A case for Sajith | Sunday Observer

A case for Sajith

10 November, 2019

“The common hope of the entire country is how to change this rotten, corrupt political and societal system.”

Candidate Sajith Premadasa made this critically concise, piercingly persuasive statement on Thursday, just nine days before the final faceoff.

He added, “I will appoint a new, first-time Prime Minister who will be endorsed by the majority.”

Why did he say what he said? This essay undertakes to comprehend what he said and unravel the reasons why he said it.

Having closed the gap between him and his main opponent he has no choice but to announce now what he must do anyhow if, and when, he wins.

Clearly, he intends to make a quantum leap well past the 50% plus one by wooing the disenchanted segment that has gravitated to alternative candidates.

At age 52, he is a world minded candidate. He has in the last fortnight closed the gap between him and his septuagenarian opponent whose primary purpose is to regain the family fiefdom.

Sajith has recognized the compelling logic of the ascension of the alternative candidacy of Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the telling impact of two other candidates Mahesh Senanayaka and Ajantha Perera.

Progressive voters are discerning voters. They now have a clear option of a second preference that appeases both ideology and the pragmatic imperative from which they have no escape unless saddled with some suicidal despair.

It is a startlingly straightforward statement.

“We have to change who holds power and how they hold power. It has become clear to me that there is only one way for solving Sri Lanka’s problems. That is by cleaning up politics in this country while not sacrificing our cherished democracy and individual freedoms.”

“No Minister will be able to appoint family members to important positions.”

In his scathing sweep, the candidate propelled by an insurgency within the UNP, has broken free from the dead weight of the anti-incumbency fatigue, ingrained in the public psyche, linked to the dull as dishwater leadership of his party that has meandered through the last four and a half years with some noteworthy achievements eclipsed by scandal and cronyism.

With disarming disdain, he pronounced “We have to change who holds power and how they hold power.”

Politics rewards the liar, the coward and the egotistical. What politicians are good at is to put the past behind them and move on.

There is a common denominator applicable to Mahinda Rajapaksa who ruled the country for a decade and Ranil Wickremesinghe who persistently tried to give his best shot at the job for a quarter century. It is their nonchalance and self-poise to put the past behind them and move on that keeps them going.

The simplest and easiest way to move on is to ignore the mistakes made and to convince yourself that you never made them. The younger brother of the affable tyrant is equally endowed with that spirit.

Both Mahinda and Ranil are deliriously dexterous at obfuscation. They both excel in denial of any wrongdoing, even in the light of overwhelming evidence. The past four and a half years is ample proof of how the two make-believe adversaries played the system.

It is a system that rewards duplicity and punishes decent behavior.

Three decades of a horrendous conflict has had its toll on our politics. For too long, we have regarded blind self-confidence and boorish bluster as the single significant quality of leadership.

We must consider Sajith’s statement in this context.

At this point a confession is in order.

I was extremely skeptical of his candidacy in this looming battle against a neofascist family kleptocracy. They would spare no effort in regaining their stranglehold of a people petrified in ancient consecrated tribal prejudice.

Ranil Wickremesinghe cynically avoided reforming the system. He paved the way for a neofascist candidate in the belief that democratic forces would coalesce around him.

Like many others, I was ready to vote for one of the two alternative candidates who correctly and accurately identified the sizable constituency of weary citizens. We could exercise our franchise together with the frustrated curse – a plague on both houses.

Since his official nomination, Sajith Premadasa has displayed great stamina as an effective campaigner. With surprising ease, he has succeeded in ridiculing the bombast of his opponent who now seems frozen within his undoubtedly substantial tribal base.

After imperiously acknowledging ‘hurrahs’ from the stage, Gotabaya delivers his lecture. In contrast, Sajith has the remarkable ability to talk to people. While talking he gives the impression that he in fact is listening to them. He loves doing it and draws his energy from the people.

Most politicians are trained to move through crowds smiling, holding hands. But the smile does not reach their eyes. Sajith Premadasa makes eye contact with the hoi polloi with genuine ease.

As Victor Ivan has surmised, Sajith has a wider nationwide coalition that transcends the usual political and ideological fault lines.

Cutting across partisan politics, he commands a primary, structural relationship with the voiceless and the deprived.

With the conspicuous exception of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, all other major candidates have pointed to the unforgivable socio-economic disparities in our society.

As pointed out in my earlier essay – a centrist social compact, Sajith Premadasa has presented a manifesto that advocates a centrist policy program. It has an eagle’s eye focus on social equity.

It is natural that the Rajapaksa family would not approach the subject of social equity. Royals don’t do that sort of rubbish. They will offer handouts. In any event, they would approach this sensitive subject with some trepidation.

The lavish nuptials of three offspring greeted with wild frenzy by adoring fans in the social media precludes them from an honest approach to the subject of opulence greeted with vague jealousy or censored as downright vulgar. There are some things that never change. Some sixty years ago, the influential economist J.K. Galbraith dealt with this hypersensitive social malaise. He was Kennedy’s hand-picked ambassador to Nehru’s India.

His book ‘The Affluent Society’ excited my generation of progressives. We relished his catchy expression “private opulence amidst public squalor”.

Galbraith was echoing the words of the Roman historian Sallust, who said it in Latin about five centuries after Buddhism supposedly impacted our collective conscience.

“Habemus publice egestatem, privatim, opulentiam - We have luxury and avarice, but as a people poverty, and in private, opulence.”

As I said earlier, some things don’t change. What characterized the late stages of the Roman republic seems to be what ails our republic today.

We are now the subject of a tug-of-war between the Rajapaksa family, their followers and the rest still clinging on to sanity.

The idea that the state has an obligation to assist the less privileged in terms of opportunity has acquired the sanctity of releveled truth. That every citizen is entitled to the basic necessities of a modern society is a guiding principle that is observed in breach even by despots who depend on elections.

Even the most diehard champions of free marketeering as the means of creating wealth concede that market competition invariably leaves a segment of our society behind.

This presidential election will tell us the size of that left behind segment. However, one has to make allowance for the devout percentage who would attribute their deprivation to ‘karmic influence’. The clerical establishment cocooned in patronal politics has a vital role in politics of poverty.

A free market has an embedded mechanism that constantly threatens the poor. Today, poverty has become the focal point of our political discourse. Seventy-one years of politics of poverty has exposed the poverty of our politics.

For too long, the vulnerable and the marginal have been used as pawns in the chess game of the elite class.

Those who evaluate candidates in the comfort of their self-satisfying world of schadenfreude will play the blame game. They will have difficulty in assigning the fault of being poor to the victims of an inherently imperfect system.

We must remember that Sajith’s nomination was the result of a grassroots revolt against the elite leadership that has outlived its relevance and forfeited its integrity.

Instead of playing the blame game, Sajith Premadasa has dived into the deep end to fight poverty, create jobs, increase wages and, above all, tackle income disparity.

In his manifesto, Sajith Premadasa sums up his task in one simple line. He promises “A progressive country that leaves no one behind.’’

Political courage is the most admired, rarely displayed virtue in representative democracy. Sajith has made a leap of courage.

He has made a bold move to woo the constituency griped in bleak cynicism of all politicians and the entire political process.

He has earned the second preference of the constituency of Anura Kumara and other alternative candidates. They should advise their flock that Sajith deserves their second preference.