25 November 2019

Gotabaya Rajapaksa can go for ‘Yahapalanaya PLUS’

The term Yahapalanaya came into currency in the run up to the 2015 Presidential Election. It is the Sinhala version of ‘Good Governance’.  Although the term itself was not used, notions such as transparency, accountability and fair representations have been around for a long time.  

Perhaps it is the newness of the term that made it difficult to grasp or rather made for flippant usage. There was very little time between the rise of the term and the election anyway. It wasn’t as though it was the result of an organic process made of lengthy debate across social strata. Its quick demise of course was largely due to the violation of basic tenets by the advocates themselves. 

Yahapalanaya, then, as a brand, has run its course. The idea though persists. Indeed, it is all there in the Buddhist scriptures and even in the Grade 9 Buddhism text book. The problem in application was largely a product of ignorance and disinterest. 

There was ‘good’ and there was ‘governance’. The generous view would be that the yahapalanists really wanted good, decent and honorable people running things. The way things unfolded, however, we have to conclude that ’good’ seems to have been understood less as persons and processes endowed with integrity as ‘on our side.’  ‘Our governance’ would have been closer to the truth with respect to compulsion, but then again that’s not exactly a truth that can be marketed in an election campaign.  

Today, close to five years after that experiment has gone down the tube. The word itself has taken on a cuss-word persona. In retrospect, if one were to break the term down to key constituent elements and assess performance against them, the previous government wouldn’t score well. And yet, we must revive both ‘good’ and ‘governance’ because there is nothing really wrong with those words.

First and foremost, there’s one element of ‘good’ that seems to have been lost on the Yahapalanists: effectiveness. That quality obviously is closely related to ‘governance’. Take it out and you get ‘our people’ and ‘lack of governance’ or even ungovernability.  That gives us a clue to where the newly elected president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa can take the country during his tenure.  

Gotabaya Rajapaksa inherited a mess on all counts. However, the fathers and mothers of that mess do not belong only to the previous regime. Starting from Independence, we’ve had good intention and bad plans.  

We threw the baby out with the bathwater when a post-independence language policy was formulated and implemented. Politics of expedience framed all engagements when it came to communal and religious issues. The public service was first vilified and then nullified by ‘experts’ on development, both foreign (through conditionalities imposed on aid) and local (‘brained’ to toe the line of ‘theorists’ intent on furthering capital interests). Whereas an independent and competent public service was indispensable in nation-building, public servants were made subservient to politicians. Political appointments, rewarding the incompetent, sidelining the best minds and a steady deterioration followed. 

Nationalization was not necessarily a bad idea, but this too was scuttled by politicization. As for constitutional reform, it was marked by tinkering and, once again, political expediency.  It was never about strengthening representation or institutional arrangements with a view to creating a robust state. Successive governments saw it as a tool to further the interests of the particular party or coalition. 

It’s a long list of wrongs which Gotabaya, if he so wishes, has to fix. His political friends are not exactly angels and are no more devilish than those who fall into the category ‘political enemy’. In other words, he has set out to take the country forward in less than ideal conditions. And yet, his initial moves have been quiet, determined and effective.  A doer is how he was described. ‘Work!’ Is what he promised he would do and what he requested that his voters do as well. 

It is not that others before him promised sloth, but the doing has been typically accompanied by frill and brag. Gotabaya in these early days has demonstrated that he is a bit different. One notes that he didn’t claim to be simple, but simple he has been. Quiet he is, but this doesn’t mean that he is silent. One doesn’t have to shout to announce presence and one doesn’t have to scream to get things done.

A good example would be the helmet story that is doing the rounds in social media. For years, certain communities in certain parts of the country essentially gave the proverbial finger to the law in the form of refusing to abide by the requirement for motorcyclists to wear helmets. Immediately after Gotabaya Rajapaksa became President, lo and behold, helmet sales in Kattankudy and Matale are reported to have gone up exponentially.  

Why, though?

Well, one can surmise that his opponents painted him as a brute, a devil, a heartless enforcer. That ‘billa’ if you will has come to haunt people because there is a tendency to believe one’s own propaganda after a while. It is not the best way to get people to abide by the law, but if we focus on effect and little else, we can say ‘it’s a good thing, all things considered’.

In the first week of his presidency Gotabaya Rajapaksa can be said to have set the pace, clearly articulated behavioral expectations and led by example. No frills. No grandiose celebrations. No show of force. Just intent. 

It is not that Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants to abandon everything his brother and former president (and now Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa stands for. He is clearly in tune with his brother’s brand of nationalism. It has also obvious that he rode to power largely on the immense popularity of his brother. And yet, he is also himself; we have ‘Gota’ as Mahinda’s brother AND himself. It would have been very easy for him to piggyback on the popularity-factor in the matter of post-election consolidation. All he had to do was to wear a kurahan satakaya. He didn’t. He did things his way. Quietly. Without fanfare. 

And yet, there’s something about the kurahan satakaya that is not easily dismissible and not just for reasons of expedience. We know that it is a metaphor amenable to multiple application. It is also, like yahapalanaya, something that has been tarnished due to excesses of all kinds by those associated with it politically (and not so much ideologically and culturally). 

Fourteen years ago, just after Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president for the first time, I reflected on the kurahan satakaya. The following were my conclusions: 

The kurahan saatakaya is and was essentially defined by what it is not, namely the tie-coat world as one would put it in “Sinhala”. It was the perfect “other” to everything represented by the (adopted) children of the colonial project, the privileges they enjoyed and the elitism they fostered and fought for tooth and nail perhaps never as ferociously as in this election. Still, it was not merely a matter of style, preferred clothing, notions of fashion etc. People can vote for any number of reasons but it would be safe to say that few would have factored in the choice of dress in their decision. It was what these things represented and the extent to which the avowed representation was manifest in program and ideological bent that settled the issue, I believe.

All of the above in one way or another found their way into the rhetoric of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. Rhetoric. That’s the word. I was skeptical and over the course of the next 14 years my apprehensions were proven to be justifiable. Back then, however, in that very note I expressed a wish:

If there comes a day where every single institution insists that all employees wear a kurahan saatakaya we would still not have won if they continue to have tie-coat heads. On the other hand, if these institutions continue to insist that employees wear Western attire, replete with tie and coat, but the people inside these clothes have a kurahan saatakaya frame of mind, then the November 17 decision would most certainly have produced something we can be proud of as a nation. I humbly submit that this is not impossible.

This brings us back to yahapalanaya or rather another element which the Yahapalanists missed or were ignorant of or due to world view and ideological preference were so ready to rubbish that there was no way it could have made its way into the yahapalana discourse. They understood ‘good’ in a very narrow way. They understood ‘governance’ as ‘our people being in power, never mind what they do or don’t do’. They did not understand the kurahan satakaya for what it truly represents or ought to have represented. For this they cannot be totally blamed for it was the overriding symbol of a regime they opposed for good, bad and silly reasons.  Nevertheless, if we want yahapalanaya back, it has to be scripted into the politics of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency.

Gotabaya 'wore' the kurahan satayaka during the time he was Secretary, Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. He 'wore' it during the election campaign. He 'wore' it in his swearing-in ceremony. He is 'wearing' it now as he goes about the business of running a country in a period of political transition. He wears it without wearing it. 

It seems, going strictly by what we’ve seen over the last couple of years, i.e. his preparation to contest and the campaign itself, and during his first days as President, that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a good sense of ‘good,’ and ‘governance’. He has added two things: effectiveness (simple directives that are pragmatic) and a strong and yet not-in-your-face allegiance to the kurahan satakaya in the best sense of the term, i.e. sans the chest-beating nationalism associated with his brother’s term in office and, sadly, in the election campaign of his principal rival, Sajith Premadasa.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is well poised to deliver Yahapalanaya Plus. At this point, in the immediate aftermath of his victory, it wouldn’t be out of place to wish him the protection of the Noble Triple Gem.