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Family tree in politics – negation of democracy

| Ceylon Today Editorial

( July 23, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Dynastic politics is not alien to this part of the world. Indeed, it has been a curse that stagnated, and in fact, reversed the democratic evolution of South Asia, despite the initial promise that the sub-continent held at the outset of their independence from the British Raj. During their reign, colonial Britain, the first liberal empire in the history of human civilization, embarked on an extensive series of democratic experiments, and finally, by the time of their departure, had put in place infrastructure to support democratic governance in the infant nation States. Had the local elites who took over from the departing British made use of those structures, the Indian sub-continent could well have completed the greater part of its transition from the British-implanted electoral democracy, to a liberal democracy. However, South Asia went back on the democratic experiment. The Army took power in Pakistan and has governed during three quarters of the country's history, post-independence. Bangladesh, soon after a bitterly fought independence, followed suit. Even somewhat success stories in India and Sri Lanka, which remain the two oldest electoral democracies in Asia, have fallen short of the initial high expectations.

In those historically feudal societies of the sub-continent, feudalism has made a comeback. To further compound its resurgence, it shrouded itself with a cloak of electoral legitimacy. The first generation of feudal elites – Nehrus, Gandhis, Bhuttos, Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes – who took over from the departing British, were a rather benign force in politics, notwithstanding their collective failure in the economic front. Their tenures were least tainted by corruption. Some, such as late Sirima Bandaranaike, went a step further to take daring measures – such as the implementation of the Land Reform Act, under which the State forfeited thousands of acres of feudal land, to address social inequality and confront very feudal structures. Notwithstanding her good intentions, the economic legacy of her government was one of failure. That however is a different story.

But, those who followed the footsteps of the Bandaranaikes and Senanayakes were not as altruistic as their predecessors had been.

The vestiges of feudalism continued to have a profound impact on electoral democracy in the sub-continent, where in the later decades of independence, the elections themselves were used to provide a convenient avenue for a long list of offspring, spouses, members of extended families and cronies of feudal politicians to make an entry into politics. The political elites of Sri Lanka and its neighbours in the sub-continent disregarded meritocracy in favour of nepotism in politics. The dynastic politics emerged as a new form of subtle class warfare. Politicos who landed in the command positions of their respective political parties, installed entrenched systems, which favoured their own families and extended families.

The political systems they created were suffocating and restrictive for meritocratic individuals. They will never create a Barack Obama!

In some places, the leaders went to shameful extremes to groom their twenty-something sons to succeed them. Their regimes and the political culture they promoted, subsequently become microscopic of the rot they reigned over. Their countries failed, politically, economically and socially.

Sri Lanka's dynastic families are no different. And they continue to expand their tentacles. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) nomination board interviewed a long list of family members of reigning politicians. However, the most ludicrous reports of them all is that some 20-something son of UNP pole-vaulter, Minister Johnston Fernando, is even tipped to be the Chief Minister of the North-Western Province, should the UPFA win the election.

The dynastic politics in this country has distorted the very idea of electoral politics. Equally disturbing is that it has turned the electorate into serfdom. Granted, the Sri Lankan voter, largely rural and poor, is not the most enlightened. But, dynastic politics have turned them into sycophants.

Electoral politics is meant to be a level playing field. Those political families are not only a negation of that very idea; they have also weakened public confidence in electoral democracy. Leaders who are at the helm of their political parties should open up their ranks to the masses. Electoral democracy is not only about voting and pasting posters on the city walls. It is also about contesting for public office in a level playing field. Sadly, politics in Sri Lanka has not matured enough to allow that to happen.

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