In the national mythology, certain personalities are accorded a special place for their rightful contribution or their omnipotent control of the system that enabled them to carve out a larger than life-size stature. So, D.S. Senanayake, the first prime minister of independent Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was called ‘Nidahase Piya’ (the Father of the nation or the Father of Independence), though unlike the Indian independence struggle, there was hardly an organised mass mobilised campaign for independence in its smaller neighbour across the Palk Strait.
Rather, after the independence of India, the prized jewel of the British empire, the British had no strategic reason to hold on to the island nation and gladly let it go, though the native elites preferred a status quo similar to that of New Zealand or Australia within the British empire to an outright independence. But when independence was given on a platter, who can turn it down?
Similarly, Dudley Senanayake, the second prime minister of Sri Lanka, who inherited the throne from his father, D.S is called “Bath Dun Piya” , the father who feeds the nation, for his contribution to the agriculture and irrigation in the newly independent Ceylon.
Dudley as the minister of agriculture and land was instrumental in early irrigation projects. Minneriya and Gal Oya and propping up local rice cultivation. However, in a more nuanced analysis, it was probably J.R. Jayewardene’s accelerated Mahaweli development project that drastically increased the arable land and changed the fortune of the local farmers, and brought Sri Lanka to the level of near self-sufficiency in rice production, which the country reached much later.
Unlike the other post-independent leaders, the popular opinion is less forgiving of J.R. Jayewardene, probably for his excesses of power. Strangely though, many others blame him for his by far the greatest achievement ,the introduction of the free-market economy.
However, the incumbent president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has decimated the agricultural sector with an over nightly ban on chemical fertilizer. Sri Lanka’s annual rice harvest amounted for around 2.45 million Metric tons. Thanks to the presidential decree, paddy harvest halved during the previous season. To make matters worse, even after the government’s lifting of the ban, fertilizer is in short supply and farmers are complaining of black market prices. A self-made calamity is taking hold on the local farmers much longer than it was initially feared.
In the meantime, Sri Lankans are being showered with generosity of a new ‘Bath Dun Piyek’. That is none other than, Xi Jing Ping or as the JVP MP Vijitha Herath has quipped in tongue in cheek, ‘Xi Jing Piya’ (father Xi Jinping). The People’s Republic of China has donated 1 million metric tons of rice to save Sri Lankans from going hungry, or more likely to save the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime from public outrage during the upcoming Sinhala Tamil new year season. That Sri Lanka which exported its surplus supply and extended a helping hand to countries like Tanzania with bountiful local rice harvest had to rely on donations to feed its people is a sad indictment of the president’s myopic policy, which he and his acolytes seem to defend still.
Whether the Chinese leader would replace Dudley as the ‘Bath Dun Piya’ is yet to be seen. However, if the rot of President Rajapaksa’s idiocracy persists and impact extends to this farming season, even Xi Jinping would not be able to save the local farming community.
President Rajapaksa’s this special feat is not yet chronicled in the national mythology though elderly monks in an advisory council, the Buddhist advisory council, has recently feted him for his contribution to Buddhism. That they failed to make a token mention of the plight of the local farmers and consumers, their ‘dayakayas’, may raise doubt about the quality of their advice.
The president’s feat is unique even in the annuls of comparative international politics. If there is even any remote similarity, it would be the late great helmsman, Mao Zedong of China who in the name of great leap forward, diverted resources from agriculture to back garden furnace type industrialization, and effectively starved to death an estimated 30 million during China’s great famine.
Sri Lanka would not face a famine for two things, free market and free flow of information, or free press, a hallmark of democracy. As Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen argued, no famine has ever taken place in the history in a functioning democracy. That is because, as much as the leaders in a democracy have to win elections and are therefore receptive to public needs, but also, famines occur much less for shortage of food supply, but for lopsided information sharing and information blackouts, which authoritarian states, lacking a free press are more than likely to resort.
However, democracy is not a deterrent for idiocracy of its leaders. However, when that happens, there should be a process to hold them accountable. For instance, in Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of controversial Thai prime minister Thaksin, who was elected as the prime minister from her brother’s party was indicted and found guilty of a controversial rice pledging scheme, in which the government purchased rice from the farmers at an elevated price, which the court ruled as a graft. The Thai example may not be the ideal for it was taken by the military Junta after the controversial sacking of Yingluck and the banning of her brother’s political party.
In democracies, there exist mechanisms to hold politicians accountable. However, as for the office of the executive presidency, such options are limited. Still, an Impeachment would be a fitting avenue though it is a tall order given the current composition of Parliament, of which near two third majority is held by the ruling SLPP.
Yet, in an advanced democracy, politicians might have acted less sycophantically. Take for instance the travails of British Prime Minister Boris Jonson, who is facing calls from the Tory Backbenchers to step down over allegedly attending drinks parties of his staff during the lockdown.
Sadly though, no ruling party politician in Sri Lanka has dared to speak out against the colossal destruction the president has unleashed on the agricultural sector.
Democracy is not necessarily a deterrent to sycophancy.
In the meantime, the nation should thank Xi Jing Piya for feeding the helpless masses who have been driven to hunger by megalomaniac policy making that China under Mao is better known for.