By Ranga Jayasuriya
Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has skeletons though, may not be in his closet, but wherever white vans had dumped victims during his abduction prone tenure as the Defence Secretary. But, not even by a long shot did he go any close to Hitler.
Last week, when a high priest publicly urged him to become a Hitler, it was not clear whether the aspiring presidential candidate took it as a compliment or as a personal affront.
The Anunayake of the Asgiriya Chapter, Ven Vedaruvey Upali Thera has reportedly told Mr. Rajapaksa: “if they call you Hitler, even become a Hitler and establish the military rule and develop the country.”
Those were unusual birthday blessings reportedly delivered at an alms-giving to mark the 69th birthday of Mr. Rajapaksa.
These remarks smack of a new low of many things; of the political culture and religious elites who claim to have a historic duty to advise the political leadership. Those are hallmarks of insularity and ignorance not just of one gory episode of human history. That ignorance, in fact, has deep roots in South Asia, and the Middle East: Anagarika Dharmapala himself wrote to Hitler, but never received a reply. Hordes of Indians venerate Subhash Chandra Bose, who fought as an accessory of the Japanese imperial army, one of the most brutal forces that ever walked on this part of world since Genghis Khan.
This ignorance has been repackaged as patriotism and is being sold to the public. There is a regular stream of buyers.
But, flaunting despotism runs not just against any religious teaching, but also against our earthly basic human values of decency, which have to be defended if a civilized form of government is ever to function. Hitler is remotely the candidate for a civilized government. Nor would his reincarnation do any better.
This flimsy notion that circumventing democratic norms would lead to development is bunkum. White vans do not bring in investors. The era of authoritarian development is long gone, except in the countries that are still rising from an extremely low economic base such as Rwanda (where a past trauma of a genocide may warrant certain measures).
A closer look at the recent history of political economy would reveal, except a few, majority of authoritarian states, military dictatorships and theocracies failed in creating prosperity for their own people. The few that succeeded – Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, and Shah’s Iran etc., shared certain characteristics: They were right leaning, pro-market, largely secular and pro-American, which pumped investment, advisors and technological transfer. That is obviously not an arrangement that Mr. Rajapaksa and his acolytes, who feel intimidated by free trade agreements and foreign expertise, want to have. Only other successful authoritarian development state, Communist China thrives not chiefly in the unchecked coercive force, but also in a centuries-old Confucius social and cultural dynamic which has been harnessed and moulded by the party state.
Even for those who have a soft corner for pro-growth development, what should worry is that given the personal dispensation of people around him, Gotabaya’s military rule is more likely to resemble kleptocratic and out of touch Burmese Junta or Sanee Abacha of Nigeria, than anything remotely akin to Ataturk or Ching kai-shek.
This disturbing tendency to flaunt despotism as a panacea for real and perceived failings of democracy is also universal. Strongmen and conmen who exploited public anxieties have often exaggerated those shortcomings and ridden to power promising to address them; and once in positions of political power, they have calculatedly dismantled the same democratic systems and independent institutions. The danger is much higher when the despot himself morphed into a populist, such as in Turkey where authoritarian President Erdogan won a second term of an all-powerful presidency this week.
Sri Lanka itself is witnessing a growing antipathy towards new found freedoms, and deliberate efforts to overstate existing problems, be it crimes, cost of living or a new scheming to concoct a narrative of the revival of the LTTE.
This is the first phase of delegitimizing the democratic system. These claims are freely aired due to the relative freedom, not so long ago such a bravado would have warranted a white van ride. Also, those hyperbolic and polarized assertions are a manifestation of misplaced pathways of political empowerment in this country. Whether it was the British who gave universal suffrage before people had access to proper toilets, or S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who opened floodgates , chiefly responsible for this aberration needs further dispassionate soul searching.
The second phase of this strategy is to present the ‘would be despot’ as the catalyst of change, which Mr. Rajapaksa’s associates in Viyathmaga and other groups are doing.
Third, if elected to power by some luck, the true colours of “dehami nayakaya” (Dharmista ruler) would be in full show: The 18th Amendment would be given away, independent institutions would be dismantled. Regime legitimization would be achieved through sermons by likeminded monks and Rupavahini propaganda. Dissent would be labelled as traitors.
At the last stage, it would be too late and risky to speak out because by then, it would be hard to find a judge dare enough to hear a habeas corpus.
All the above can happen in a democracy, or a flawed democracy, not just because its detractors are exemplary manipulators of public grievances. But because, its governments are reactive, indecisive and incapable of independent decision making. This government is a case in point. In our part of the world, no government can survive in power unless it exerts a good deal of its autonomy over society. That may not be the classic democratic thing to do.
But, the difference between a despotic rule and democracy lies in the means it uses to achieve this end: whether it is white vans or powers vested with it by the Constitution.
When a government hesitates to use its constitutional powers, and to do so proactively and efficiently to make room for highways, industrial zones and combat crimes, its detractors tell the public a Hitler and a military rule would make all their dreams come true.
These statements themselves are a threat to social and political fabric, and in a functional and authoritative system, such calls for a military rule is tantamount to sedition and the laws of the State should take its course.
When a government fails to take action to address grassroots’ grievances and play blind to sinister efforts to manipulate them, it effectively delegitimize the democratic system. Then a Hitler could well become a reality.