07 January 2020

The diga-palala of dynastic aspirations

In the year 2014, when Sajith Premadasa tried to overthrow Ranil Wickremesinghe as leader of the United National Party (UNP), I wrote the following observation on dynastic politics (‘Sajith Premadasa’s move(s)’ in the now defunct ‘The Nation’ newspaper).

Dynastic aspiration is something prevalent across the board and at all levels.  We see it in local government bodies, provincial elections and even within political parties.  It can’t be the political fascination of the powerful or those who crave power.  Sure, they tend to have lots of money or draw from moneyed backers and this helps secure votes, but that’s exactly the point – unlike monarchies where there’s no-sweat succession, here you have to be voted in.  Well, it looks like the general public is not averse to dynasty. 

A quick glance at South Asian politics over the 50-60 years clearly shows that the dynastic notion is a compelling factor in electoral politics; we had the Gandhis in India, Bandaranaikes, Wijewardenas and lately the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka, the Bhuttos in Pakistan and the Zias in Bangladesh.  It’s not a South Asian preserve, though; consider the Kennedys, Clintons and Bushes in the USA. What separates these trends from a classic monarchy is elections. We could even call it democratic feudalism. Dynasty, in other words, is a factor that can sometimes give an edge. In Sri Lanka, at the parliamentary, provincial and local government levels we’ve seen many sons and daughters of political parents being elected. It’s a gene-factor, then.

Gene-factor, however, is not gene-right. In the same article referred to above, I offered the following, referring to the general readiness of the public to affirm ‘gene-right’: 

What this has produced, naturally, is for the progeny of politicians to operate as though they are endowed with some kind of ‘gene right’ to power.  The legitimacy or at least the logic of Sajith Premadasa’s political ambitions can perhaps be explained by the obvious ‘genetic edge’ and an electorate that is confused about monarchy and democracy.  What is important is for Sajith, the United National Party and the nation as a whole to check if the prince-in-waiting has king-credentials on non-genetic counts. 

Five years later, these king-credentials on non-genetic counts were placed before the people of this country. We all know the result — Sajith was roundly defeated. Take away the votes brought in by the Tamil National Alliance and the man merely obtained the UNP’s bloc vote, nothing more. If ‘Premadasaism’ was a factor, one could argue that the more positive elements of Papa Premadasa's legacy (he had many negatives, let us not forget) were embodied not by Sajith but his strongest rival, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. So, while the dynastic element can buttress candidacy in lesser elections, it is unlikely to be sufficient when it comes to a Presidential Election.

How about Chandrika Kumaratunga (daughter of two prime ministers) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa (brother of one of the most popular presidents in the country), one might ask. There’s a difference. Chandrika, in personality, ideology and the company she kept was starkly at odds with her father who was little more than an opportunistic demagogue, and her mother, who was a far more committed nationalist with none of her daughter’s servility to Western powers and their ideological preferences. She was, then, her own woman, more herself than a daughter. 

The circumstances were also in her favor. She broke ranks with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and returned to seize power, admittedly and essentially citing gene-right, when her mother was ailing and the party needed a charismatic boost. Yes, charisma was something she had, perhaps in her genes but perhaps acquired by herself. Thirdly, the UNP was in decline after President Premadasa got into a tangle thanks to Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake defecting to the Opposition and initiating impeachment procedures against him. Her stock went up after the assassinations of Athulathmudali and Premadasa in a bloody week at the end of April and beginning of May in 1993. 

How about Gotabaya, then? Would he have won had he not been Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother? For example, had Dinesh Gunawardena contested under the pohottuwa symbol would he have won? Mahinda’s immense popularity, palpable disenchantment with the yahapalanists (as evidenced by the results of the local government elections on February 10, 2018), a solid party network built over four years and a well-orchestrated grassroots campaign certainly worked in Gotabaya’s favor.  Indeed, such factors are likely to have worked as well for any other candidate, even if he was not a Rajapaksa. 

And yet, in Gotabaya’s case, it cannot be denied that he was his own man. He had and has an identity that is distinct. He came with a reputation of a hard worker, a man intent on getting the job done. He shares the thrust of his brother’s ideological concerns or rather the general drift of popular sentiments that his brother embraced and/or rode to power. Had he not been endowed with such traits, it is interesting to wonder whether it would have impacted the margin of victory. This we can never know for sure, of course. This is why it is useful and perhaps important to consider Sajith Premadasa’s politics and personality in determining the effect of the gene-factor when it comes to a presidential election. 

Admittedly, we don’t have too many cases to work with. One could also consider the performance of people who did not have the gene-edge. Sarath Fonseka was a monumental failure, but then again he contested in a political situation that was extremely favorable to his opponent. Maithripala Sirisena had nothing close to Gotabaya Rajapaksa when it comes to a distinctive identity, reputation as a doer and for getting things done, etc., and yet he won. In other words, there are circumstances in which gene-factors are less relevant or of close to zero worth.    

What did Sajith Premadasa offer that was made of Sajith Premadasa and Sajith Premadasa alone? What about him was not about his father, Ranasinghe Premadasa? Nothing. His entire campaign was a plea for ‘a showing of gratitude’ to his late father. He failed to understand that his father had died too long ago for an entire generation to remember. He failed to understand that his father left a mixed-bag legacy and that if remembered, both good and bad would be considered. He failed to understand that one’s perceptions regarding parents are not necessarily shared by the electorate. Credentials of the candidate matter, he forgot. They matter as much or more than lineage even in a society where family name and histories are taken into account. 

In short, he had nothing new to offer. He credentials as a forceful, innovative man of vision were pretty thin and that would be a generous assessment. His was an I-Me-and-Myself kind of campaign. Ego was what came up and that probably brought him even further down than he might have slipped had he focused on the basics of electoral politics: solid campaigning at the grassroots with an effective party machinery. Of course the last was a handicap delivered to him by poor leadership and therefore was not exactly in his control, but depending absolutely on Papa-Credentials was certainly not going to take him anywhere. 

There’s a lesson here for anyone who think that Daddy-Mummy being in power makes for shoo-in when it comes to the top political office. It just doesn’t work that way unless other factors are aligned in fortuitous ways, as they were in the cases of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In a tight race, they probably won’t count.

What probably would count, on the other hand, if for those who believe they are princes or princess in waiting to acquire king-credentials on non-genetic counts for fortuitous circumstances are marked by unpredictability. A would-be-leader would not chance it. He or she would not count on favorable circumstances to materialize. Instead, he or she, would do the hard yards relevant to being a good legislator, cultivate humility, shed Daddy-Mummy diapers, and blaze his or her own path without any fillip from parents. If all this is done, gene-factor in a society that is marked at times by feudal behavior would be an additional advantage. 

Purely in terms of winnability, it can be put down as a simple question that has to be seriously considered by politicians with gene-aspirations: ‘Do I want to be a Gotabaya or a Sajith?’ It would help obtain the diga-palala or the true dimensions of political fortunes. 

This article was first published in the SUNDAY OBSERVER [January 5, 2020]