Pope’s visit hoodoo in power politics

Vatican Pope Sri LankaThe third visit of a Pope to Sri Lanka is certainly important to Catholics here, and is also an event of historical importance in the relations between Sri Lanka and the Holy See. Apart from its religious and historical importance, this Papal visit also underscored an important political lesson to future national leaders of Sri Lanka.

It is the reality that if one wishes to continue in office as the national leader, it is best not to invite the Pope to this country or support such an invitation. The proof of this is that the visit of Pope Francis is the third time the leader who invited the Pope was not the leader who received him in the country. It is strange and almost funny, but true. Happening for the third time it does not seem coincidental. Is there a Papal hoodoo on power in Sri Lanka?

Let’s see the facts.

  • On the first occasion when Pope Paul VI, visited this country in December 1970, the invitation was extended by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, but the Pontiff was received by his successor Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
  • On the second occasion, the visit of Pope John Paul II, the invitation was extended by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, but the reception here was by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
  • On this third Papal visit, the difference in leadership was almost by a hair’s breadth, in politic timing. The invitation that was first made by the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, and followed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who made it a big propaganda event with a special visit to the Vatican.

Souring the pitch of this supportive invitation was the reported assault on Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in the UK Chris Nonis, by the then Monitoring MP of the Minister of External Affairs Sajin Vaas Gunewardena, just days before the Rajapaksa visit to the Vatican.

As the date of the visit approached, the country was faced with a snap presidential election brought on by Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, in a bid to extend his term in office, to an unprecedented third term. There were even posters in parts of Chilaw to use the Pope’s visit for political advantage in the Rajapaksa election campaign. But, the reality once again was that the reception of Pope Francis was by his successor, President Maithripala Sirisena, elected just four days after assuming office.

Whether the spiritual powers of the Holy Father were in any way responsible for this interesting reality or not, it is certainly a good lesson for politicians against trying to use religious leaders, and the faith of people for purposes of political propaganda.

There are other interesting facts involving both religion and foreign affairs, which point to the best calculations of politicians being thwarted by the reality of events. One such is the invitation to world leaders from Buddhist and Buddhism related states to Sri Lanka to attend the Buddha Jayanthi celebrations in 1957, extended by the Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala. The leaders did turn up for the historic event, but they were received by Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, whose MEP had roundly defeated the UNP government of Kotelawala, in the 1956 General Election.

There is another interesting and huge example in foreign affairs. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike invited the leaders of the Non-Aligned nations to the summit held in Sri Lanka in 1976, where she was elected head of the Non-Aligned Movement for the next three years, being the leaders of the host country. Yet, just one year later, in 1977, the UNP led by JR Jayewardene swept the polls in the General Election, and it was JRJ who remained head of the NAM for the rest of the term that Sri Lanka chaired, and showed very little interest in Non-Alignment.

There is also the other reality of the Commonwealth of Nations. Although Mahinda Rajapaksa was initially not very much interested in hosting the last CHOGM here, he later saw in it a great opportunity for image building , both here and abroad, as the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth. Some of this publicity is still seen in parts of Colombo. But, January 8, 2015 put paid to that bit of glory too. With his election as President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena is now the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth till the next CHOGM Summit is held in Malta, in October-November this year.

 

These coincident realities in religious and foreign affairs, give a good lesson to politicians about the very fickle nature of their hold on power, and the wider reality of change that can affect their most cherished of dreams, of swaying the public mind in one’s favour.

 

It is interesting to move from these situations to another reality of politics and power that we saw in the recent presidential election. What will be best, or worst, remembered is that of “Cut-out Politics”. The Sri Lankan voters were treated to the most shameless and hugely boastful display of personal publicity by the cut-outs that lined almost every street, grabbed every junction, and tried to draw unwilling voters to the election offices of the Rajapaksa campaign. It was a campaign that did not understand the reality of current publicity trends, and also had little respect for the opinions of voters, many of whom were cut off by this cut-out campaign that tried to win their support, but often turned them against it. For the first time we saw an election, where the candidate with the least number of posters and hardly any cut-outs that angered the people, winning both sympathy and support.

 

One hopes this is the beginning of a change in the style and tactics of political campaigning, which includes a departure of the contemptible use of State media for downright dirty electioneering. Let’s hope we see a welcome change in the campaign for the General Election that is near at hand. Let all those seeking power keep the lesson on uncertainty in the Pope’s visit very much in their mind.