By Gamini Weerakoon
Even though the presidential election has not yet been officially announced, the cacophony of voices for the proposed candidates is stepping up. Unrestrained, superlative praises of cheer squads are being shouted from roof tops followed by vile, damning condemnation of their rivals.
This, of course, is in keeping with the country’s political traditions. This week, however, we read of a rare expression of opinion that is not in tune with the usual ‘Bakthigee’ and hosannas.
The ever charming Muttiah Muralitharan of international cricketing fame had been invited to speak at the annual convention of Viyathmaga, described as a think-tank of a putative presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Viyathmaga means, the Way of Intellectuals, but Gotabaya’s opponent Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera has dubbed it as the ‘Vipathmaga’ — the Road to Disaster.
What Murali’s interest is in Rajapaksa politics and Gotabaya’s ideologies, we are so far not aware of and why he was featured as a star speaker at the inauguration is baffling.
Nonetheless, Murali, some news reports said, had bowled a political ‘Doosra’ like his cricketing ‘Doosra’ which many leading batsmen had not been able to read and come a cropper, making him the world’s leading wicket taker in Test Cricket.
“The leader of the country,” Murali had declared “should be a politician who should have knowledge in all fields and not a specialist only in one or two fields and that a leader should be a politician.” Whether he knew it or not, the prima donna of the convocation held at the Hotel Shangri la, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not been a politician, having retired from the army while holding the rank of Lt. Colonel, then migrating to America, gaining American citizenship and worked in the IT industry as a ‘Systems Integrator’.
When his brother became president in 2005, he returned to Lanka and while retaining his American citizenship was appointed the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence till the Rajapaksa government was defeated in 2015. This record clearly shows that Gotabaya was never a politician of the kind called for by our cricketer. Thus, did our lovable cricketer — as they say in Sinhala — baldiyak peraluwa? (kick a bucket).
Murali makes his comments as complicating as his cricketing Doosra with his call for another attribute a leader should possess: The capability of the candidate to ensure security to the people without fear. This may be a sop — presidential aspirant Rajapaksa’s clarion call wherever he speaks these days is the need to ensure national security. Thus, was Murali promoting or cancelling Gotabaya?
Whether Murali delivered a political Doosra, wittingly or unwittingly or Gotabaya tried to bowl him out round the legs, by inviting him to speak at the inauguration and gain his support, is not the most significant issue to this writer.
It is that Murali demonstrated his independence by not singing ‘bakthigee’ like the jayamangala gatha girls or choir boys singing hosannas to the big chief of the show, as is the standard practice.
Render unto Caesar…
Another recent speech of significance last week was by Colombo’s Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. It was at a strictly religious occasion, the blessing of a new wooden altar at a church in Kalamulla. He said: ‘Jesus sacrificed his life to save people from sin and what he did at the Last Supper continues even today among Catholics…. But with the onset of the Open Economy, people gradually began to deviate from religious practices. It is a common phenomenon in many countries in the world. Society is heading towards a situation where they reject religion while some people use religion like an ornament or like a coat which can be removed anytime he wishes.”
The cardinal would have been making a strictly religious oration to his flock and we are by no means attempting to critique it. But with the Sri Lankan air now being highly politically charged with the presidential election round the corner and the UNP being lambasted by its opponents for its policy of an Open Economy, the Cardinal’s remarks may have a political fallout that could influence Catholics to tilt the election in the way of UNP’s opponents, the Pohottuwa group. It has to be noted that the left-of-centre leaning cleric has bashed the Open Economy before. He, as a religious leader and citizen of the country, has, no doubt, the right to do it.
But isn’t the Cardinal overstepping the line drawn and observed Christian clerics in this country for quite some time? He is overstepping the mark set by Christ himself? “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” is what Christ had said.(Matthew 22-21) . This is the line followed in most Christian democratic nations whether they are constitutionally secular or not.
On the other hand, in this country, there is no dividing line to keep the clergy out of politics with the Mahnayakes, lesser nayakes and most monks being immersed neck deep in politics. The stanza in the Dhammapada clearly indicates the path Buddhist monks should take in this regard: ‘One is the quest for worldly gain, the other is the path to Nibbana. Clearly understanding this let not the monk, the disciple of the Buddha, be carried away with worldly acclaim but develop detachment instead’.
Whether Sri Lankan monks seen more often on the streets staging political demonstrations, political platforms and the like than in meditation do abide by this guidance in the Dhammapada, we will leave it to the people to decide.
From a political point of view, the Cardinal’s condemnation of the Free Economy begs the question, which economic system does he recommend? The Western world, Russia, China, India (the second fastest growing economy), Japan, South East Asian developing countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea have adopted open economies. These countries may have autocratic leaders or those that were democratically elected but all have shifted over to Open Economies.
Cardinal Ranjith may be correct that open economic values erodes religious beliefs and practices but very many Third World countries that emerged after being under imperialism adopted, communist, socialist, mixed economic systems at the cost of sufferance of their people. Malcolm Ranjith as a teenager and youth in the 1960s and 70s would have seen the suffering undergone by the poor and middle class under the mixed socialist system of the Bandaranaikes and the Samasamajists while the ruling class enjoyed the best of privileges such as educating their brood in the best of Western educational institutes, while others were not given foreign exchange even for examination fees.
The Pohottuwa coalition has chosen Gotabaya as their presidential candidate but he has not yet clearly spelled out his economic policies. He was the most powerful bureaucrat in the two Rajapaksa regimes that adopted the so-called Mahinda Chinthanaya. The basic economic policy of these regimes was to have gone in for massive eye-catching infrastructure projects borrowing billions of dollars from China without having the foggiest idea on how the loans were to be repaid. Last week at the Viyathmaga show, he appears to have come out with an economic plan—not publicised as yet— which Mangala Samaraweera has described as being ‘Castles in the Air’.
The presidential election debate will rage on in the coming weeks, with fanatical partisan masses going berserk under delusions that their elected leader could resolve the grave crises of the creation of their own parties when in power. In reality, their choice will be either to elect a leader chosen by the gang that was thrown out five years ago back into power or throw in an elected leader chosen by the gang that has made an awful mess of things in the past few years.
High frequency notes of morality and honesty and teachings of great religious leaders will be sounded in the coming weeks. But the reality is what Lenin quite candidly admitted long years ago: ‘There are no morals in politics; there is only expediency. A scoundrel may be of use to us just because he is a scoundrel’.