Former Minister Roshan Ranasinghe, MP, is the new kid on the block among anti-corruption campaigners in Sri Lanka. He was fairly well-known as a politician and Cabinet minister, but his rise to national fame was due to his courageous battle against corruption in Sri Lanka Cricket. He lost against the powerful forces he took on and was sacked from the Cabinet, but he has made use of the groundswell of popular support for his efforts to tame the cricket administrators to launch an anti-corruption movement with a political goal—the Stop Corruption, Build Motherland (SCBM) alliance.
We have several politicians who harbour presidential ambitions and are trying to emulate French President Emmanuel Macron, who secured the coveted French presidency as a political greenhorn. What one gathers from their speeches is that they think the people’s disillusionment with the current political leaders and the main political parties can be tapped to power their political projects. They also point out how the resentment of the Ukrainian public made it possible for actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky to become President in 2019.
Ranasinghe has said he has no presidential ambitions, but he will not hesitate to run for President in the unlikely event of being nominated as a common candidate. His strategy appears to be different from those who consider Marcon a role model and seek shortcuts to the presidency. He has chosen to forge a broader alliance of like-minded politicians and transform it into a formidable political movement to win a significant number of parliamentary seats, as the first step. He has already won over several MPs without allegations of corruption against them, and are likely to be able to retain their seats at the next parliamentary election. Ranasinghe himself is confident of being re-elected from the Polonnaruwa District. It is being speculated that the next parliament will be hung, a party with several seats will wield considerable bargaining powerin such an eventuality.
Ranasinghe’s strategy apparently bears some similarities to that of Aravind Kejriwal of India. Kejriwal rose to national prominence as a member of the ‘India Against Corruption’ campaign led by Anna Hazare, an Indian social activist who pioneered grassroots movements to achieve rural development, promote government accountability and transparency and eliminate official corruption.
Kejriwal has inspired many politicians in the South Asian region. In 2012, he formed the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which means ‘Common Man’s Party’ in English. The AAP is currently in power in the State of Punjab and the union territory of Delhi. It was granted ‘national party status’ by the Election Commission of India, last year. In 2022, the AAP won 92 out of 117 seats in Punjab; this is the highest number of seats obtained by a single political party in that state. These are no mean achievements for a relatively young political party which has pitted itself against the BJP and the Congress.
Corruption being one of the main evils that have ruined many developing countries’ prospects of achieving economic prosperity, there have emerged many anti-corruption movements across the globe. These outfits have become popular among the youth, who are conscious of their rights and freedoms and very active on social media.
The AAP has suffered some setbacks in recent years due to allegations of corruption against some of its seniors. Kejriwal himself has been accused of wasteful expenditure, but the AAP continues to grow and poses a considerable challenge to the BJP, which has turned hostile towards Kejriwal and others for obvious reasons.
Ranasinghe is without someone like Hazare to give him a leg-up, but he is in a strong position as an MP and former Minister with a sizable block vote in his home district, Polonnaruwa.
Misuse of cherished concepts
Elimination of corruption is a catchy slogan in a country like Sri Lanka, and it has been used previously as the main campaign cry by some political parties such as the SLPP-led People’s Alliance (PA), which made a mockery of its commitment to battling corruption after consolidating its power.
Cherished concepts tend to lose their value and depth when reduced to slogans that crafty politicians use as propaganda tools to further their interests by misleading the public. Politicians are adept at appealing to people’s emotions, and garnering votes; sloganeering is the most effective method they employ for that purpose.
In the late 1970s, the then UNP leader J. R. Jayewardene promised to create a ‘righteous society’ or ‘dharmista samajaya’, while ushering in economic progress. He won the 1977 general election with a five-sixths majority, changed the Constitution and appointed himself the Executive President the following year. Political violence, abuse of power, the suppression of democratic dissent, election malpractices, etc., became the order of the day on his watch, and ‘righteous society’ took on Orwellian connotations with the passage of time due to its misuse.
Ahead of the 1994 general election, the People’s Alliance led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga promised to rid the country of corruption as well as state terror. It mobilized the public very effectively, formed a government and enabled Kumaratunga to become Prime Minister and President in quick succession in the same year. Its leaders became as corrupt as their predecessors, and the public became disillusioned with anti-corruption campaigners.
Mahinda Rajapaksa promised the public a ‘prosperous future’during his presidential election campaign in 2005. He became President and the SLFP UPFA won a near two-thirds majority at the 2010 general election, something that had been considered well-nigh impossible under the Proportional Representation system. Corruption thrived and the Rajapaksa administration became notorious for abuse of power and political violence so much so that ‘Prosperous Future’ became a joke towards the end of President Rajapaksa’s second term.
In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena promised good governance or Yahapalanaya and won the presidency. But what he and the UNP-led government practised was the very antithesis of good governance. There were several high-profile scams including the Treasury bond racket during the early days of the Yahapalanagovernment, and the term, ‘good governance’, has gone the same way as ‘Righteous Society’, etc.
In the run-up to the 2019 presidential election, the SLPP presented to the public its policy programme, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’, which contained 10 key policies: Priority to national security, friendly, non-aligned foreign policy, an administration free from corruption, new Constitution that fulfils the people’s wishes, productive citizenry and a vibrant human resource, people centric economic development, technology-based society, development of physical resources, sustainable environmental management, disciplined, law-abiding and values-based society. The SLPP presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, secured the presidency. The SLPP won the 2020 general election and mustered a two thirds majority after winning 145 seats. But two years later, the economy went on the rocks, and President Rajapaksa had to flee the country and resign due to a popular uprising. The rest is history. The mention of ‘prosperity and splendour’ evokes one’s dreadful memories of winding queues near fuel stations and cooking gas sales points, import restrictions, numerous shortages and unbearable suffering and political upheavals.
Will Roshan be able to make a difference?
Roshan will find it difficult to live down his association with the Rajapaksa family, which he is trying to dissociate himself from. Being a member of the SLPP, which has earned notoriety for corruption, is also a huge disadvantage for him, but he will leave it officially come the next general election.
Above all, Sri Lankans have had many bogus messiahs and seen quite a few false dawns during the past several decades. They are therefore very cynical and sceptical about anti-corruption campaigners and their missions. This will be one of the challenges Ranasinghe will have to overcome to achieve success on the political front. His track record, and the fact that the incumbent government he has taken on has not been able to level any allegation of corruption against him, are thought to be plus points, which may help him make his movement appealing to the public, especially the resentful youth. However, the proof of the pudding is said to be in the eating.