In yet another miracle of history, Sri Lanka has survived its Indira Gandhi phase. The Rajapaksa family twisted the Constitution to achieve what Indira did with the Emergency. A family dictatorship took over, ruthlessly supervised by President Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Parliament was turned into a branch of the executive, the judiciary into a rubberstamp. The press was handcuffed; a prominent editor was shot dead, openly in daylight, as if to send a message. Critics were picked up in what became the country’s most infamous symbol of terror—the Police White Van. The fate of citizens who were taken away in “white van abductions” was known only to Gotabaya’s henchmen.
Then, in the ultimate Indira-Gandhian irony, the President declared an election. There was no obligation for him to do so, just as there was none for Indira in 1977. They both voluntarily called elections because they both desired to have the veneer of democratic legitimacy. And, like Indira, Mahinda lost the gamble. The parallelism may end there because the new government in Colombo will not be like the Janata Party farce in Delhi in 1977. Besides, Mahinda will have neither the mass adulation that made Indira formidable in defeat, nor the personal guts and gumption that enabled her to fight her way to a political reincarnation.
That Mahinda was no Indira became evident when he made desperate moves to save his skin in the eleventh hour. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he asked the Generals to annul the election. They declined. As the final authority in appointing all civil servants, all judges and all police officers, he ordered police chiefs to move in. They declined. Would anyone in the Delhi establishment have dared to disobey Indira? Let that difference make us feel humble before our island neighbour. When history called, Sri Lanka’s army and police declined to obey illegal orders. In India, even the Supreme Court crawled when asked to bend.
The Rajapaksas’ intelligence agencies also proved inefficient, perhaps due to over-confidence. They sustained the myth that the opposition was divided when in fact the very experienced Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wikramasinghe were secretly plotting out new strategies. Intelligence believed also that the popularity of the victory over LTTE was still working for the Rajapaksas when, in truth, mega projects proclaiming the ruling family’s corruption had alienated even Sinhala opinion in key areas. Gotabaya’s brainchild, the Bodu Bala Sena, a variation of Nigeria’s Boko Haram terrorists, shocked not only Lankan Muslims but also the educated middle class and the elite in the cities.
The middle class had kept “Ceylon” a vibrant democracy when it attained independence (although with the tag Dominion attached to the name) in 1948. The Colombo press was not second to Fleet Street in London in spirit or in style. The headquarters of the Ceylon Daily News, known as Lake House, had become a sort of pilgrimage point for journalists from around the world. Bylines from Colombo won international attention—Tarzie Vittachi, Denzil Peiris, Merwin Desilva, BHS Jayawardene.
Soon, alas, linguistic chauvinism raised its head to destroy everything. Politicians saw a chance to build up their voter appeal by pitting Sinhalese majority (70 percent) against the main minority, Tamils. Within a year of independence, the voting rights of Tamils were cancelled. In 1956, SWRD Bandaranaike rose to power on the promise of making Sinhala the only national language. Ethnic riots enveloped the country and Emergency was proclaimed in 1958. Tarzie Vittachi wrote Emergency ’58 in secret and went into exile. SWRD’s wife Sirimavo made things worse; among other things, she nationalised Lake House. The country had to wait for the Bandaranaikes’ daughter Chandrika to become President in 1994 for some elements of democracy to be restored. But it was too late. Velupillai Prabhakaran had started a war in the name of Tamils, bringing more harm than before to the Tamils and leading, eventually, to the cruellest ethnic cleansing campaign in Lankan history.
If anyone can bring the country back to its democratic equilibrium, it is the new dispensation. President Maithripala Sirisena is a clean and non-controversial figure. Prime Minister Ranil Wikramasinghe is known for his ability, experience and balanced approach to problems. The cabinet includes several Tamils and Muslims. If they adopt a national reconciliation policy and a business-like approach to rebuilding Sri Lanka, they will have the hopes of the whole region riding with them. Let the law take care of the Rajapaksas—in the slow but steady manner of the law.