By Sarath de Alwis
President Maithripala Sirisena is unlikely to command a chapter or earn a paragraph in our post-colonial history. He will, of course, be a footnote in the convoluted chapter on our struggle to return to a parliamentary democracy for when we succeed in ditching the travesty – the executive presidency.
The man was doomed from the start. His character and character flaws are straight from the Russian novel where Fyodor Dostoevsky has described his kind. “But man is a fickle and disreputable creature and perhaps, like a chess-player, is interested in the process of attaining his goal rather than the goal itself.”
His presidency of the last three years is a bad Russian novel.
Today, he is the character out of Pushkin. “It’s a lucky man, a very lucky man, who is committed to what he believes, who has stifled intellectual detachment and can relax in the luxury of his emotions – like a tipsy traveller resting for the night at a wayside inn.”
The President’s reference to burglarizing of the ‘Big Bank – Maha Benkuwa’ did not create any waves.
Instead, his remark about helicopters was noted, picked up and soon snowballed into an unusual uproar and an exceptional extravaganza of political rhetoric. That says a lot about our mass media, social media and our opinion makers.
The President’s remarks did have an impact on two professional journalist friends of this writer. One said that the President was unhinged. The other described it as an outburst. This writer does not intend to quarrel with either of them. They are what constitute the urban liberal middle class of our land.
Having listened to the 42-minute speech in full, the considered opinion of this writer is that President Sirisena has now reached the identical point that Alice reached in her wonderings in the wonderland, when she met the Cheshire cat.
The Cat asks Alice ‘Where are you going?’
Alice responds ‘Which way should I go? Cat says ‘That depends on where you are going’. Alice says ‘I don’t know.’
Then the Cat tells Alice ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.’
Our Prime Minster knows his fairy tales. He excels in spinning them well. The Prime Minister has decided to remain on high ground. He has parried the issue not very deftly but with some degree of resolve. “It was essential to focus on country’s development at this moment instead of talking about other issues.” He has also directed the State Film Corporation to ensure that cinema hall owners provide 3D spectacles to cinema goers.
That is how it should be. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe excels in the art of political bioscope. Now he has decided to go three dimensional.
Our politicians, from both sides of the barricade are in a silent conspiracy to maintain their hold on the minds of the populace.
There was an encounter at ‘Temple Trees’ in the early hours of 9 January 2015. It was between Mahinda Rajapaksa the President who was losing his bid for a third term and the then Leader of Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe hopelessly hoping to access State power as soon as it was possible.
The outgoing President and the incoming Prime Minister shared a broad ‘world view’. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera was a ‘nuisance’ but something they both could handle. Sobhitha Thera’s common candidate was only a small part of that ‘nuisance’ equation. It required reciprocal management. The last three years is proof of their foresight and sagacious strategy formulation.
Both knew in those early hours of 9 January 2015, that despite the hype that would follow, it was not a new dawn but a very ordinary dawn. They both relied on the apathy of the people and their demonstrated perception of helplessness in confronting power. One relied on the people’s penchant for ancestral worship and the ‘kurahan’ coloured shawl. The other relied on his ancestral privilege and the loyalty of the UNP working committee.
The two seasoned players knew quite well that it was only a matter of time. The minds of the populace will quietly and comfortably slip back into the familiar sense of reasoned indifference. They knew that ‘we the people’ will soon get over the ‘Sobhitha syndrome’ and settle down to conduct business as usual. ‘That’s the way things happen, and we can do nothing about it’.
Ranil Wickremesinghe did not vote against the 18th Amendment that removed Presidential Term limits. He walked out. Mahinda Rajapaksa did not sign the no-confidence motion against Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Mahinda is not an autocrat per se. He only made concessions to his brother Gotabaya’s megalomania. As time elapsed, he found that autocracy was more convenient than pure reliance on his charming charisma.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is different from Mahinda Rajapaksa. Quintessentially, he is the ‘inverted autocrat’. He is a true believer in the power of concentrated wealth. He cannot help it. He was born to that role. No sooner he assumed office, real power moved into the hands of an amorphous organism that he created. It is a shapeless, formless mechanism consisting of self-pronounced experts on economics, job generation and you name it, they know it! This writer has known one of them – the octogenarian of the team at close quarters. His theory is simple. Kick the can down the road long enough for people to get used to the noise. The problem is solved. Others take over and the can gets kicked further and further. Nobody notices. Sometimes, somebody will even complain that they no longer hear the noise of the tossed can! Now that is real development economics for you.
Much has been made out of the so-called bond scam. There is no scam if the scam was not probed. The ‘Gamarala’ did the unthinkable by appointing a commission. But then some commonsense prevailed in the ranks of the privileged class and the Prime Minister first submitted an affidavit and later clarified the clarifications in his affidavit.
Martin Wolf the Deputy Editor and Chief Economic Commentator of the Financial Times London in 2014, hardly a year before our problem wrote thus.
“A system that is based… on the ability of profit making institutions to create money as a by-product of often grotesquely irresponsible lending is irretrievably unstable… ordinary tax payers are being forced to suffer in order to save a banking system that has brought them only excess and ruin. This is intolerable: indeed, a form of debt slavery…”
Ranil knew the system of Debt Slavery. Ranil knew who should replace Nivard Cabraal. We should not blame the Prime Minister. His expertise is about the working of the system. How was he to know what the quiet unassuming ‘Gamarala’ President would do! Who expected a commission of inquiry?
The phenomenon and the predicament of the common candidate must be examined in this context. Sobhitha Thera’s believability was the pivot of the common candidacy. It succeeded briefly in overpowering the apathy of the people.
Sobhitha Thera did not advise anyone to burglarize banks. Neither did he advise the common candidate president to make his brother the boss of telecom. Sobhitha Thera would not have approved of A. S. P. Liyanage representing us even in Burkina Faso, wherever that land may be, let alone the Emirate of Qatar.
Sobhitha Thera did not advise the common candidate to compete with Mahinda Rajapaksa for the Sinhala Buddhist tribal totem.
People who claim to stand for something must stay standing. When they only brag about what they stand for, they are squatting on what they should be advocating. “We are irritated by rascals. We are intolerant of fools. We are prepared to love the rest. Where are they?” From the notebook of a Neurotic.