democratic centre, riddled though with all its infirmities.
Accordingly, we should be glorying now in untrammelled optimism. But, instead, there is an uneasy feeling of uncertainty and overarching hopelessness stretching all the way to the foreseeable horizon. The despondency is so thick that it hangs in the air like a mist of blinding confusion preventing any insight into the future. It was there everywhere I went during my recent sojourn. It was so palpable that I was weighed down by a pervasive depression that haunted me.
The best and the brightest – the latest being Lester Peiris – are departing. One headline screamed : Cricket has hit a new low!” So is the rupee. Only two things kept rising : 1.the cost of living and 2. the number of politicians living off the taxes collected from the poor. After the latest reshuffle we now have 114 ministers, including 42 in the Cabinet and 45 in the provincial councils for a population of only 21 million.” (The Island). Then another 441 Provincial Councillors were swept into the governing hierarchy after the recent local government elections. Add this figure to the 225 in Parliament and what do we have: the perfectly constructed irrational state which is over-governed by half-literate nincompoops who believe that the many layers of government which they occupy were made for them to make money.
To rectify the anomalies and the defects in governance dramatic changes are announced. The irony is that the more they change the more they remain the same. The following e-mail which hit my screen explains the latest changes in the ruling party, the UNP:
World Record for a School
Party Leader – Royal College
Deputy leader – Royal
Assistant leader – Royal
Chairman – Royal
National Organizer – Royal
Treasurer – Royal
Deputy leader – Royal
Assistant leader – Royal
Chairman – Royal
National Organizer – Royal
Treasurer – Royal
No wonder the country is in a “Right Royal Mess ” !!!” Another wag wrote that Sri Lanka is now governed by FRCSs – Former Royal College Suckers. Yet another chided the Prime Minister for not abiding by the motto of Royal College ” Disce Aut Discede (Latin “Learn or Depart”)
OVER 40 YEARS IN POLITICS, NOT LEARNED ANYTHING BUT REFUSING TO DEPART. UNFORTUNATELY THE PM IS USURPING THE THOMIAN MOTTO “ ESTO PERPETUA“, GO ON FOR EVER,” said the e-mailer.
Does all this sound like a big joke played on the nation? Or are these stunts wending their way into a chaotic tragedy of uncontrollable proportions?
Occasionally, I was buoyed by some positive glimpses of hope. For instance, seeing the new concretized face of the city (ugh!), where the neon lights advertise the rising power of commerce. I felt that the country was bursting at the seams, ready to grow out of the old mould into a dynamic economy. New architecture leaping vertically into the skies from lands that were vacant only a couple of decades ago project signs of a growing economy. New buildings mean new investments of new entrepreneurs entering the new market place. Also the hustle and the bustle of the noveau riche crowding the market place and the new hotels and restaurants seem to indicate that the poverty line is coming down, with a brassy showiness.
On the other hand, I felt that the political and bureaucratic panjandrums – the perennial evils — were sitting on top of new capital like a huge stone preventing any growth to take off. In particular, the absence of a technocratic leadership to meet the challenges of the 21st century is visible in the key decision-making process. On top of this we were told that 45% of the MPs in Parliament – the supreme law-making body – consist of mediocrities who have not even passed their O Level! This makes it perfectly clear why Socrates and Plato rejected the democratic form of government in ancient Greece, the home of democracy. Plato opted for philosopher-kings hoping it would generate enlightened governance. Philosopher Bertrand Russell blamed Plato for opening the doors to all-knowing Hitlers and Stalins. Hmm! So much for political theory!
The most frenzied issue that dominates the political discourse of our local philosopher-kings is the proposed constitutional reforms. The legal, constitutional and political tinkering that goes on at the highest level is, partly, about fixing the shaky political bases for the ruling elite to perpetuate their grip on power in perpetuity, if they can, and partly, to dismantle the centre and devolve power to the Tamils of the North who aim to grab the East as well. In the South they also labour indefatigably to manufacture a constitution that would serve them as their hansi putuwa (arm chair) for them to recline in perpetuity without being thrown out by their opponents. They live under the illusion that the worst thing that can happen to the nation is for those occupying chairs of power to lose their seats in parliament or presidency.
In the North they insist on modern constitutional changes to regain and reinforce their feudal (casteist) and colonial privileges, power and perks which they lost to Prabhakaran. The permanent Vellala ruling elite (no low-caste man was ever admitted to the higher echelons of power in Jaffna unless he carried a gun like Prabhakaran, a karaiyar) has bonded with the elitist Royalist gang led by Ranil hoping to impose the biggest constitutional scam. Ranil has already lost all his worth in the Bond Scam” – the biggest financial scandal in the history of banking in Sri Lanka. Bonding with Arjuna Mahendran took him down to the lowest depth. His chances of rising by bonding with R. Sampanthan to foist a constitutional scam are as great as Prabhakaran rising out of Nandikadal.
This is the tragic malaise of our time. At no level in the societal hierarchy can one find any signs of a leader with a potential to be a redeemer. In sheer desperation, one can only surmise that there is a savior who is hiding in some dark corner in history waiting to come up, sooner or later. But that is like waiting for Godot / Diyasena. The situation seems so grim that one is reduced to living in hopeless hope.
It is the rapidity of the moral and political decline in the last couple of years that has shocked the nation into a state of paralysis. It is frightening. The overwhelming disillusionment with the promises of Yahapalana-yakos seems to have dragged the victims into the numbed state of a patient etherized upon a table”. (T. S. Eliot). The anesthetized nation is now seen hurtling down a precipitous mountain slope like an uncoupled carriage of a train running loose without an engine. The uncontrolled momentum of going down the slippery slope is felt in every nook and corner except in the higher echelons of power which ought to be the first to wake up and act decisively to arrest the slide. But every act taken so far – even after the tremors that shook the establishment in the latest local government elections – has been to consolidate the crumbling status quo.
Like all decadent regimes the ruling elite from Royal College, oblivious of the hole into which they have fallen, are digging deeper into a black hole from which they cannot escape. Their answer to the crisis is to play musical chairs believing that replacing Tweedle-dee with Tweedle-dum-bo will solve their problems as well as that of the nation. The danger is that, in this process, they are dragging the nation along with them into the same disastrous black hole. Their dithering and diddling are threatening to dismantle all that has been achieved in the last 70 years.
The only visible bright spots seem to be the stars in the night sky — and they too are beyond any one’s reach. The bleakness seem to be deepened by the more convulsive issues rolling in like dark clouds of the thunderstorms that were pouring down in the evenings when I was there. Every exploding issue seems to be heading to a crisis point, cutting deep into the stability and the future of the nation. There is the eerie feeling that the nation is on the verge of something ominous about to happen. The noises / voices assailing the ears are alarming. The signs of everything around you collapsing disorient the mind trying to make sense of what is happening. The whole nation seems to be poised like Meetotamulla ready to collapse in one messy heap.
And the worst is the smugness with which the powers-that-be refuse to recognize the imminence of the impending collapse. That something has to give is clear. How soon it will happen is the question. And, if and when it happens, there seems to be no one around with a compass to give new directions. As usual, everyone will blame the other and there will be no end to the finger-pointing blame game.
Right now there isn’t a leadership with dedicated commitment, vision, capacity and know-how to stop the decline. By and large, most of those whom I met have fallen into a lethargic state of déjà vu. Their blank faces wear that what-to-do-I-say- look” not knowing what had hit them. The hopes that rose with the coming of Yahapalanaya have evaporated, leaving the Sri Lankans adrift in a vacuum.
On the eve of Yahapalanaya in 2014/5 they were hoping to advance swiftly and merrily into the nearest point next to paradise. In fact, they were supposed to have been there in first 100 days of 2015. But three years later, they are still walking like headless zombies wandering towards a dead-end with no exit. It is the sense of not having an alternative to the stagnant, frustrating status quo that is most depressing. Everyone is meandering in search of an outlet. Which way the gathering subterranean forces will turn is anyone’s guess. How long the nation will continue to go along with the corrupt, incompetent and the moral bankruptcy of the UNP regime is also anyone’s guess.
Under the pressures of sharp questioning by Faraz Shauketaly, the MTV anchor man of NEWS 1, the JVP MP, Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa, admitted the other day that the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is a rogue”. It’s a damning description, in any language. So what are the chances of a rogue prime minister” saving the nation that is clearly heading towards a bottomless pit? Did our founding fathers labour to produce a Rogue Prime Minister” at the end of 70 years?
The forbearance of the people in the face of ever increasing adversity is remarkable. But how long will it take to reach the limits of tolerance? The decibel level of anger is increasing. The number of new voices screaming for a new order is gathering momentum. The impatience for justice and reform is rising. The secular ideological isms” have failed. Even the façade of Buddhism (remember Ven. Sobitha!) used by the fake Yahapalana-yakos have failed.
The centre can hardly hold things together. Sri Lanka is an orphaned nation running in search of a savior. Or at least a just moral force that could wipe out the rotten state and replace it with a new order that can contain the rising wrath and guide them to the next level. But it is not there. The whole nation seems to be trapped inside a boiling cauldron of despondency. One is left wondering when it would spill over to the streets. Is social unrest the next answer? Will it throw up a new leadership?
The fall from hope to despair has been so sudden and unexpected that the nation has been reduced to a gulag of helpless and bemused victims of false prophets. On January 8, 2015 the nation had reached a peak point of promise and hope glowing with moral purity. Now the JVP which was a part of the bandwagon that ushered in the Yahapalanya is worried that they have labored only to produce a Rogue Prime Minister”.
All hopes were pinned on the Yahapalana-yakos because they were perceived as the best idea at the time. In essence they represented moral purity. Even the charismatic figure of Mahinda Rajapakse failed to win because he could not pass the moral test of the day. What politicians fail to recognize is that political legitimacy is derived essentially from morality. All regimes fall when they lose the underpinning force of morality.
Political myths propagandized craftily can temporarily win the day but it can’t sustain power. Lasting political power survives primarily on its moral validity. USSR, for instance, imploded because the system had passed its use by day and lacked any moral validity. The Shah of Persia had one of the most powerful armies in the region, backed by a ruthless Secret Police Service. But he crumbled under the moral force of celluloid tapes sent from Paris by Khoumeni. The moral values of Ayotollah had a force far superior to all the military might of Shah.
Especially in a voter-based democracy the moral values carry a greater force than any organized apparatus of the state. In the contest between Mahinda Rajapakse and Ven. Sobitha the monk represented the higher values of the day. Ranil Wickremesinghe crept in under the cover of the yellow robes. On his own he could never have beaten Rajapakse.
What we are facing is a moral crisis of the highest magnitude. The Yahapalanaya rode into power because it presented itself as a new moral force led by Ven. Sobitha. He was joined by 60-odd NGOs, Western and Indian embassies, minorities, disillusioned SLFPers – all of whom ganged up against Mahinda Rajapakse on moral grounds. It is the very moral force that lifted them up that has brought them down. It is their moral bankruptcy that has thrown the nation into a spin.
At the center of the drama that haunts the Yahapalanaya regime is the miserable failure of the political moralists to live up to their promises. The swindling of people’s money, the lying, the parliamentary manipulations, the racketeering, the eye-wash of shuffling Raigamaya to a Gampolaya’s seat and vice versa, the crooked deals to cover-up and bring back the discredited wheeler-dealers to ministerial seats, the obscene scenes of a Kafkesque judiciary, as revealed with telling effect by Ms. Sughandika Fernando, all of which are well known to the Bar Council, UNP goons attacking MTV on the night Ranil won the no-confidence motion in the House etc., etc., have eroded the people’s faith in politics as a means of finding deliverance. They have, at last, come to come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that there can be no salvation in politics.
So what are the people left with? At the end of 70 years they are left only with leaders who are dressed in fanciful Emperor’s clothes.