“There is always a heavy demand for fresh mediocrity. In every generation the least cultivated taste has the largest appetite.” ~
From 1989 to 2004, the years that witnessed the escalation of the war against Tamil separatists, the years that Sri Lanka had to deal with a multitude of gripping episodes of suicide bombers and diehard idealists, the years that whizzed past everyday life of ordinary men and women like a wind in a snow-swept Artic, the years that bore the ignoble insults of a nation mourning the death of border-village citizens, almost every other week, also witnessed the propelling of a remarkable man to the topmost office of our country – R. Premadasa.
On Premadasa exceptionalism, on February 11, 2012, this writer under another pseudonym wrote thus: “The extents to which he strode not only to physically accomplish the ministerial development tasks, but also to take the full political credit via a ruthlessly-run media apparatus set a new trend in campaigns for political promotion. The accolades and publicity which were monopolised by the Heads of State up to that time, Premadasa made it his business to avail himself of. He mastered that craft so well and fine-tuned the media operation to almost clockwork precision, later Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali followed suit. However, handling and benefitting from a friendly media remained Premadasa’s forte. When one adds supreme oratorical skills, both in and outside Parliament, and extraordinary work ethic to this mix, one encounters an exception to the rule-that is “Premadasa Exceptionalism”.
So, it’s not one or two reasons why R. Premadasa became acceptable to a very caste-creed-conscious society. His humble beginnings, his oratorical skills, his boldness in vision, his exemplary work ethic, micromanaging his subordinates and making it his strength instead of a weakness, his self-driven ambition, his masterful exploitation of the local media, his time-management ability, his simple and spotlessly clean attire, waking up early mornings and seeing the constituents at 4 a.m., and his dogged adherence to a timeline-oriented work plan, all these attributes contributed to his success. Who but an assassin can stop a man who possesses all these attributes?”
Today, I do not want to retract one single word from that narrative.
Yet again, it was Premadasa who bartered arms and ammunition with Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). It was Premadasa who was allegedly behind some cruel treatments to his political enemies. Inwardly, Premadasa was a paranoid and mistrustful character, essentially a Stalinist type of a political leader. His rule was popularly known as ‘one man show.’ His micromanagement tendency went far beyond a need to be a perfectionist; his mistrustfulness was amply demonstrated when he could no longer cohabit with Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali who were juniors in years of experience, but in every sense of the word, either superior or peers when accomplishment of work was concerned. Unfortunately history may not judge him in good terms. The aborted impeachment motion brought against him by Gamini, Lalith and Premachandra, no mean members of a UNP cabinet, would remain Premadasa’s lamentable legacy.
Premadasa assumed office under very torrid circumstances. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), under the guise of a second ‘revolution’, had unleashed undiluted venom and terror against all people who were identified as capitalists. After dark, it was virtually another government in power; those who fell under their weapons were either cremated or buried under strictest conditions prescribed by the JVP. Wijeweera and his politburo decreed who should live and who should perish. But thanks to the ruthless management of the worsening situation by Ranjan Wijeratne, the Deputy Minister of Defence, under the direct command of Premadasa, the JVP and its core leadership was decimated beyond recovery and the way they fell and began ‘singing’ brought sheer shame and ridicule to a quasi-military operation it ran across the country.
Despite all these looming problems, the country’s economy was stable and it kept growing at a reasonable rate. But the promise of R. Premadasa’s was not to live to its fruition. When the finale came, it was gruesome; it was violent and it was final. Exactly one week after Lalith Athulathmudali was gunned down by sniper killer, the LTTE killed President Premadasa, another UNP leader in a most horrendous manner and the precise operation was carried out by a suicide bomber on May 1, 1993. Sri Lanka’s executive presidency represented by Premadasa Exceptionalism was limited to mere 4 year and some months. R Premadasa, a man of déclassé beginnings left a legacy of superlative achievements combined with atrocious abuse of ‘Executive’ powers and history writers, I am sure, would dwell more on the latter than the former.
The dynamic process of ruralification of the UNP, which was branded as a ‘rich man’s party’, was given oxygen by the trio of Premadasa, Gamini and Lalith. This transformation process of ‘ruralification’ died with these three leaders. Gamini Dissanayake who succeeded Premadasa as the Presidential candidate met with the same fate as did Premadasa and Lalith. Within a span of one and half years, the LTTE destroyed the stem and root of the United National Party and it took more than twenty years for it to take some semblance of root and flower again.
With the virtual decimation of their chief political rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was voted into power in 1994 and Chandrika Kumaranatunge Bandaranaike assumed office, first as Prime Minister and later as President mainly due to the assassination of her chief contender, Gamini Dissanayake.
Once again a Bandaranaike was in power and another thoroughly undistinguished and mediocre era began. If Premadasa was the exception, this Bandaranaike was mediocrity personified. But one shining tinge on her political persona was her ultra-liberal disposition, both in socio-ethnic policies and the management (or mismanagement) of the economy. Yet like her illustrious father, she too failed miserably to match her rhetoric with follow-up action. The 1999 Provincial Council elections represent a typical microcosm of the philosophy, methodology and execution of the Bandaranaike polices! The UNP supporters and some leaders of the party were stripped in public and held to public ridicule and accountability, as it was so in the S W R D and Sirimavo era, was not a lofty socio-political yardstick. The reality is, if Premadasa was an exception, the Bandaranaikes were a sorry mediocrity. An objective review of the years would reveal it.
In the meantime, while the majority Sinhalese was fighting among each other, Prabhakaran and his LTTE got busy. Readers, please remember, I am leaving out the ethnic violence and Tamil militants’ activities, for a separate column, or maybe two and they would be dedicated exclusively to this issue.
However, it is noteworthy to mention that ever since independence, all the way up to 1994, contrast in the management of Sri Lanka’s economy between the two parties, UNP and SLFP, was crystal clear. While the United National Party adopted a quasi-capitalistic slant, devoid of any doctrinaire doggedness, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its various coalitions preferred a socialistic approach and thereby ran the economy to the ground each time they assumed power. Based on populist economic propaganda, the utter waste of national treasures and excessive power so invested in the state sector tried to prop up government as a the sole savior of an ailing nation. Every nationalized institution ran at monumental losses and the working class was brainwashed on the indispensability of government as a source of employment. This transformation of the psyche of the majority of the masses engendered an agonizing absence of self-reliance. Entitlement syndrome invaded the mindset of a usually self-confident rural youth and turned him into a plaything in the hands of cynical politicians. When the UNP was in power, the government sector shrank while it grew, not only in importance, but also in real numbers, when the SLFP controlled the switch of political power. Sri Lanka as a nation is still suffering from this hangover of government-sponsored approach to national economic issues. The unfortunate byproduct of all this is the emergence of an enormously powerful class of crony capitalists. Those are the vultures that floated over the corridors of power then and they are the ones who are doing it today.
A politician’s fundamental function is service of man. It is not a utopian dream. From Aristotle, Plato to Carl Marx and Antonio Gramsci to Noam Chomsky, all political thinkers and philosophers have advocated for this sublime principle and yet, when one studies the politicians who have colonized the Sri Lankan landscape today, one would see greedy, self-serving individuals who have mastered the fine art of deception in order to enrich themselves; one would see some highly-educated yet intellectually dishonest charlatans; one would see unqualified ruffians who have gathered wealth and muscle to win elections to get into the portals of power, once again to amass money in order to extend their family power beyond the years they themselves might live. It is not confined to one party. From the UNP, SLFP to the JVP and also other left-wing parties, they are all guilty of this dishonorable deed. A noble profession has been desecrated beyond recognition. In the context of this dim reality, one does not see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. John Kennedy in his book “Profiles in Courage” wrote thus: “Politics is a noble adventure, an adventure in which one joins hands with the masses for the service of man”. That nobility perished. In its place is a carcass rotting away and the vultures are gathering above for their ‘pound of flesh.’