By Ravi Perera
Mangala Samaraweera, at the height of his political career when a Minister of the Chandrika Bandaranayke government, was one of the most trenchant critics of the United National Party (UNP) in general and its leader Ranil Wickramasinghe in particular. His virulent attacks on the opposite side was by no means limited to rhetoric, but included activity which would not be considered ‘good form’ in societies that value such things.
Samaraweera of course, is not the only politician culpable of such conduct. Harassment of the opposition is taken as an acceptable thing in this country. Getting them arrested on spurious charges, assaults, scurrilous media campaigns, to even engineering incidents where spurned mistresses turn up at public events to embarrass a selected victim, are all part and parcel of the political game.
In such a culture, when a leading proponent of one way of thinking joins a party with apparently a different philosophy, our eye brows are naturally raised. Has he changed his way of thinking? Have the two parties forgiven each other?
The answer to these questions are somewhat suggested in recent interviews given by Samaraweera, who admits that his entry to politics was not actuated by any philosophy as such, but on the casual invitation of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, referred to by some as the grand old lady of local politics. The same grand old lady, after her emphatic defeat at the general elections of 1977, was found guilty of abusing political power, including blatant nepotism and deprived of her civic rights. Whatever the propriety of the process, neither the parliament nor the judiciary of the time interfered with that finding of a presidential commission. According to Samaraweera, much later when in political hibernation, Mrs. Bandaranaike invited him to politics; it was not because of any perceived qualities of leadership, but mainly because his late politician father was known to her. The winds of fortune were slowly but surely turning against the governing UNP at the time and soon Mangala found himself in the cabinet of Chandrika Bandaranaike who in 1994 won the presidency with a sweeping mandate.
In our culture, such an accidental entry to politics is not unusual. To many, political careers have become a mere ego trip, its aim only to wield power and of course enjoy its fruits without heed to any of the moral responsibilities political office entails. Like child brides of India, some make their entry literally even before learning the alphabet. A smooth entry into politics invariably made possible by a close relative of political eminence, who ensures the rapid progress of his descendent, over-riding the claims of others, who have laboured in politics much longer and whose commitment runs much deeper.
Be that as it may, Mangala who was an ardent campaigner for Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2005 presidential elections and then a senior member of his first cabinet, parted ways with the president sometime later, on issues which are obscure. Although at the time various accusations were thrown at each other, it seemed to the independent observer that the matters in contention between them were mainly personal. Fluctuating fortunes were smiling at Mahinda Rajapaksa and in the cold-blooded game of state power, friendships, leave alone past prominence, amount to dust.
After burning his boats with the PA, Mangala Samarweera made a public statement that he begs for pardon of the voter on his knees for being an instrument of the Mahinda Rajapaksa victory of 2005. In the highly personalized political culture of this country, many individuals lay claim to various events, although in reality historical twists and turns concerning millions of people are rarely shaped by one individual. Mangala Samarweera chose to interpret Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 victory mainly as a creation of his work. His irrelevance to the march of history was amply illustrated when Rajapaksa won a resounding endorsement in the year 2009, when Samaraweera campaigned vigorously against him.
Now, Samaraweera has found refuge in the UNP which not so long ago he damned at every opportunity. Nothing has changed in the UNP since, either in policy or personnel. Only thing that has changed are Mangala’s own personal circumstances. It is perhaps not purely coincidental that the UNP itself is presently in the throes of a crisis which goes to the fundamentals of political leadership.
The questions that all this throws up are to do with the ethics and values that should apply to public life. Is politics the kind of career from which one should earn a livelihood and invariably a sense of well-being? If that is so, we cannot find fault with a politician who changes parties merely to earn his bread and butter. It is like a person changing a job. Similarly, is it wrong for a politician, when rejected by the voter, to continue in politics like how Mrs. Bandaranaike did? In 1977, her policies were rejected totally. But she continued as leader of the SLFP, only to oversee the rise of her daughter Chandrika to the leadership. In the game of cricket, however good a batsman is, he walks when the umpire raises his finger. But as our politicians interpret the game, the batsman continues to bat until such a time when the bowlers are exhausted and he could score.
We do not know whether at some future point Mangala Samarweera will again go on his knees to plead for his present conduct. On the whole, the politics of a given country cannot but reflect the actualities of that society. But considered objectively, most politicians in this country have ample reason to go on their knees before the people for what they have made of public life. At least Mangala was honest enough to admit that he had done something for which he likes to go on his knees.