Lack of intellectual depth in our leaders and its sad consequences

By Vishwamithra 1984 (Daily Mirror)

“I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”  -Thomas Jefferson

In all political theatres, when the lights are dim and the drum-roll begins, the actors and actresses, veterans and rookies alike, take their respective cues and enter the main stage. The storylines are, if the purpose is to shatter box-office records, consistently shallow and distastefully bizarre; music loud and insufferably out of tune; dialogues lofty and cascading like rainwater from a spout; costumes tailored to suit the audience-acceptance, bright and garish and sets irreversibly out of place and abnormally out of size. But what is most natural and unspeakably remarkable is acting. No player is second to the other. In fact, each one tries to surpass the other and overall performance exceeds expectations. However, authenticity is sadly lacking and a thick veneer of artificiality conceals some deeply dangerous minds bent on pursuing ‘success’ at all and any costs.

There begins and ends the great political drama; one enacted by treacherously ambitious frauds whose values are measured in terms of Rupees and Cents, Dollars and Sterling Pounds and Yuan and Yen. This is the tragic tale of political theatre. Since the day the first Neanderthal stepped out of the caves to the beginning of civilization, this panoramic theatre has been witnessed by countless generations of man, and the fundamental frame and architecture of the saga have not changed even one iota. The greed and appetite for things more luxurious continues; what was luxurious at the beginning of our civilization, may today look utterly laughable and puny; in that journey of civilization, from Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa to the present day, a very few rulers had made any attempt to renounce power; a very rare few had succeeded in that noble attempt.

The dichotomy of Monarch vs. Commoner, Ruler vs. Subject and President and or Prime Minister vs. the Masses has been astir right throughout our history and our great chroniclers have written down its eventful passage for posterity. Historians have rendered many a different version relying on their own unfathomable depths of knowledge and wisdom. But the tragedy lies, not in our being unable to comprehend the wisdoms of our learned ones but our inability and unwillingness to see the rays of day although they clearly penetrate our mortal souls. The twenty first century offers mankind that no other era of the human story has witnessed or experienced. And that is the availability of unedited data and unrefined knowledge that is cascading through the tubes of television and bandwidths of the computer. When such raw data is coming into contact with the untrained and undisciplined mind, that data becomes the subject to be manipulated, shaped and fashioned by the cruel crafts of marketers whose only goal is profit.

When one contemplates the current political impasse in Sri Lanka in that grand context of history, both ancient and contemporary, what does one see? Or does the current set of political and social circumstances qualify for that intellectual scrutiny or does it not matter, for that set of circumstances looks like a speck of dust in a vast universe of history and fades into the terrain of insignificant and trivial. My contention is thus: however much insignificant and trivial our anguish in relation to the current socio-political dynamic is, a historian applies to decipher the web of our grand and complex human story in a most scientific manner and bares out for students to continue to do so. I am no historian by any standard but my interest in the analysis of events, both current and past has intrigued me to see contemporary events in a perspective of historical prism. In those attempts, some of my forecasts have come true while a great deal more have gone a way out of the realm of success. Yet that has not deterred me from persisting.

It is in that context I am surveying the current local political-canvass and trying to see the vague lines of nuanced portfolios of the characters that influence the whole painting. Although this exercise deserves a more detailed accounting running into volumes, I am trying to pen it in approximately fifteen hundred words- with all due respect to our readers- which usually is the attention span of a newspaper reader. However, the delicate balance between the ruler and the subjects, the ever-changing, fragile dialogue between the holder of power and those who are subject to that power and, the inter-relationship between the ruler and ruled, the dynamic duel between these two parties assumes an identity outside their separate individual identities.

And although that identity exists independent of these individual identities of the said parties, the threshold is thin and imperceptibly faint;the context is convoluted and complex.This is the terrible dilemma that Sri Lanka is facing today. It is as simple and in the same strain as complex as that.

I am not venturing out to the colonial times nor am I intent upon tracing this tale to our ancient kings. History books have taught us immeasurably on this aspect of our story as a collective body of Lankans. However much it has been exaggerated in our Great Chronicle – the Mahawansa – the chronological order of historical events and their influence on our psyche, once the floral embellishments are picked out, the Mahawansa is a brilliant and accurate record of the Kings and Queens and men and women who ruled our country. Yet an objective chronicling of the contemporary times is possible as a recording of events but to opine about the events and their eventual consequences is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Against such a challenging backdrop, an analysis of those who were at the helm of our governing machinery since Independence in 1948 becomes harder than one would think.

D. S. Senanayake, our first Prime Minister elected by a majority of the people on a first-past-the-post system stands out as the most astute political leader we had since 1948. A man whose formal education was below par, with no degree either a Bachelor or Masters, he governed the most educated Cabinet of Ministers ever. His first Cabinet consisted of the following: JR Jayewardene, an Advocate of the Supreme Court, Dudley Senanayake, a Cambridge graduate, Sir Lalitha Rajapaksa, a Barrister, Sir John Kotalawala, a Cambridge University scholar, SWRD Bandaranaike, an Oxford University scholar, E. A. Nugawela, a Major of the Ceylon Light Infantry, C. Suntheralingam, a scholar par excellence, George E. de Silva, an eminent lawyer, Sir Oliver Goonatilleke, a reputed Auditor General during the colonial era, A. Ratnayake, a Cooperative Executive, C. Sittampalam, a Civil Servant, T. B. Jayah, an educationist, and Sir Senarath Gunawardene, a diplomat and a politician from State Council days. The entire Cabinet, including DS, consisted of 14 in number! DS presided over the most educated Cabinet in Ceylon since Independence. While all others were gifted with talent and education, DS was the wisest of them all.

Wisdom is not attributed to all bright and smart men and women. That rare quality or exceptional human condition called wisdom is a product of experience and a combine of stoicism, judgement and common sense (‘street-smartness’) tempered by patience. In that context, DS Senanayake was the only political leader who was wise. All his Cabinet members, except JR, A. Ratnayake and Nugawela, were educated abroad, either at Oxford or Cambridge. Yet, the so-called ‘uneducated’ DS dominated the national conversation, both as a practical leader and a true patriot. His interaction with the masses was unmatched and his authenticity could not be repeated by any successive leader in Ceylon. The only leader who was close to his authenticity was his son Dudley Senanayake. Unfortunately for Sri Lankans, there was no encore; empathy, yes, but authenticity, no.

Days of educated men and women crowding the corridors of Parliament are a matter of history now. The proportional representative system of electing Members of Parliament has resulted in distorting the notion of popularity and those who could afford to spend the most amounts of cash in organizing massive advertising on television and print media are more successful than those educated ones who could afford a bare minimum on an election campaign. The cycle begins with this ugly spending spree. Once they get into Parliament, they start making money in whatever means, legal or illegal, ethical or unethical, moral or immoral, right or wrong. They need that money to spend for their next campaign. This cyclical dynamic has played a dreadful role in our political existence. It has captured not only our immediate interest; it has managed to grip our intellectual capacity, if we have any, and stifled it to near evaporation. So, in the absence of that intellectual capacity to differentiate between disparate choices, we become mere pawns in the hands of even a below-average chess player.

The writer can be contacted at vishwamithra1984@gmail.com

 

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