Benevolent dictators

Almost exactly seven years ago, a Jayatissa from Nugegoda, writing to The Island, had this to say of the then President. “Now here is a man, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who made use of the post of Executive President and his iron will to completely eliminate Prabhakaran and his cohorts and bring peace to this war-torn country after 30 long years. Already he has started several mega development projects and resettled 90% of the displaced Tamils… Now what the country needs is a ruler like Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia. I dare say that M.R. will not be second to both of them. So why did we hesitate to give such a man to contest for a third or fourth term because he has already shown by his actions so far that he is determined to develop the country. You can rest assured that even if he chooses to be a dictator he will be a benevolent dictator.”

The sentiment around a ‘benevolent dictator’ runs deeper than just Jayatissa’s open adoration for and adulation of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Some historical accounts suggest J.R. Jayawardene’s intent in creating the office of the Executive President was to define a political role that could push through policies and actions that would otherwise be held up in messy politics, partisan struggles and intra-party divides. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, with a historic margin of victory, came to office promising to be a benevolent dictator. Many still look at Premadasa’s time in office with nostalgia, as a man who got things done. The fascination with making Sri Lanka a Singapore also stems from the hero worship of Lee Kuan Yew. Two months ago, Colonel Kithsiri Ekanayake led a delegation of military officers from Sri Lanka to Rwanda on a post-genocide study tour. During the tour, Col. Ekanayake is reported to have openly appreciated the leadership of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his efforts to develop the country.

There is a common thread behind all this. Sri Lankans love to see results, and don’t often care how the results are achieved. The significant militarization post-war, especially in the North and East, was not just roundly justified by government, it was widely accepted by the South as the best possible way to get things done, also in order to maintain law and order in areas ravaged by war. The construction of shopping precincts in Colombo, as well as other commercial and public infrastructure using Army labour was seen as putting to good use soldiers who would otherwise have idled in barracks. Further, the tangible results, often in a resplendent white facade, were seen as proof that development works best, in Sri Lanka, under a strict command and control regime. In sum, the best sort of development and governance is seen to be better through or under a regimental system controlled by an all-powerful visionary acting in the best interests of the country, than through inept, corrupt civilian and public administration. Gotabaya Rajapaksa knows this, and his political campaign, supported by some of the best advertising and marketing firms in Sri Lanka, is set to capitalise on this widespread public sentiment.

The problem with the model is not so much what can or has been achieved under it, but how the results are brought about. The end justifies the means. As long as there is tangible, material or perceived evidence that resources channelled into a project were utilised in a meaningful manner, the public generally don’t care what violence was employed or threatened in order to achieve the result. Singapore’s economic model and society, Rwanda’s post-genocide rule under Kagame, Premadasa’s development and ‘Gam Udawa’ projects, the reign of CBK and the post-war policies of the Rajapaksa regime in particular, for those close to, involved with, seeking entry into or supportive of those in power, appear deeply desirable and democratic. In reality, though to varying degrees, their authoritarian diktat, the systematic undermining of democratic institutions, the denial of dissent and outright demagoguery, all of these individuals were, or still are in fact the opposite of democratic.

In fact, even that’s not the problem. It’s the support they get from vast swathes of the population to do as they see fit, because of populist rhetoric that slowly but systematically undermines public trust in and support of public administration and civil authorities. The problems in the public sector, instead of being addressed, are weaponised to support the authoritarian bent of those who seek power and control. The emotive electoral submission is one that is geared to build trust in an individual, or set of individuals, who have projected as having proven abilities to get the job done, over government officials, civil servants and others who are hostage to bureaucracy, graft and systemic inefficiencies. It’s a powerful argument. Though invariably anecdotal, in conversations with a wide-range of individuals from across the South of Sri Lanka, the nostalgia is now around a country where despite astronomic corruption, which is acknowledged and condemned, “things happened”. Roads were built. Garbage was collected. Bridges were built. Cities were cleaner, and greener. Parks were maintained. Jobs were given. The private sector was happy. Now, with multiple power centres and the devolution not of political authority, but of corruption, citizens feel yahapalanaya is stagnating, and that for the best of intent, those in power will not be able to deliver the kind of material, kinetic development and existential, economic relief, citizens need.

And so, the fiction of the benevolent dictator will rise again, and gain new currency over 2018. This fiction holds great appeal for the young, professional, urban class, who under the Rajapaksa’s enjoyed, amongst other things, the benefits of a clean, green city without a shred of concern for the violence meted out to the thousands who were evicted, lost everything, and are now living in horrendous conditions. The furore against the destruction of the Colombo Swimming Club pool earlier this year flagged this disconnect quite clearly, where patrons of the exclusive club were absolutely appalled by what had happened, but unmoved by and blithely unaware of what, for years, had been taking place around them in the city, and in a much more violent manner. A woman, man or coterie that is able to sell the fiction that under them, things will be different – more ordered, less messy, more transparent, less time-consuming, more responsive, less corrupt, more results-oriented, less inefficient – will gain public support the more those in power today are unable to meaningfully strengthen governance, communicate clearly what measures are being taken to strengthen civil administration, and why systemic reform is so tough.

Between Jayewardene, Premadasa, Wijetunge, Kumaratunge, Rajapaksa and now Sirisena, the country has oscillated between times of overt, clear authoritarianism and, at least on the face of it, or to begin with, trust in a more democratic form of government. Each swing of the pendulum brings with it the almost total erasure of what came before, and so, after each swing also comes, with time, nostalgia for how things were in the past. We are never happy with the present, or seeking to address, looking ahead, what ails us today. We perennially relive the past, and are best comforted too by promises, no matter how fatuous, to bring the past back to life. 2015’s twilight is 2020’s dawn. Many benevolent dictators lie in waiting.

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