Family bandyism

Understanding nepotism in Sri Lankan context

By Gamini Gunawardane

(February 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)Now that the election storm is blown over and the dust has settled to some extent, it may be opportune to take a sober look at,at least one issue that took the centre stage in the run up to the elections which, particularly, the Western oriented Middle Class of this country could not come to terms with, even if they sympathised with MR. That was the issue of alleged nepotism and family bandyism.

Curiously, the fact that a vast majority of voters in the South and a comparatively small section of the voters in the North and East together gave MR a thumping majority despite the intensity with which the Middle Class urged the point of nepotism, corruption and bad governance, seemed to have been subordinated in their list of priorities to other issues such as national integrity, gratitude, positioning of the TNA, economic progress, and the fear of threats uttered by an unknown quantity (that was the rival candidate) and a notion that the known devil is better than the unknown and their being more comfortable with the "Goviya puth."

The present exercise is not an attempt to whitewash the Rajapaksas but an effort to understand the phenomenon of nepotism, its socio-cultural elements in a Sri Lankan and Asian context and the probable reason why it was subordinated to other issues . What triggered me to undertake this endeavour is a passage that I came across in the book by Kumari Jayawardena titled; "Nobodies to Somebodies" which I am reading these days.

This book is a study of the beginnings of the egalitarian society ushered by the British colonial government, particularly in early and mid 19th century. The study deals with the emergence, particularly in the Low Country, of a new commercial bourgeoisie when the subsistence agricultural economy was transformed into a kind of capitalist economy, breaking through the caste system. The transformation however did not arise from the emergence of industrialisation as in the West, but from arrack and transport renting, plumbego mining and a commercial coconut growing industry which continued into the growth of the plantation industries of coffee, tea and rubber. Latterly, the emerging Sri Lankan Middle Class made their money by providing various services to these plantations.

In this process of social mobility, Jayawardane observes on page 52 that: "There was however, one distinguishing characteristic in this process which demands attention. This was located in traditional society, in which family, kinship and caste links were very important. The phenomenon was not one of the single-handed entrepreneur breaking loose and making a fortune through self-help and luck; rather it was the growth of business based on the support of immediate relatives and caste members whose loyalty could be relied on. ( Italics mine)

" …The role of kinship and caste ties in business activity a pre-capitalist phase can be seen from a study of the pioneer business families. The prevailing ethos was that of mutual help; ( Italics mine) a person who succeeded felt a responsibility to use the acquired wealth and status to help and improve the economic and social position of close relatives, distant kinsmen and other members of the cast. (Gnathi Sangrahaya!) (insertion mine). In return, a merchant would be helped in business dealings by relatives and others of the caste. This proved to be an important factor in situations where collusion and combination could increase profitability, as in arrack trade.... For as Bryce Rayan has suggested, the concepts of the family and marriage are "the most substantial bulwarks" of the caste system among the Sinhalese:"

" The solidarity of kin as a unit of action and of loyalty, the concepts of family honour and good name… lead to the maintenance of caste integrity, caste communalism and to some extent, caste hierarchy…. Caste in Ceylon could not survive without familism." (Ryan 1953: 25)

This same model seems to have spread through the entire 19th and 20th centuries and to date in some of the older commercial concerns that are extant even today. Some good examples are the family nature of the corporate levels in companies such as Maliban Biscuits, Jinasena & Co. DSI and Tudawe Brothers etc. most of which had their origins in the early 20th century. I believe it is the same with the Indian conglomerates such as the Tatas and Birlas and several other Marathi, Sindhi and Borah families. I believe the same may be the case in countries like Indonesia. In Brunei, the Sultan and his family members run that country. No one here cries foul, that it is ‘family bandyism’. That country runs smoothly, though it may be not to our liking.

Another aspect is that looking after ones kith and kin is considered a cherished value in the Eastern value system! The Mahamangala Sutta which sets out the Buddhist value system states in one stanza that gnathkanam ca sangaho i.e. looking after one’s kith and kin is a Mangala Karana, - a matter to be appreciated, which probably our Mangala ( Samaraweera) who charted the General’s propaganda strategy did not appreciate! Hence the reason why the issue did not cut much ice among the vast majority of the rural Sinhala Buddhist majority. On the other hand, the unity among the Rajapaksa brothers may have been even appreciated by the village folk as an ideal.

Thus, in the observation made by Kumari Jayawardena, the words ‘business activity’ need only to be replaced by the words ‘political power’ in the present context. The same social dynamic seem to be at work. May be it was considered no great sin, taken in the context of other larger issues. Of course, one could argue that though this may be justifiable in running a private business it could not be advocated in governance, in a democratically elected government. One might also add that governance is not a private business, like perhaps in the Sultanate of Brunei. In fact, such a system exists in the Latin American countries which are generally looked down upon as ‘corrupt’ countries by the rest of the Western World. These countries are referred to as Banana Republics and this kind of family administration is called the "Sala Model" by the academics in the American Universities teaching Public Administration.

In Western society, where individualism is the dominant feature, the idea of ‘family’ or clan in the Eastern concept is not tenable, in the political context. It is not a strength but a weakness in a ‘democratic’ dispensation where individual right is the most important. Every family, including the husband, wife and the child are just three individuals who enjoy equal rights. They are three separate individuals, though living under the same roof. One needs to ‘negotiate’ with each other regarding utilising or sharing everything at home, like the TV, the washing machine, the iron or the toilet and even each other’s time. Thus, they now teach the art of negotiation in Management institutions and universities as a necessary skill in inter-personal relations. A popular saying here is that "you do not get what you deserve but what you negotiate." Much of the minor irritants at home such as a TV are now overcome with each individual having each utility for oneself. But larger issues have still to be negotiated.

Thus, to the Western oriented Middle Class in this country too which is fed on the Western knowledge base, attitudes and value system, this kind of family co-operation, submerging individual interests etc. is not tenable. Naturally, they would look down upon this relationship as described in the Western concept of ‘democracy’ as nepotism and family bandyism. Their Western counterparts identify corruption, inefficiency and government by family concerns as essential qualities of such "Sala Model" governments. So, it is evil.

Given the qualities of inefficiency and corruption which may be a hall mark of most countries emerging from foreign domination, I believe efficacy of the system of the "Sala Model" could best be judged on the basis of a criterion of delivery of results. Thus, here too, we may address the question of the "Rajapaksa Samagama" on the basis whether it did or did not deliver ?

We can by no means say that it did not deliver in the war effort. In fact it was one of its success factors. It was a tremendous advantage and relief both for the President – the Commander in Chief , the 3 Services and the Police that the Secretary Defence was the former’s brother. Their mutual trust and the understanding is something that it would be difficult to ask for, especially in an environment of jealousy, tale carrying, back biting and mutual distrust which is ever present in the top echelons of governance in our country, created mostly by the hangers on.

Then came the rehabilitation and reconstruction stage which the other brother gave able leadership to. Some public servants who sat at his conferences were amazed at the swiftness and the self assurance with which he made critical decisions on the ground, to meet the on-going problems. Despite the unsubstantiated allegations other than rumours of mass scale corruption by the brothers, there were no allegations on the manner in which they delivered results on time. We have heard of the ‘terror tactics’ that an impatient President Premadasa was compelled to adopt to goad unco-operative public and corporation sector personnel to deliver results. We did not hear of such stories of coercion this time, though results were achieved on time.

Apart from this, we have no adequate information to make an assessment, to determine whether the other relatives and friends of the President who have been appointed to public office have or failed to deliver results.

There is of course the classical theory that a democracy does not function on friends and relations holding key positions but that its performance is based on efficiently run institutions. This is certainly good in theory and idealism but there may be cogent arguments for and against. But still an argument remains. If no such institutions are readily available, what do we do? ‘Build them’ will be the answer. Till we build them what do we do? - live with the wolf at the door step? The debate will go on. It is true that all such good institutions were systematically demolished by successive governments for political expediency. And they were filled with inefficient, but clever stooges and mediocrites who were excellent at stooging and under-cutting. Such institutions are rendered so imbecile that it has come to such a sorry pass that university vice-chancellors have thought it fit appear on television to exhort us on whom we should vote for; (for the incumbent President of course!)

Yet, in a situation where all systems have virtually collapsed, what do we do with the immediate grand mess that all this have brought about? Again, the debate will go round in a circular argument, while the country is burning and something had to be done.

They did it the way they knew best. Now, do we hang them for that?

People have given their verdict.

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