History bears witness that there are times when a political dispensation seems to be stable and enduring, the situation changes; either gradually or swiftly, and dramatically, against it. The latest manifestation of such a metamorphosis happening in South Asia is in Sri Lanka. Earlier, in Pakistan, no political observer could have anticipated till fairly recently that the Imran Khan government would be ousted by all the opposition parties coming together and with that the coalition that Khan led would itself splinter.
The Rajapaksa family has dominated Sri Lanka’s public life for the better part of almost two decades. When this writer had an occasion to visit the beautiful island country nine years ago the Rajapaksa brothers had its political life entirely in their grip. Mahinda was President, his brother Basil the Minister of Economy while a third brother Gotabaya, who is now President, was the Defence Secretary. In that capacity he oversaw all parts of Sri Lanka’s security apparatus. Finally, the eldest brother Chamal was Speaker of Parliament. The next generation of the family had been inducted into political offices too. At that stage it had seemed that while support for the Rajapaksa family may rise or ebb their place and popularity among the majority Sinhala population would be largely secure because they were credited with annihilating the Tamil Tigers in the vicious civil war which had engulfed Sri Lanka for more than two decades.
Now, the wheel of fortune has completely turned against them. Mahinda who was Prime Minister has had to go into hiding after being rescued by the Sri Lanka army. The army had to act when his official residence was under violent siege by a section of the public which was enraged at the opposition being attacked in Colombo by Rajapaksa family supporters who had been brought into the capital from outside the city. Basil had resigned earlier and other family members too who were holding office were removed by Gotabaya. While Gotabaya has declared national emergency and the army has been called in, demands for his leaving office have not abated.
The country is therefore in political turmoil brought about by its economic collapse on account of the Rajapaksa’s family’s ineptitude, among other reasons. The covid-19 pandemic hit Sri Lanka badly because of its dependence on tourism. Some terrorist acts too impacted on tourism. A disastrous decision to ban chemical fertiliser adversely impacted agricultural production. It is at such times that the political leadership of a country needs to display great wisdom but the Rajapaksa brothers took one terrible decision after another. This can be attributed, in part, to the hubris which develops in a government if one family controls all levers of power in a country as has clearly been the case in Sri Lanka.
It is unclear as yet if the demands for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to go will abate if he succeeds to form a government of national unity led by an acknowledged opposition leader to take the country out of its present dire crisis. Certainly, public anger will not easily dissolve because of shortages of medicines, fuel, including cooking gas, and some essential food items. Sri Lanka does not have the foreign exchange to import them. It has gone to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for emergency support. That will be forthcoming but it may be a while for the shortages to go down even with the flow of funds. A case of swiftly changing fortunes of a government which occurred during my diplomatic career is also worth recalling. That too shows that a government that seems fully secure may really not be so. The example I give is of Thailand and I may be forgiven for giving a brief first-person account.
I took up my post as India’s ambassador to Thailand in early February 2005. Thaksin Shinwatra had returned to power only a few days before my arrival in Bangkok. His party had secured 75% of the seats in Parliament and it seemed that his political position would be unassailable during my term in Bangkok. I was naturally aware that in the Thai political system the then monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej who had the title of Rama IX was venerated and wielded enormous influence. He was by then living a reclusive life. The Thai army was powerful too but under Thaksin’s grip. Thus, all in all, it seemed that Thaksin was undoubtedly the country’s political leader. He was greatly popular among the people in Thailand’s north and north-east though the traditional Thai elite found him an upstart.
In late summer of 2005 I casually but deliberately mentioned to a well-connected Thai journalist that Thaksin appeared all powerful. Naturally what I really wanted was his reaction to my observation. He smiled and said “Ambassador, read our history. Things may not be what they seem at the surface”. That is the kind of tip that is worth its weight in gold for any diplomat, especially one who is heading a diplomatic Mission. My antennae went up. Within a few months my colleagues and I began to pick up evidence that despite his huge parliamentary majority Thaksin was on a shaky wicket because he had earned the ire of the monarch. First, a judicial route was adopted to oust him but that was not succeeding. Finally, in the autumn of 2006 while Thaksin was on tour abroad the army staged a coup and ousted him. My Thai acquaintance had proved correct. Even though Thailand was a constitutional monarchy its history showed that popular mandates were not the final arbiters of political power.
Fortunately, in the Indian democracy the final decision makers are the people and their mandates have been final.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.