‘Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.’
In modern Sri Lankan history, two elections stand out as watershed elections: firstly the 1956 General Elections in which a coalition of left-wing parties (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of S W R D Bandaranaike was elected and secondly, the 1977 Election in which the United National Party (UNP) led by J R Jayewardene was victorious. Why and how would they stand out as exceptions to the norm? When one looks back at the aftermath of these two elections, one cannot but conclude that both these elections produced some history-making changes. The ’56 elections in which the UNP led by Sir John Kotalawala was routed out of power, in its wake, signalled a clear departure from the then status quo.
Apart from the Sinhala-only language policy, which in the long run proved to be disastrous to both communities- Sinhalese and Tamil, it also opened the flood gates for some utterly uncouth and unruly elements to enter the political arena.
I am not saying this as a condescending, Colombo-educated snob- far from it. As a matter of fact, the writer himself is a product of that ’56 Revolution, though Colombo-educated yet at one of those premier Buddhist schools. Yet when results are glaring at your face and when pluses and minuses are tabulated, minuses seem to overwhelm. A thirty-year inter-racial war, distrust between the two major communities in the country, attitudes changing from one of accommodation and sharing to distrust and exclusivity, faked superiority of one community over the other etc. were all results of this so-called ’56 Revolution.
Arguments could be made to buttress the other side too. A ‘place in the sun’ for the common man, although it now seems to be one that is held in derogatory terms, in the fifties and sixties, when the international trends were strikingly anti-capitalist and the cold war between the then Soviet Union and the West was sharpening the sensitivities of the semi-educated and uneducated to revolting degree, was an ‘achievement’. Growing unemployment among the rural ranks was exploding and the ‘place in the sun’ phenomenon took firm root in the mindset of especially Sinhalese Buddhists. But the ‘good’ effects of this (r)evolution are evident everywhere from University teachers to private sector top jobs not forgetting the government jobs in the upper echelons being made available to those who were considered déclassé to date. But these social changes and the structures, laws, regulations and government-enacted legislations paved the way for a fundamental change in the attitudes of the majority, Sinhalese Buddhists towards the objective conditions that prevailed in the country at the time. A more robust and aggressive stance taken by them towards the minorities, especially Tamils in the North and consequential events that were generated by such attitude and action led to a 30 year old war in the first place and a seemingly un-bridgeable rupture in the fabric of communal harmony and racial camaraderie.
What I’m trying to emphasize is that, although many of our political and social scientists advocate a change in attitude as the primary need at the moment in racial relations without any changes in structures, legislative alternatives or enforcement of the existing laws, what is supremely necessary in the given circumstances is introduction of new laws, new legislation and new structures- objective conditions so to speak- so that attitudes towards those conditions and adjustments towards such conditions would eventually evolve to be much more friendly and less offensive.
Attitudes do not exist in a vacuum.They are in essence, an essential outcome to a new reality which is a changed-set-of-objective conditions. It’s not rocket science to understand this basic simple truth.
One curious example in this regard is the introduction of the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution. Until the Thirteenth Amendment was introduced and a separate Province was created in the North and with reasonably extensive powers vested in it, the notion of self-rule for Tamils in the North and East had assumed a totally different meaning leading to diverse definitions of self-rule- sometimes leading to the eventual emergence of Tamil Elam. Even after the war ended in 2009, the various fringe groups that were bolstered up by interested political parties, continued almost up to the last Presidential Election time and even thereafter, to engage in a destructive campaign of maligning the minority groups and the legitimately-elected Tamil leaders of the North and East.
No majority are worthy of their very numbers if they willfully neglect and dispel the rights and needs of the minorities.
History testifies that lasting changes are not the results of campaigns run for one or two years. On the contrary, long lasting changes are not only executed but become visible only after much longer periods of years, maybe at least half a century or so.
The social and political quagmire the nation is embroiled in now, is not only a result of the last two decades in which corrupt practices of politicians who took political power for granted and wielded it in a manner that also granted them every right and privilege to enrich themselves at the expense of the country’s coffers on the one hand and the people at large on the other. Emergence of a new-rich class that owed their riches to their closeness to holders of power and blatant impunity that these corrupting elements enjoyed, gave birth to the wrong notion that the middle class in the country was expanding. What in fact happened was the birth of a politically insensitive crony class whose accumulation of wealth was directly correlated to their practice of oiling the right palms at the right time.
However, people by and large expected justice to be dispensed with in the wake of the last Presidential Elections. The January 8th Presidential Elections was a landmark election in modern Sri Lanka. A corrupt regime headed by a single family, a regime entangled in every conceivable malpractice of governance and statecraft was voted out of power- though not overwhelmingly- to the unreserved relief of reasonable men and women whose only hope was for accountability on the part of those who ruled, transparency in the way in which government transactions were conducted and a more just and equitable distribution of state resources. Looking back after one whole year, the people are still wondering whether their hope was only a massive illusion or an ever-receding mirage whose borders seem to be evaporating before one’s very eyes or on the other hand, one final oasis of justice and fair-play.
In the context of governance, President Maithripala Sirisena is in a very unenviable position. On the one hand, as President of the country who promised that he would undo what was done by the Rajapaksa clan when they were the powers who ruled not only the constitutional chambers but also the streets, towns and every hamlet in the land and as the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) whose stock in trade seemed to have been entrenched in political cronyism and backward socio-politico-economic thinking, the balancing act appears to be growing more and more challenging by the day.
Decisive measures that portray a strong leadership and disregard for traditions, conventions and status quo stations that reflect sustained and disciplined governance are receding. The people seem to be much more ahead of the governing coalition. Political expediency which is the main tool in the arsenal of those who govern is fast overtaking principled approach to dispensing governance. Both President and Prime Minister should realize that governance cannot be narrowed down to an exercise in crisis management. They should be more focused on a strategic slant to the art and science of modern day governance. In the absence of that strategic approach, the Cabinet and the officialdom get bogged down in managing day-to-day affairs which eventually results in crisis management which is a far cry from wise governance.
Once again I cannot help but draw examples from the way JRJ ran the first term in office- from 1977 to 1983. He clearly identified the key sectors that needed attention and developed. The results were the opening of the strangled economy, massive Accelerated Mahaweli Development Program, island-wide housing schemes, development of the Colombo Port etc. All these programs took off the ground within six months of the UNP Government in 1977. The strategic approach adopted by JRJ and his key Cabinet colleagues such as Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Ronnie de Mel brought about prosperity whose overwhelming benefits outweighed the minor ill-effects of the JR-regime.That sense of focus, that sense of urgency seems to be missing in the present government. The private sector is languishing in a ‘lost-chance-mindset’ and not helping the regime when they gather in their social club milieus and engage in their usual diatribe of the powers that be. And the only positive difference from the previous ten years is they are fearless in their criticisms of what’s going on. Little do they realize that that freedom of expression alone is one giant leap from the scary political environment they suffered willy-nilly during the previous regime of family rule. Onslaught via the social media seems to be escalating but what is pathetically lacking is a counter-punch for and on behalf of President Sirisena. In modern-day politics, character assassination and vituperative attacks on politicians do matter and if no counter-punches are unleashed at the right time and in right lingo, those attacks stick. Don’t forget that another Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake could never recover from the attacks unleashed by the then political tabloid ‘Aththa’ in the mid-sixties (Pachabahu etc.).