By Ravi Perera
There nothing goes, everything matters. Here everything goes, nothing matters. A few days back Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister of Australia, resigned suddenly from his office. Evidently he had lost the confidence of the leading figures of the Labour Party of which he was the leader at the time. This paved the way for Julia Gillard to become the first female Prime Minister of the only country in the world which is a continent by itself.
Kevin Rudd is only 53 years old. If he was so inclined, with the aura of the prime minister’s office to draw on, he could have made a fight for it. A Sri Lankan would think him a fool, to resign from an office from which he and his family could have gained so much. But then he is not a Sri Lankan.
Kevin Rudd was born in a Queensland dairy farm. His father died when Kevin was only 11. In order to support the young family, his mother trained herself as a nurse. Kevin’s youth was spent in relatively disadvantaged circumstances, dependent on charity to further his education. In school he was often mocked as a ‘charity’ case. A keen student, Kevin specialised in Asian studies, an area of increasing importance to Australia.
He joined the Australian Foreign Affairs Department in 1981, working there till 1988 when he became the Chief of Staff to Wayne Goss, the Labour Opposition Leader of Queensland. It was only in 1998 that Kevin Rudd entered federal politics by winning the electorate of Griffith.
It speaks much for the fairness of the Australian culture that a person of an unexceptional background such as Rudd’s, was able to rise to the highest position in that country in such a short time span. In less than 10 years in federal politics, he was able to win the leadership of the Labour Party and then the premiership.
Soon after he was elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol, holding his country to greater accountability in environmental issues and later read out an apology to the indigenous Australians for the ‘stolen’ generations.
These actions not only define his political inclinations but also illustrate the core decencies of a country where thousands of Sri Lankans have, in recent times, found a happy and prosperous life. When we use the appellation ‘Honourable’ as borrowed from the British parliamentary tradition on Kevin Rudd the MP, surely it does not get stuck in our throats.
It is said that comparisons are odorous. But making comparisons across essentially diverse cultures and value systems is difficult. One cannot fault Hyenas for scavenging the kill of the Lions. Nature has determined the conduct of the wild and its actors merely play out a pre-determined role. To compare Rudd to Ranil Wickremesinghe, or for that matter, to any other politician in this country will be almost an act of cruelty. But we may attempt comparisons as a way of analysis, particularly in relation to their role vis-a -vis institutions such as parliaments, political parties and other public offices which are standard institutions in all countries now.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party for many years and for nearly that number of years Leader of the Opposition, despite repeated electoral failures refuses to leave office. On the fundamental issue that faced Sri Lanka in recent times, the terror threat from the LTTE, he misread the situation utterly. In recent times, no nation has taken such a supine approach as he did when Prime Minister, towards a terrorist group killing its citizens, both Sinhala and Tamil, with blatant contempt while pretending to run a parallel government in areas under its control. Ranil preferred to let the situation drift, welcoming all kinds of foreign busy bodies and adventures into the act. For all his failures, resigning has not come into his mind.
Then we had Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga our second two-term President, the first being JR Jayewardene, the person who introduced the office of executive presidency to this country. On every score Chandrika’s tenure was a failure. In some of those years the country’s economy contracted. The LTTE, with which she hoped to parley, declared war, which soon settled into an embarrassing stalemate. It was commonly said that the war became a gold mine for the corrupt.
On the troubling issue of the suitability of the presidential form of government, Chandrika the aspiring presidential candidate was vociferously for the abolishing of it. But that was only until she was comfortably ensconced in office. Later she even contemplated a third term while taking oath for the second, in apparent secrecy.
Both these individuals are products of relatively affluent and politically powerful families in a country poor in absolute terms. As happens in such societies, in their formative years they would have observed many men and women debasing themselves in front of their parents, of course more so in the case of Chandrika, both whose parents were prime ministers. Naturally, early in their childhood they would have begun to think of themselves as something special and that any door should open for them. When her mother, Mrs. Bandaranaike was prime minister in the 1970-77 period, government policies demanded sweeping austerity measures from the people. But that did not stop her three children, including Chandrika, from having a foreign education.
In the oral traditions of the country, to the employees, dependents, followers and beneficiaries, a rich and powerful benefactor is only a human incarnation of a divine nature, temporarily walking the earth. In their over-heated imagination, he is of a stature and nature that can be described only in a language given to florid tribute. Men compete with each other to invent the most servile praise. According to that way of thinking, leadership is passed on as an inheritance and not earned as the Kevin Rudds of the world have to. While people like Rudd are working their way through the universities of hard knocks, these spoiled products of a certain culture are only biding their time for the call to lead the nation.
As it happens, both Ranil and Chandrika are also highly exposed to the cosmopolitan cultures of the West. While benefitting from the belief systems of the country, they themselves probably have a larger view of the whole thing. But here lies their greatest failure.
The idealism that underlies the Western concepts of government such as the electoral principle, division of power, independence of the judiciary, objective nature of the state machinery (which will deal even with the highest in the land if found in breach of the law) and numerous other bulwarks of a democratic system require the presence of men of high caliber, not corrupted by personal consideration or greed for office. It is not that politicians of developed societies are without blemish. They are also subject to the same human frailties that are common to all. But in those systems there is always a Kevin Rudd rising above his personal interests, setting standards for public life. Even in the darkest moments we see the light of learning, enlightenment and freedom triumph, not only in public life, but even in other arms of the state.
Whether a shiftless people, moderately endowed and seemingly lacking a sense of self-esteem, could amount to anything in the modern world could be answered only later, historically. On the whole, human progress today is not the result of slave labour or press gangs. Most societies that have progressed have done so because of the sense of freedom and hope that those societies have offered its citizens, thus releasing their vigour and ingenuity in a manner not possible in other societies. A Barrack Obama, in a Sri Lankan context is an impossibility.
If Chandrika offered her resignation when she could not do away with the presidency as promised or had Ranil gracefully walked away after his electoral failures, our entire political culture would have been raised a few notches. The opportunity for self renewal those resignations would have offered the respective institutions, would have brought pride and meaning to the system and its culture.
People could have walked with their heads held high, knowing that despite all the problems besetting this nation, its culture could still produce men who cannot be corrupted by the lure of office or money. But this did not happen. People who should know better, let the system down, letting it slide into an uncontrolled downward spiral.