As I write this column this week, I can hear Air Force jets flying past my home as they practise for Sri Lanka’s 74th Independence Day celebrations. My social media feeds are replete with robust debates on the meaning of independence and the ‘right’ way to celebrate. Certainly, it feels odd to celebrate our independence at a moment when everything from our food to energy security is compromised and our dependence on others – be they countries, multilateral institutions or foreign investors, is at its highest.
There is no doubt that Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented moment in her post-independence history at this time. Our political landscape is unstable, the economic situation is dire and we appear to be drifting mindlessly from one crisis to another. Never before have we felt so abandoned by our leaders or felt so little confidence in their ability to pull us out of the hole into which we are rapidly sinking. So what do we do?
We can fall into a morass of despair and cynicism and plan to migrate – but not all of us have that choice. For many of us, either through choice or circumstances, Sri Lanka will remain our home. Perhaps this is a moment where rather than waiting for others to provide solutions, we, as citizens of this country, take control of our own destinies.
Of course this is easier said than done. Theoretically, and indeed as guaranteed in our Constitution, sovereignty lies with the people. We elect representatives to exercise legislative, judicial and executive power on our behalf. Yet, in reality, our relationship with elected representatives does not reflect this constitutionally guaranteed principle at all. In practice, the relationship is one between a privileged class of rulers and loyal, submissive subjects. This is maintained through both the trappings of power as well as its performance.
A few days after my entry into Parliament, a seasoned politician told me: “Don’t be too humble. If you don’t throw your weight around a bit, you won’t be taken seriously. Don’t forget this is Sri Lanka”. Now what does this really mean? It suggests that the favoured or expected disposition of an elected representative in Sri Lanka is not someone who looks and acts like any other citizen. Rather, what is expected is someone who sets himself or herself above other citizens, someone whose image reflects power and authority over others. In other words, someone who throws his or her weight around as I was advised.
So is it surprising that our elected representatives function like the rules that apply to other citizens do not apply to them? Is it surprising that they consider the privileges of office as rights to be enjoyed at will? So deeply is this engrained in our political culture, that it is completely acceptable for spouses and progeny of elected representatives as well as their handlers to consider themselves part of this privileged circle. In fact, as far as the progeny are concerned, these are inherited rights and privileges that must remain within the family.
Whatever the Constitution may say about “freely elected representatives of the people,” the majority of our elected representatives consider their position in dynastic terms – a family inheritance. And it must be admitted, that as citizens, we too think of the suitability for election in similar terms: members of political dynasties are not expected to prove themselves suitable for office – all they need to do is express interest in the office and they are pretty much guaranteed the position.
Certainly, there are signs that this is changing. Recent public reactions to elected representatives indicate that people are waking up to their power and the need to hold leaders accountable. That is why this moment is so incredibly important: It is in times of crisis that we can start discussing and imagining new ways of being, new rules of conduct, a different political ethos. Because if nothing else, this moment should be showing us that whatever we have been doing in the past several decades has not worked. And people are certainly talking about change, about a different way of doing things, the need for a radical transformation of society. But the question is, how far from our comfort zones are we prepared to go? What exactly is the change that we want? I believe these are questions we need to seriously ask ourselves.
If we consider the most recent elections in Sri Lanka, 2015, 2019 and 2020 – both the Presidential and General Elections were conducted explicitly on platforms that called for change. And people responded to that call for change. Arguably, while the 2015 election was more about voting a regime out rather than electing a new leader and government, 2019 was explicitly about electing a new political culture. That was what was promised: A different political culture. The 2019 Presidential Elections as well as the General Elections in 2020 were won on platforms that promised a different leadership style, professionalism and discipline. Yet, not even two years into these promised changes, the President as well as the Government are rapidly losing ground. Public confidence in the Government has never been at such a low.
Rather than simply blaming those we elected, should we not also at this moment reflect on our choices? Although we wanted change, did we actually choose change? Can we expect a change from our elected representatives unless we as citizens are prepared to change as well? In my view, this requires us to re-imagine the kind of relationship we have with elected representatives as well as our ideas of leadership. Importantly, it also means that we recognise that the transformation we want requires our participation.
That what is required today is a massive collective effort – a movement to regain our independence, our sovereignty that we ceded to corrupt and incompetent leaders. We need to accept that the solution lies in institution building, finding common solutions, rather than leaving it to individuals. One of the most damaging legacies of neoliberal political culture is the idea that the individual is solely responsible for his or her wellbeing – that personal transformation is all that is required to achieve happiness.
If we learnt any lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic, if we are learning any lesson from the climate crisis, it should be that our salvation lies in taking collective responsibility, in building systems that work for all of us. This is not a total erasure of the individual, rather situating the individual in context, within a network of relationships and connections. What we need to work on are improving those relationships and connections; the systems and institutions that enable healthy relationships and connections.
If so, then the leaders we elect need to be those who believe in the idea of the collective. It is not about the leader who says ‘I am the best’ but one who is able to bring out the best in other people. It is about electing leaders who have worked hard to get to where they are rather than those who have taken their position as a birth right. It is not about those who talk about accomplishments but those who can also analyse an issue and provide a different perspective. Most importantly, we must elect leaders with whom we can have a relationship of mutual respect rather than patronage, who are willing to live like us, rather than those who expect homage from loyal subjects.
Let this 74th Independence Day be one where we free ourselves from the past. Let this be a moment where we truly understand that sovereignty lies with us, the people. And that with that sovereignty comes responsibility as well – the responsibility to choose wisely, to choose well and to hold those we choose to account.
By Harini Amarasuriya