Darkness at Daybreak
Author: Dr. Nandasiri Jasenthuliyana, Reviewed by Namel Weeramuni (Sunday Island)
“Politics is a dirty game”. That’s only a saying. The tenet of politics should be service and sacrifice. Though it is the expected postulation of politics, what it had degenerated into today, I feel, is implied and demonstrated very well and impartially in a balanced tone in Dr. Nandasiri Jasenthuliyana’s book titled “Darkness at Daybreak.” He calls it an essay about the Assembly of our Nation or the Parliament from the past to the present. The title of the book symbolically expresses what exactly the state of our governing organ, the Parliament, had been and how it had functioned since its commencement; or in other words from the time that we gained Independence in 1948 and switched to an elected representative governing system termed a parliamentary democracy.
Jasentuliyana writes very briefly on the whole course of the governance of the island from the time of Vijaya’s arrival in 544 as recorded in Mahavansa and from that time onwards when the British subjugated the whole country in 1815 having ousted in 1796 the Dutch who controlled the low country regions, and then ruled such regions that were under them until they were able to capture the last ruler of the country, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, and sent him away as prisoner after having the “Kandyan Convention signed seceding power to the British.”
He then deals with the background of how the process progressed prior to self-government in 1948. There were two important periods in between, firstly adapting to the requirements of the Colebrooke Commission Report in 1933, which Jasenthuliyana terms as first taste of representative government; and secondly adhering to the recommendations of the Donoughmore Commission of 1927 and its implementation in 1931. This was a “major turning point in the island’s political development”, with the receipt of universal suffrage, which even a number of European countries did not enjoy at the time, particularly until the Second World War was over. Actually, in our country, it had been an experiment as well as a training ground the British introduced for participatory elections and thereby for a democratic process.
After dealing with the events until the receipt of independence, but prior to it being realized, in 1947 a general elections was held to elect the first Parliament. The United National Party, under the leadership of D. S. Sennanayake, which won 42 seats, was unable to obtain a majority in the 101-member House that included six appointed MPs to represent unrepresented interests in the country. With the support of the appointed members and an arrangement with the All Ceylon Tamil Congress of G. G. Ponnambalam which had seven seats, D. S. Sennanayake became the first prime minister of the first Parliament after independence.
Since 1947, Jasenthuliyana elaborates on the 15 general elections that were held and the referendum of JR Jayewardene until 2015 as well as the presidential elections that followed the second new constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka coming into effect in 1978. “This new phase, accentuated by the Presidential System of governance and the civil war, represents an authoritarian political culture of the new regimes that emerged following the 1977 elections. It is a phase marked by increasing levels of political violence, bribery, corruption, unparliamentary and undemocratic conduct,” he says.
According to Jasenthuliyana this process had taken place continuously, progressively worsening and the whole system has degenerated to what it is today. At one point he says that in 2004, though the election had been quite free and fair, and electoral violence had declined, electoral fraud seemed to have heightened which he sees as “a more serious concern.” On these grounds he remarks that, “though the people do want democracy, political parties have proved themselves to be wreckers of democracy.”
Finally, in the penultimate chapter he makes a candid statement on facts very well known to the public. He most expressively comments that, “much of the dismantling of democratic practices and institutions in Sri Lanka took place since the post-1977 period as well as the post-civil war period in the context of which a culture of violence, and unethical conduct involving bribery and corruption emerged and the new political order that emerged in more recent years served to consolidate the illiberal political culture and institutions that evolved.”
A feature of this book is that it had been dedicated to an exemplary parliamentarian about whom he had written a separate chapter titled, “Life and Times of Hon. Minister J. L. Sarsen, M. P.” This I presume he had written in order to display what qualities an honest politician should possess in order to be great, saying thus, “to become a great politician or statesman, you have to use your talents, skills, experiences, honesty, integrity, challenges and constraints with the positive effect that we can have in touching other human lives. Politician must leave his constituency better than before elected. Greatness is within reach of a politician who consistently does things he ought to be doing. He learns from mistakes and criticisms. It is a bad politician that will see that all the good is in his side and that all the bad lies with his opponent or just because someone does not agree with him, does not mean that all their ideas and solutions are bad. Good politicians show respect to the views and experience of others. Nobody has a monopoly of wisdom. He/she who aspires to be a great politician should have the ability to find and analyze problems in their constituency and find the best solutions for all these problems. There is no problem in this world without solutions. A good politician knows that simply giving consistent effort in the little task of services, social reforms, kindness or sacrifice in day-to-day life leads to true greatness of a nation. If all politicians make it a point of responsibility to develop and make life better for people in their units, wards, constituencies, states and regions – we will definitely have a great country.”
My review of “Darkness at Daybreak” will be incomplete if I did not mention in what political darkness we are in, as Jasenthuliyana quotes from Henry Jayasena Sinhala play, “Kunene”, as translated by Aditha Dissanayake as follows:
“Shrouded in darkness
I bring forth this tale
born from a long forgotten past
shrouded in darkness
to be carried forth into a future
shrouded in darkness.”
Lastly let me conclude with the words of Nihal Seneviratne, Former Secretary General of Parliament, who says in the Foreword of the book that “there is hope, if people who are upright, educated, honest, full of integrity enter politics and make a change.”