Waiting for Godot

For 73 long years, Sri Lankans from every walk of life have been living in hope that their elected political leaders would take them to the Promised Land, even as the countries considered as peers back then, raced ahead in their quest for development and prosperity. 

This long and seemingly never-ending wait reminds us of Samuel Beckett’s famed tragi-comedy, Waiting for Godot, in which the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon wait patiently for the arrival of Godot, who, despite continuously sending word that he is on his way, never appears. Rings a bell? Today, the Sri Lankan people have more or less been driven to despair over the non-appearance of their own saviour and with it, the long-promised land of prosperity.  

We were reminded of this resemblance while watching the tamasha that unfolded at Independence Square last Thursday (4) in commemoration of yet another Independence Day. The question that continues to be foremost in the minds of the average Sri Lankan, at least at this time of the year, is, tamashas notwithstanding, has the ordinary man, woman, and child got a better deal under our own leaders as opposed to the British? What about the basic freedoms? Are we better off today than we were 73 years ago? The very fact that the matter needs deep deliberation makes it clear that our leaders have failed the people, the nation. Period. 

The finger cannot be pointed at a particular individual or a particular party for that matter. It has been a collective failure on the part of each and every citizen of this country. After all, within the democratic framework that has guided the destiny of this nation since the introduction of adult franchise in 1932, the people have been the authors of their own destiny, and if one is to point fingers at the collective failure, then that should be done before a mirror. 

The truth of the matter, which every politician worth his salt knows well but will never admit, is that the majority of our people are naive. They are emotionally driven and essentially think from the heart. The grey matter rarely comes into the equation when rooting for green, blue, red, or maroon. These well-meaning people are the product of a dysfunctional education system which essentially requires people to memorise and repeat as opposed to being rational and logical. There are the few who dare to step out of the box. They invariably find themselves ignored and unwanted in their own country, forcing them to seek greener pastures where they reach full potential. Our loss, their gain. The continuing brain drain starting from the mid-50s is a serious issue that is yet to attract the attention it deserves. 

An emotional electorate is easy to manipulate as against a rational one. That explains why the issue of brain drain remains unaddressed. How else can one explain an electorate that once believed Sri Lanka will be transformed into a Dharmishta society overnight, and, once elected, the very same leaders laying the foundation for a three-decade war? That rice will be brought down from the moon? That bread will be sold at Rs. 2.50 and, post-election, that it can no longer be sold at that price since funds are required to fight a war? All this was followed by silent acceptance.

The list goes on. Tell them that the executive presidency is the bane of the country and needs to be abolished. Once elected, tell the very same people that the presidency needs to be strengthened to fix the country. What follows? Silent acceptance. The bitter reality is that, the bigger the lie, better the chance of election.

Today, the doctors we produce have greater skills in organising trade union action, lawyers are more inclined to bend the law than hold the scales even, engineers are more interested in cutting corners and collecting commissions, and most importantly, we have a clergy that has taken the place of politicians. All the while, led on by politicians who keep gloating over a glorious past, while the future they are shaping seems destined to rest in foreign hands. Yet no leader has shown the will to fix the problem. After all, why would anyone want to kick the ladder that put them there? 

The truth of the matter is that Sri Lanka is a long way from being an accommodative, pluralistic society due to the all-consuming, warped sense of patriotism created and nurtured by political vultures. At the time of Independence, no one thought on racial or religious lines; at the end of the day, we were all Ceylonese. After 73 years, we are more polarised than ever with flames of racism being fanned every so often. The irony of it all is that its hollowness is on display in the queues that form outside western embassies each morning where the loudest patriots stand silently awaiting their turn. 

Politicians taking their electors for a ride is nothing new, it’s a common occurrence all over the world; something that is as old as the hills. Yet, some nations have achieved political maturity wherein their people have freed themselves from the shackles of their political leaders by demanding one thing and one thing only – accountability. We in Sri Lanka are still a long way off, which is what emboldens politicians of all hues to keep the people in shackles, knowing well that they will not be held accountable for their actions and inactions. All that we have done is change the pillow every few years for a recurring headache. 

However, times seem to be changing with the word accountability actually making its way into an Independence Day speech. We were told that those responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks and Central Bank Bond Scam will be held accountable. However, like all things promised, only time will tell as to how sincere this one will be. There is a reason for the cynicism. It has now become political culture for the political party in office to claim victimisation by the previous regime, appoint commissions of inquiry, and claim reparations through that mechanism for the alleged injustices. Every successive government has made a habit of it in recent times, primarily with the motive of getting rid of troublemakers on the other side, but what they don’t realise is that each time, the joke is on the people who elected both the victor as well as the vanquished and they ultimately have to bear the cost of the madness. 

What is intriguing is that this less than impressive post-Independence record is the legacy of just four families that have dominated our political sphere over the last seven decades. The only “outsiders” being W. Dahanayake, Ranasinghe Premadasa, D.B. Wijetunga, and Maithripala Sirisena. Interestingly, none of them were able to complete at least one full term; the last one voluntarily shortening his term by one year. 

Today, as the country embarks on its 74th year of independence, it is at the crossroads yet again with the threat of international isolation looming large. In a matter of just one year, the Government has managed to offend at least three of the country’s closest allies for decades; India, Japan, the US over economic issues and now Europe owing to the combative approach to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. 

The issues singled out by the Office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday (5), taking issue over the Government’s less than co-operative approach, points to systematic failure on the part of the State. The issues that have been pointed out are the same ones that ironically should strengthen the independence of the nation state via the rights granted to the people, but the Government does not wish to see it that way. There is a sense of déjà vu, as history seems to be repeating at the UN in Geneva while the extent of our independence comes into focus yet again with international intervention a distinct possibility.