“You are my creator, But I am your master……
– Mary Shelley (1818)
Given the trend of tirades, it is not unreasonable to expect that President Sirisena will wake up one of these days and disclaim everything he did and said in 2015. The change maker is clearly out, though the charlatan arguably never left. The hope around and pegged to him is long gone. There is, short of a miracle, nothing progressive that he was the face of, and championed, when first seeking office that will now come to pass. This includes, above all else, a new constitution. There is an increasing manic tinge, of someone increasingly unhinged, that colours his pronouncements. A video last week of him disavowing any knowledge around actions he clearly and very publicly took credit just after coming to office went viral, which in this case, would have added to his insecurities about social media.
From the titan who took on a terrible regime, he is now greatly reduced – a moral, political, ethical and personal deflation that is almost entirely self-inflicted. President Sirisena is now a caricature of himself, a necessary evil to engage with but entirely peripheral as a person. There is no pleasure in seeing this. What a monumental fall from the person we emphatically cheered on, hoarse, tired and in a general state of sheer disbelief, a little over three years ago.
In his defence, the lofty garb of idealism that once adorned him wasn’t bespoke. The political project to have him run for Presidency was strictly utilitarian based on a simple equation around who could win against Mahinda Rajapaksa at a time when he was, constitutionally, set to rule for life. The selection of Sirisena wasn’t based on anything remotely presidential in him. He wasn’t an idiot, but he was useful. An intended outcome was needed, and he was the best vessel. Sirisena as a presidential mendicant had what Fonseka as presidential aspirant, in 2010, did not – the element of surprise and public appeal, not arising from any great service or intellect, but as a consequence of a lifetime of political mediocrity singularly defined by loyalty to the SLFP. All bets in, the gamble paid off, perhaps surprising those now in power more than those who were ousted.
But now the puppet has found it can walk and talk, and occasionally, think. With new life, unsurprisingly, comes anxiety and fear, of losing what is enjoyed, a future without the guarantee of adulation and adoration, the satisfaction of granting an audience, and being, de facto, the key protagonist of any script on the political stage. Hence the risible ricocheting of late, from one mad outburst to another, striving to appeal to constituencies who harbour no regard or love for him, posturing as saviour to things he was never asked to protect much less promote, and parading as a moraliser in chief. The chutzpah of yahapalanaya’s chief custodian to deform, decry, and destroy the ideals he was entrusted with is only matched by a catastrophic selfishness, which is now self-evident. All this is compounded by the odious curse of the office he holds and its power to attract charlatans as advisors and gatekeepers, poisoning the incumbent with only what he wants to hear, instead of what he needs or has to.
What have we lost? A ripe moment for change, and for the better. What the government asks us to celebrate – RTI, the OMP, an active, strong Human Rights Commission, significant price reductions in the cost of essential medicines – are policies they have actively pursued, fought for, and implemented. These are not insignificant. Though it may be on account of an imprecise translation of the Sinhala original, English news media reported last week that the President had “restored the rule of law, strengthened democratic institutions and created a free judiciary and media in the last three years”. This formulation, placing himself and his munificence centre and forward, is revealing. It is possible to clampdown and censor an independent media. It is possible to eviscerate an independent judiciary. It is possible to undermine democratic institutions. It is possible to blatantly disregard and violently deny the Rule of Law.
Gotabaya Rajapakse, with the impunity afforded as a consequence of an elder brother as President, did all this and more. But the basis of democratic governance is that all these elements are present and vested in the people, independent of incumbents in power. They are constitutionally enshrined, and are thus inviolable protections or affordances citizens enjoy. It is not for the President to bestow them to us. And for a President who claims to have restored a free media, it is mind-boggling how in the same speech the President talks of control, containment and essentially, censorship – entirely in line with steps taken by the President’s Office to block websites earlier this year. Tellingly, Sirisena’s tacit justification of this is by asserting he has no problem with websites that do “the correct thing” and “provide good entertainment to the people”. These are subjective measures, selfishly exercised.
Question is, ‘now what?’ President Sirisena is an experiment which has outgrown its laboratory, with unintended consequences now overwhelming and undermining promising, even miraculous, early results. The mutation is fast growing, and latching on to what slouches towards centres of power, with designs of reclamation. Far worse, electorally speaking an over the longer term, is the vastly diminished enthusiasm around what was first produced, promoted and promised by the man and his mission. Millions who voted for a culture of politics that was in substance and process different to what was voted out, are entreated to more of the same. It is unclear whether the full violence of this is recognised by those in power.
President Sirisena has lost control of the necessary narrative that binds government to its people, which he seeks to hide through greater volume. The shriller and more frequent the assertions of self-importance, the greater the assurance the man and the project he was entrusted with, has failed. Yahapalanaya’s glow today is not one of or generated by the relief, joy and hope of 2015, but the embers of that dream, crashed and burnt. Newsreel footage of the Hindenburg, crashing to the ground in 1937, come to mind and is not an inappropriate metaphor.
We wanted a saviour. We gave life to a Frankenstein.