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Elite power – The Express Tribune

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Sri Lanka dominates our political discourse. Shehbaz Sharif is struggling to avoid a fate like it while Imran Khan is predicting its imminence unless those that have erred in its matters of governance are dumped and jailed for misdemeanor and obvious corruption.

Pakistan’s criminal justice system has remained laggard unable to resolve its corroding innards and selective access to in less than fair administration of justice. Especially the powerful and the influential remain untouched and out of its ambit ignominiously noting Pakistan amongst the worst few in the world in judicial governance. No government, not even the PTI in its tenure, was able to reform the justice system to make it equitable and responsive. Any tweak only favours the elites.

Back to Sri Lanka and the story of people’s revolution. I was stationed in Sri Lanka as Pakistan’s High Commissioner just as Sri Lanka was pondering its final battle with the Tamil Tigers. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the newly anointed President. The war with Tamil Tigers (EELAM) had been a debilitating twenty-eight year long insurgency in Sri Lanka’s north and east but had stagnated into a status-quo, neither side with the requisite oomph to culminate it. It was a war-like atmosphere even if Colombo seemed lively and buzzing but at the back of the mind was always a threat of an IED or a suicide attack by a Tiger waiting in the shadows. Many bombs did go off and many died. Pakistani High Commissioner was way up on the list because of Pakistan’s continuous support to Sri Lanka in the war against Tamil Tigers declared terrorists by the United Nations. That I hit the ground running is only a cliche that I have no reason now to disclaim and was in the thick of the mix with my personal posse of Sri Lankan guards and tons of war like care and caution — my predecessor had been targeted by the Tamils only weeks before I arrived. He survived.

Mahinda’s younger brother, Gotabaya — the current President who just resigned — was the Defence Secretary and led the war in its truest sense through his military commanders. The Sri Lankan Chief of the Defence Staff was a colleague and a friend from one of my earlier postings abroad who had no qualms in pulling me in to the thick of his supreme commanders brainstorming sessions on a more than frequent basis. It is my understanding that I as Pakistan’s representative was the only one offered this unique opportunity and insight. Mahinda’s elder brother was the Speaker of the Assembly and the youngest Basil was a minister in the cabinet with a sharp head for political management. That I had access to all of them at the time of my choosing is actually how it was. My most frequent interaction was with the President and the defence Secretary. Son, Namal, was on the verge of entering the government. There were more in the extended family suitably anchored in one position or another. If ever there was a dynasty this was it.

I knew the opposition equally well and as intimately. Some like the incumbent prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Karu Jaisurya from the United National Party — the founding political party of Sri Lanka — shared their political wisdom without reservation. At times I served as a go-between the two sides on critical issues — on an occasion I had to assist Sri Lankan government on matters critical to their security involving a third nation. It served Pakistan’s interest at all times. When Pakistan was ousted of the commonwealth because of Musharraf’s Emergency in 2007 Sri Lanka worked us back in as a member in a persistent effort guided by Colombo. The famous Bandaranaike family’s surviving icon was Chandrika Kumaratunga, who herself had served as a popular prime minister till the Rajapaksas pulled the rug from under her. Their party, the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), was itself an offshoot of the UNP to which had belonged most notable politicians.

With a political history as rich the galaxy Sri Lanka’s political elite was seeped in tradition and a fertile political culture. While I gained the most from my interactions with UNP leadership it was Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Bandranaike torch-bearer, that truly represented dynastic icons. With both her father and mother having led the nation in their respective turns for decades, Chandrika, the daughter, was natural to follow in their footsteps. Every time one met her one was in the company of people of special stature, greatly endowed, especially groomed and oozing wealth. Bhuttos and Gandhis were frequent mention in her conversation, in which league she rightly placed herself and talked of them as one big family — the true South Asian elites born to rule over the lowly serfdom.

The Rajapaksas too had been in politics through generations but were not in the same league. Rural and rustic they were always the people of the masses, from the masses. This generation of Rajapaksas though had ably pulled the party away from under Chandrika’s feet and she wasn’t about to forgive them for it. To her they were always the nouveau, pretenders. And she let it be known to every visitor in clear terms. Through it all, Sri Lanka and Pakistan had always been reliable and dependable friends. With humungous India towering over tiny, tear-drop, Sri Lanka, such flexibility in policy was remarkable and a tad cavalier. Yet they stuck to their intuition. Pakistan too has never held back in giving a hand when Sri Lanka has needed it even if it meant giving away a part of its own.

The war with the Tamils which the Rajapaksas took on in earnest to eliminate the evil of a lingering and bleeding insurgency meant they were instant heroes when it was all over in 2009. Mahinda, the President, went for early polls in the wake of such popularity a year before those were due and won a landslide. It was in the rebuilding stage it seems that they spoiled in money. China became a big player as did some European nations who always had kept some influence in money and support to Sri Lanka. Rajapaksas saw that as an easy source of easy money even if it burdened Lankan economy insurmountably. Rajapaksas turned their remote hometown, a fishermen hamlet, into a full-fledged port, an airport and equipped it with a cricket stadium where hardly a team is yet to make a visit. Expressways into and out of Colombo meant the pot only got bigger.

Education which was a national hallmark began deteriorating. Sinhalese and Buddhism were rediscovered for eminence as symbols of nationhood around which Rajapaksas anchored their politics. For the duration of the war and till victory came the Rajapaksas seemed destined to bring back mythical Sinhala glory but as soon as it was over and they felt they had made the league they began amassing wealth and collecting riches. Sri Lanka went under and declare so to the world. Elite power wilted away in the face of people’s wrath and the only remaining power was street power. It is a story of rapid dissolution and degeneration of a nation typically under elite capture. What next? More on it later.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2022.

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