A portrait of Premadasa and a picture of Premadasaism

By an odd quirk of fate, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is scheduled to unveil his bęte noire, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s portrait at the parliamentary complex tomorrow. President Rajapaksa during his Opposition days used to give President Premadasa a countless number of sleepless nights by launching protests to engineer his downfall. It was at President Premadasa’s expense that Mahinda earned a name as a political activist. His protests were quite innovative like the Human Chain, Pada Yathra and Jana Gosha and they provoked President Premadasa to the point of using force to suppress dissent. During one of those agitations Mahinda and Vasu were roughed up by the police at Slave Island in the early 1990s.

But, with an uneasy head under the presidential crown, Mahinda is sure to have forgiven his political foe posthumously. And when he unveils the departed President’s portrait, he will see himself in it. For, his way of governance and rise in politics are comparable with those of President Premadasa, in a number of ways, though they may differ immensely in some important respects such as political leadership and managerial skills. Those similarities may have been the reason why they ranked next to each other in the second and third places in a recently conducted Nielsen -Sunday Times survey in respect of the question posed to the subjects: Who do you think has been or is the best leader in leading the country towards economic development and prosperity?

Both Mahinda and Premadasa rose from the ranks to the giddy heights of politics overcoming, as they did, many obstacles placed in their way by internal rather than external forces. They believed in the grassroots politics and went all out to endear themselves to the hoi polloi, who, they, in their wisdom, knew had the votes that would either make or break governments!

They have been no respecters of the international community and done very little to improve their image abroad. (President Rajapaksa, it may be recalled, in his Independence Day speech had a swipe at his rivals who have become the darlings of the international community: "As a policy we do not have cosmetic and shallow associations with the western countries. Our relations with them are true and real…whatever is said by those people who make a show of their international connections…") President Premadasa locked horns with the British High Commissioner at that time, David Gladstone and declared him persona non grata. However, Mahinda has learnt from the mistakes of Premadasa, who antagonised India, and is pandering to the whims and fancies of the big neighbour that made lives miserable for both JRJ and Premadasa by creating the monster of LTTE terror to avenge their defiance.

The first few years of both leaders’ presidency saw a breakaway of some disgruntled party men. Lalith and Gamini broke ranks with the Premadasa government following an abortive impeachment move. Although the internal strife of the Rajapaksa government has not yet assumed so ruinous and injurious proportions, two stalwarts, Mangala and Sripathy have crossed over to the Opposition. President Rajapaksa was lucky that the dissident duo lacked substantial backing within the party, unlike Lalith and Gamini, to try to impeach him.

The biggest hurdles the two leaders had to clear on their way to presidency were their bosses themselves who threw a monkey wrench in the works at the most critical moment in their political life. President JRJ tried to run for another term but in vain. Then, he dragged his executive feet on the question of nominating Premadasa for the presidential election until pressure became too heavy for him. President Kumaratunga also wanted to be in office for one more year and finally sided with the UNP presidential candidate, having half-heartedly nominated Mahinda as the SLFP’s presidential candidate in 2005.

The most striking commonality of Mahinda and Premadasa is their eloquent aversion to the elite. Both have found themselves in contradictions in dealing with the elite. President Premadasa tried to create an aristocratic lineage to suit his station while accusing the elite of blocking his path. President Rajapaksa, too, complains of the elite trying to bring him down but has no objections to the state owned TV ingratiatingly using every opportunity to show his ancestral Walawwa.

However, the fact remains that the so-called elitist political families whose representatives have been placed below President Premadasa and President Rajapaksa except Prime Minister D. S. Senanayaka in the aforesaid survey are not willing to accommodate anyone other than those of their immediate circle as members, though they are fast losing ground to the non-elites in politics.

Their predicament reminds us of (Vilfredo) Pareto, who spoke of two kinds of members of the elite, ‘Consolidators’ and ‘Innovators’—those who preserve the existing prerogatives and those who expand into new realms. In Sri Lankan politics we see more ‘consolidators’ than ‘innovators’ and the balance between these two categories that Pareto considered as essential for the survival of an elite is sadly lacking. That has been the dilemma of the political elite of this country. At present, they have no ‘Innovators’ amongst them to ensure the perpetuation of their hold on power.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with elitism and there could also be a meritocratic elite as well. G. Stolyarov points out in his review of Pareto’s The Rise and Fall of Elites that ‘a meritocratic elite, by not confining membership to a select group existing by virtue of birth, race, gender, nationality, or connections with authority, would admit anyone into its ranks who is sufficiently productive to have made a name for himself—there would be no formal initiation process, nor a hierarchical ladder to climb. The elite would be self-made, and self-perpetuating through voluntary association.’ That appears to be the way forward for a failed political elite in this country.

Finally, President Rajapaksa has a lot to learn from the late President Premadasa without being another Premadasa. (His detractors say he is striving for the latter!) Let him make that resolution when he unveils the portrait of the late leader today.


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