BY H.L.D. MAHINDAPALA
After missing the Rajapaksa bus of which he was once the conductor selling tickets to potential passengers, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka (DJ) – the political analyst who never fails to advertise himself as a “political scientist” – is now riding on the footboard of Sajith Premadasa’s bus hoping that the son is on his father’s route to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, according to his “scientific” calculations.
His thesis is based essentially on the greatness of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, a qualification that has been granted to him posthumously even by his bitter hate-mongers like Victor Ivan.
Citing FDR as the role model in his stoush with Krishantha Cooray he dismisses all other contenders for the Presidency. He says: “Sajith is the country’s only hope. To put it very bluntly, the best chance the SJB and the country have to get out from under, is Sajith Premadasa’s combination of liberal-democracy, pluralism, developmental populism and devolution within a unitary state”.
All the necessary qualifications needed for Sajith to claim the mantle of leadership are attributed by DJ to his father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa. “In plain English”, he writes, “the choices are neither Sirisena nor Gotabaya but the father of Sajith Premadasa, the SJB leader: Ranasinghe Premadasa, the last UNP President elected by the people, and one whose development philosophy is imperative to lift the country from the deep pit into which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has led it”.
Quite correctly, he compares President Premadasa to FDR and his New Deal though, when he was living, he was accused of “crony capitalism” by some leading UNPers. In praising the achievements of President Premadasa DJ has missed the most critical factor: there is a similarity in the methods and the objectives of both Presidents, Premadasa and Gotabaya.
Both have been like FDR taking on the establishment to serve the people. FDR most notably sacked the Supreme Court to push his New Deal designed to serve the people. Both Presidents like FDR have proved their readiness to crash through bureaucratic red-tape that stands in the way of the peoples’ needs. Both are committed with equal vigour and dedication to prioritise the needs of the people. Both are people-oriented.
Besides, Presidents had to face the wrath of their opponents in the crudest form. The attempt to demonise President Gotabaya was demonstrated by the scandalous Swiss affair which proved to be a staged show to blacken his image in the West along with Rajitha Senaratne’s Shenanigans with a fake news conference with hired agents to throw mud at the new Gotabaya regime.
DJ, of all people, should know how Premadasa’s detractors ran amok trying their level best demonise him. He is now doing to Gotabaya what the enemies of President Premadasa did to him: to “assassinate his character”. The usual suspects in the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist camp – DJ, Kumar David, Victor Ivan and the Dayan-Priyas – have ganged up to denigrate President Gotabaya who is waging a war against an enemy bigger than Prabhakaran: Covid-19, the enemy within.
He refuses to see anything positive in the politics of President Gotabaya. He can only see doom and gloom. He has forgotten his own past when he fought relentlessly to defend President Premadasa against similar circumstances faced by President Gotabaya.
Between 1990-94 Tissaranee Gunasekera, Dayan Jayatilleka and yours truly formed one item taking on the might of the entire anti-Premadasa opposition which consisted of India, (N. N. Jha, Indian High Commissioner), the West (David Gladstone, the British High Commissioner) and the locals led by the Napoleon Boru-parts of the anti-Premadasa front, namely Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, along with Victor Ivan, the editor of the newly launched, Ravaya, which became the loudspeaker for the Lalith-Gamini duo.
Churches and NGOs, including A.T. Ariyaratne’s Sarvodaya too joined the anti-Premadasa front. It was a formidable combination at the time. They were out to oust the Premadasa regime. They nearly did in the impeachment planned and plotted with the collaboration of the then speaker, M. H. Mohammed and disguised Indian interventions.
The propaganda barrage against President Premadasa was overwhelming. He could not lift a finger without the private sector media and the vested interests demonising him, day in day out.
It was pure hate politics. The opposition to him came not because of his policies and programs, all of which were people-oriented, but because he was Premadasa, a man from the other side of society. He came from the football-playing Kehelwatte as opposed to the cricket-playing Kurunduwatte.
There was a built-in resentment from Royal College and Oxford products to the leader whom they vilified as uneducated and, therefore, uncultured. D. S. Senanayake and Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike were far less educated than Premadasa who could hold his own with the best of the best. They had a status in society because they came from the side that was “born to rule”. The likes of Premadasas had to earn it facing obstacles every inch of the way to the top.
Besides, they never faced the kind of personal animosity that came from within the ranks of the UNP itself. Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, his rivals for leadership, never forgave him for taking away from them what they considered to be their birth right.
They tried to trip him, undercut him and overthrow him at every turn. A typical example was the construction of the splendid Kandalama Hotel designed by Geoffrey Bawa. Wild issues about the threats to the environment, particularly to the nearby reservoir, and the villagers in the neighbourhood, were raised against the project only because it had the patronage of President Premadasa and it was going to be plus for his economy.
The bogus campaign was exposed when in the later years it won successive awards for environmental excellence, with all those who opposed it patronising it as regular clients applauding its beauty and services. But in Premadasa’s time it was a burning political issue of the day. Any stick was good enough to beat Premadasa.
At the time I was editing the daily and the Sunday Observer. Premadasa was the underdog pummelled pitilessly by the priviligentsia. He was portrayed as a dictator and a ruthless killer. Tissaranee and Dayan whose political sympathies were with Premadasa became regular contributors to the Sunday Observer defending President Premadasa from the Left-wing. I was defending him from the centre-left. It was one hell of a battle. I became “the controversial Editor”, if not the notorious one.
The Sunday Observer was a lone post defending the most unpopular leader of the time, especially among the English-speaking elite. Except for the three of us no one else dared in the media to defend President Premadasa.
It was not fashionable in the English-speaking media to be on the side of an unorthodox leader of the UNP from Kehelwatte, the poor quarter of the city. Traditionally UNP leaders hailed from Kurunudwatte (Colombo 7), the exclusive quarter of the elite. The caste factor too was dragged in and the Premadasaites were dubbed as the “Washingtons” – the dhobies! Politically the picture was dim and grim.
Political pundits circulating in diplomatic cocktail parties were expecting it to fall any time. They were going after it like the fox in the Panchatantra who went after the testicles of the ox salivating greedily thinking that they were loose enough to fall any time, only to retire, after following it for many miles, saying: “Though dangling and loose it is tight!”
One of the best political indices of the time was the circulation figures of the Sunday Observer. It went through the roof breaking for the first time 100, 000 barrier – the first for an English newspaper. According to straight logic a newspaper backing the most unpopular leader of the day should not be the most popular newspaper. But it was. Circulation figures confirmed it.
My non-conformist, aggressive style taking on all-comers was not to the liking of the conservative elite. In fact, Regi Siriwardena, the most respected guru of the English-speaking elite, went out of his way to berate me for reading Jane Austen in the night and coming to office in the morning and hammering the daylights out of the anti-Premadasa chattering class.
(Regi and I were embroiled in a controversy over the merits and demerits of Jane Austen as a novelist at the time). The snooty, Anglophile intellectuals, in particular, could not accept as their President a native reformist willing to serve the people prioritising their needs.”Peoplising” was the neologism introduced to describe the new political culture.
In other words, there was an entrenched Westernised, elitist class who were contemptuous of an indigenous leader who was bold enough to challenge the established conservative order that served vested interests than those of the people. They felt left out of the inner power circle as President Premadasa dragged the UNP kicking and screaming to the grass roots.
With the Gamm Udawa he took the do-nothing administration, with the Ministers, to the village level – a novelty that loosened the bureaucratic red tapes. With Janasaviya he took the radical step of a government distributing money to the poor. Poverty alleviation was prioritised to the highest level in his political agenda. With his humble beginnings these are projects that came from his heart.
Once in power he became the heart of the heartless world. It meant that he had felt and identified the aspirations and the basic needs of the people. It was not populism in the vulgar sense. It was a humane response to the cries of the people in need.
Whilst managing these innovative projects he also had on his hands two wars: one in the North and one in the South. He had the courage, energy and the determination to confront both without giving an inch. Who else could have taken on Rohana Wijeweera, Velupillai Prabhakaran, David Gladstone, India, Lalith and Gamini, Colombo 7, the private sector media etc., simultaneously and survive politically, with the power of electability as he did? The exception would have been the Rajapakses.
One of President Premadasa’s greatest gifts was his ability to grab viable ideas and run with them to achieve his goals. For instance, the incentives he gave the nascent garment industry stimulated the economy and decentralised growth outside Colombo by planting the factories in rural areas. It was an adventurous period in which a daring leader was steering the nation to new horizons. But his detractors never gave him a moment’s peace.
They planted wild stories to blacken his image, prophesied doom and gloom and the end of democracy, hired all manner of experts to demean and devalue his projects, banded with foreign and local agents to undermine his authority and weaken his administration, vilified him and his family background, questioned even his education qualifications and in the impeachment went to the extent of saying that he was insane.
This thumb-nail sketch was drawn to point out that the same tactics are being adopted to demonise the Rajapaksas this time with DJ and the usual suspects in the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist gang leading the offensive against President Gotabaya. This time Dayan has gone a bit too far. This time he is on the wrong side of history. He knows how unfair the campaign that was waged against Premadasa.
He should know better what the opponents of Premadasa did to his Presidency. As a “political scientist” he should know that unorthodox and innovative leaders steering the vehicle of state are not popular with those passengers who feel uncomfortable each time the gears are changed.
They are quite content to chug along on the conventional gears on the same old roads. Any change of direction, or speed, or even drivers are resented. Unnerved by the unfamiliar road not taken before they throw their hands up in horror and scream that the nation is being driven to irredeemable and disastrous ends.
There is no doubt that President Gotabaya is engaged in one of the risky but calculated experiments in serving the needs of the nation. Like President Premadasa he is concerned about delivering goods and service to the people. Moving the bureaucracy to serve the people has been a perennial pandemic faced by all leaders. Each time the bureaucracy fails it is the political masters who have to pay for the sins of their booru-crats.
President Premadasa experimented with the Gamm Udawa — an administrative mechanism in which the bureaucrats were taken to the villagers, with their Ministers, to deliver instant services instead of the villagers trekking all the way to Colombo and forced to hang around offices without even getting an appointment at the end of the day. It has been the mission of every great leader to break through the red-tape of bureaucrats and deliver to the people what is due to them. President Gotabaya too is engaged earnestly in that mission. Either he goes down to the ground level and fixes the bureaucratic failures or he has handpicked ex-military officers to deliver the goods and services speedily to the needy.
It is a novelty. It should be considered as an experiment in revitalising the old, crumbling administrative system. It has the appearance of military apparatus without being one. This is the difference between Myanmar and Sri Lanka. There the Army in uniform is doomed to fail as it did on the previous occasion when they were in power. There the Army has taken over to run a government of the Army, by the Army for the Army.
Here the ex-servicemen were recruited to bring in a degree of efficiency and discipline into the lethargic and corrupt bureaucracy under the overall control and supervision of a democratically elected civilian administration.
In Myanmar the military plays a direct political role in suppressing and directing the day-to-day running of the political and administrative functions. In Sri Lanka the ex-servicemen perform strictly administrative duties to make it more effective maintaining the necessary between politics and administration.
There the Army has come out of the barracks to directly intervene in the private lives of the individuals. Here ex-servicemen in civvies function in key administrative posts to make a change to the old, decrepit administrative system. They are expected to deliver goods and services with military discipline and precision cutting out dilatory red-tape.
Now a political scientist is expected to know the difference which is so apparent even to the blind. But Dayan runs berserk firing verbal volleys at the Gotabaya regime. He has run out of epithets and he is driven to tautology where he speaks of “toxic poison”. It looks as if he knows of a poison that is not toxic!
According to him the Government has fallen into “the deep pit into which President Gotabaya has led it.” He has conveniently forgotten that the economy, as it stands now, is a legacy left behind by his president, Sirisena, who ran it jointly with his partner “Uncle” Ranil, as referred to by his handpicked “nephew,” Arjuna Mahendran.
To DJ Gotabaya’s Government is also “the most dangerously far-right, ultranationalist, autocratic …… regime.” He should know that in throwing these clichés at President Gotabaya he is merely parroting what the enemies of President Premadasa said against him in his time. If this is seriously what he thinks of Gotabaya’s government how could he praise Premadasa’s government which was in the same boat?
He might come back and say that Gotabaya is not Premadasa. Of course, no two people are identical. But in the political sphere both pursue the identical goals through unconventional methodologies to serve the people. Both waged battles against LTTE terrorists. Both won wars against LTTE terrorists. President Premadasa won against the Sinhala insurgents and Gotabaya won against the LTTE terrorists.
Of the two wars the greater victory is in the one fought by the Rajapakses. They had to contend with the foreign forces of the powerful West. British and French Foreign Ministers rushed to stop the war. Nor was President Premadasa faced with a Sinhala Diaspora like the Tamil Diaspora stirring foreign offices to tie the hands of the Security Forces.
Both are also known for battling poverty to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Both were/are engaged in fighting bureaucracies that are inherently lethargic and indifferent to the basic needs of the people. Both prioritise the objectives of the people.
Gotabaya won two impossible victories: first, in Nandikadal and, second, in the Presidential election which is unique in the psychological history of the nation. It was an election that defined just not the demography but also the power of political alignments. The minorities ganged up against the majority believing that they had the upper hand with a segment of the majority on their side.
Even a mathematician like Prof. Kumar David got his sums wrong when the majority swept the board. The Rajapaksas made history as no one had done before in the post-Independent era.
It is easy to attack the status quo because contemporaries are never content with their times. But if DJ is to be taken seriously he should follow his leader, Sajith, and concede that this is a time to get together and not to cavil over petty politics.
His criticism of the Army handling Covid-19 is totally misplaced. All governments are victims of Covid-19.
The second and third waves have been deadly and has nothing to do with the Army or the civilians. The pandemic has been a disease caused by the misbehaviour of the people and not the governments except in cases like Donald Trump who dismissed it as flu.
Compared to India and even some of the most advanced countries Sri Lanka has succeeded in containing Covid-19 within a manageable margin though it is threatening to runaway wildly now.
President Gotabaya is torn between protecting the livelihood of the small man and destroying the invisible enemy. It is a balancing act that has to be maintained sensitively to serve the needs of all sides of the equation.The experience of all governments has proved that it is not easy to manage the behaviour of the people and an elusive enemy that is running wild.
The need of the hour is to rally behind the serious efforts of the government irrespective of our political colours. Playing politics may butter the bread of the so-called political scientists but not the poor victims of Covid-19