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Politics of decision-making 

 

Sixty-five years ago, a westernised, Oxford-educated politician in his quest for political power, decided to ditch the then dominant English language in favour of the native Sinhala language. He went a step further and promised “Sinhala Only” if he were elected at the polls that followed. Having stirred up nationalist fervour amongst the majority community and in the process, roused up racial and ethnic tensions among the minorities, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept to power on the back of majority support. In the process, the man who overnight ditched the western full suit he was accustomed to, in favour of the more delicate Arya Sinhala attire, single-handedly managed to divide the people on ethnic lines and trigger a mass exodus of the English-speaking populace. 

Although Bandaranaike comfortably won that election on the strength of his ethnic opportunism, the next six decades has proven beyond doubt that the ultimate loser was not his political nemesis at the time, but the country at large, which in that watershed election of 1956, lost its heart, soul, and everything else it had going for it at the time. It was one man’s ambition versus the destiny of an entire nation. It was only recently that Bandaranaike’s daughter, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, admitted and acknowledged for the first time, in an interview, that it was none other than her father who was responsible for triggering the rot that the country is still struggling to shake off.  

It seems nothing has been learnt over the years with today’s leaders, just as their predecessors, resorting to impulsive decision-making, oblivious to the far-reaching implications of such decisions. What we have seen and experienced first-hand is how one political decision, whatever its motivations may be, can derail and destroy the aspirations of an entire nation for generations to come. Over the course of the past few decades, many have been the decisions of our leaders that have negatively impacted this country in so many aspects. Decisions based entirely on political expediency by almost every leader down the line, have pulled this country back from where it should be today, given its pack leader status in the 50s. The problem has been the emphatic refusal of these leaders to acknowledge and rectify their mistakes, simply because it is not the best thing to do for their bloated egos. 

By all accounts it appears that S.W.R.D. regretted the “Sinhala Only” policy and wanted to make amends having realised the damage it had caused, but was stopped in his tracks by an assassin’s bullet. Maybe, in a way, that episode put the fear of Moses into the leaders that followed, never to turn back on the course they set for themselves. For instance, S.W.R.D.’s widow Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s closed economic policy brought the country to its knees with people having to line up at 4 a.m. opposite bakeries simply to buy a loaf of bread or to secure a yard of cloth from a co-operative outlet. Although she had every opportunity to explore alternate policies, she left it to her successor, J.R. Jayewardene to make the required U-turn. 

J.R. made his own contribution to the county’s never-ending woes with his majority community superiority complex that fuelled the ‘83 July pogrom. Although he had every opportunity to make amends over the next six years, it took India’s Rajiv Gandhi to carry out a “parippu drop” to force the man to see the big picture. As a result, the country is still burdened with the “solution” that was forced down its throat. 

Chandrika Kumaratunga could well have agreed to a compromise with the then Opposition which had a bone of contention with one clause in her draft constitution paving the way for the abolition of the executive presidency but refused to make any compromise. The cost of that has been profound to say the least. It was the closest any government has come to abolishing the post that has been the subject of ridicule or adulation depending on which way the wind is blowing. Ultimately, it was the very group that cried wolf from the rooftops that ended up strengthening the post to a greater degree than even its creator, who, at the time, boasted that the post was so powerful that the only thing it couldn’t do was to change the gender of an individual. 

Every leader has had his or her cabal of sycophants, ever ready to sing hosannas to the wrong decisions they took. These cohorts usually go to extraordinary lengths to justify anything they are told; to justify simply because the “system” in place requires their loyalty to be measured by the level of genuflection on display. The greater the obeisance, the greater the rewards. A fine example is how the very same group of parliamentarians voted in different ways over the fate of the executive presidency under two different leaders. The same people who supported the former President to clip the wings of the presidency, five years later, voted for the opposite under the current President. 

The danger of such blind support is that their leaders become complacent and grow oblivious to the ground realities which have inevitably spelt disaster for both the party in power as well as the nation, which ultimately has to pay the price for the policy issues created by its leaders. Just as much as the country is still struggling to sort out the issues created since ‘56 by successive leaders, the irrational decisions today’s leaders make are bound to have a bearing on generations to come. This is especially true of the ad hoc ban on chemical fertiliser which is threatening to destroy the life blood of the nation – its agricultural sector.  

Farmers in all corners of the country have been protesting in their fields and on street corners, practically begging for fertiliser in order to save their crops, but to no avail. Like some sort of blight, we have history repeating all over again. Once more, the country finds itself at the altar of political expediency just so that the government of the day can survive. The danger of the fertiliser ban is that not only is it hurting the farmer growing crops for domestic consumption but also the farmer producing export crops. The biggest emerging casualty is the tea sector, which has survived many challenges over the past 150 years but none as serious as the one in the making. The issue is that the great majority of tea plants in existence today are very different from the original plants planted by the British. Over the years, these trees have been conditioned and cloned to adapt to specific climatic conditions with a specific type of soil nourishment for each area. The haphazard altering of this formula, be it in the upper reaches of the Galle District in the low country or the highest reaches of Nuwara Eliya, is likely to result in crop issues which are already beginning to surface in many tea-producing areas. 

Tea has long been Sri Lanka’s best-known export. In fact, Ceylon Tea is a household name in most parts of the world. It is this hard-earned brand name that is now in peril. The world tea market is not short of suppliers with the two biggest producers, India and Kenya, waiting in the wings to pounce on any opportunity to knock Sri Lanka off its pedestal. To think that a government policy decision will pave the way for such an eventuality is nothing short of sacrilegious. Sri Lanka needs tea and tea needs Sri Lanka to get its act together in order to maintain the status quo. Upsetting this delicate equilibrium at a time when the country is desperate for export revenue is nothing short of political harakiri.