The Sunday Leader’s Faraz Shauketaly examines 39 families behind Sri Lanka’s politics
Sri Lankan culture is such that strong family values and traditions are almost the hallmark of a jolly good Sri Lankan upbringing. From which school you go to, to the ‘best’ job to the ‘good’ girl as a wife for you and vice-versa too, all these decisions are made within the family. So much so that promising careers are at times abandoned and sacrificed all for the sake of traditions in particular families.
Politics too has had its faire share of family values in Sri Lanka. In recent times, however what has clearly manifested itself to the forefront, is the acceptance of dynastic politics by the people of the country. In the past, dynastic politicians have been acceptable to the people where those political families were of a certain station in life. If the family was a “high caste” one the chances were that if they chose the political walk, grace, favour and acceptance almost always followed them.
In recent years however, we see a definite trend in Sri Lanka for a ready acceptance of dynastic politicians from all walks of life. It is almost as though, like in Japan where to have a job at a factory was seen as a job for life, politics in Sri Lanka had virtually become a birthright of dynastic politicians. And in this context Sri Lanka’s political dynastic families no longer hail from the “elite” but social and other trends have swung the pendulum encompassing family dynaties from those outside Colombo’s political elite.
Sri Lanka with approximately 39 families and more than 140 officials having held direct “high office” is one of the world’s most fertile grounds for the sustenance of political dynasties. If one were to include the lesser minions connected to the families – the assorted cousins, nephews, nieces, daughters-in-law, wifes doubling up as secretaries – the figure would grow by volumes leaving this newspaper with little choice but to put out a special edition which would make interesting tittle tattle but hardly any financial return or put it another way, may even give the Saudi Royal family with more than 3,000 members, a close run for their money!
However, dynastic politics is not the sole preserve of South Asian and other nations relatively new to the “democratic governance” scheme. The United States has had its own share of the Father-son syndrome – with the most famous one being the Bush Family. John Adams was the second US president and his son John Quincy Adams the sixth president. The Kennedy’s more than being a dynastic political family, were the nearest thing that the Americans had to royalty and revelled in those expectations. However, even the Kennedys could not match – proportionately speaking of course – the mass appeal that the Bhuttos, Gandhis and Bandaranaikes of Asia delivered upon their people.
These leaders carved for themselves an image of rock in their people’s minds that they were best for the people. They managed in the process to ensure that their popularity also rubbed off on the generations that followed them into politics. The world raised more than an eyelid when the 19-year old Bhutto son Bilawad was named as the successor to Benazir; in Sri Lanka even though there were moves by the incumbent president to bring in Vimukthi Kumaratunga, we have seen the Bandaranaike influence wane and the Rajapaksa third generation emerge strongly: there can be little doubt that both Shasheendra Rajapaksa and young Namal Rajapaksa, will make a serious medium to long term impact on the political landscape of this country. For reasons best known to the Rajapaksa family, Chamal Rajapaksa appears to have been sidelined but most analysts firmly believe that on the contrary Chamal Rajapaksa as Speaker is the custodian of the family political legacy: with a Speaker from within, the forward thinking President has sewn up loose ends. Over the years Sri Lanka has built up on a formidable dynastic political lineage – almost giving life to the saying that in this country, we have dynastic politicians by the dynasties for the dynasties. A perverted kind of democracy which may not be too far off the truth. 39 families have made it to our list – but we may well have, quite inadvertently, left some others out.
However, judging from the voting patterns over the years, it is now quite manifestly clear, that the Sri Lankan voter prefers to vote the family way: it is almost as though the voter in Sri Lanka displays an abdiding interest in going down memory lane. Chief Minister of Uva, Shasheendra Rajapaksa put it in perspective: “the voter can go by the achievements of those before us – but the voter now is more suave, they expect you to deliver.” In the case of the Rajapaksas, this may well be true – with a long and historical involvement in the politics of the South. What is worrying though, is that the Sri Lankan voter is increasingly going for the family man, irrespective of considering the past performance.
Recently President Rajapaksa commiserated with Mano Wijeratne on his loss at the General Election saying that “Mano was from too good a family for politics”. Considering that the Wijeratne family started in politics way back in 1947 the President was probably reflecting accurately on the state of play in this country today.
It certainly does not augur well, when responsible persons even when in the opposition, engage in unsafe, unsound and patently unfair treatment – like the exclusion of UNP stalwart Rukman Senanayaka from the most recent National List. Loyalty apparently does not count, but in this case, neither did dynastic connections.