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Machiavelli In Sri Lanka: A Response To Prof Carlo

| by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

( September 11, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In his piece on ‘Government and Ethics’ (The Island Sept 11th), Prof Carlo Fonseka debates Machiavelli with Mr RMB Senanayake. In it he makes a kind of gently remonstrative reference to me as follows:

“I appealed to the most erudite political scientist I know, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka through the columns of The Island (12 July). If my appeal caught his eye he ignored it perhaps on the (sensible) ground that the political education of an old medical fogey is not one of his priorities. Fortunately, illuminating insights into the problem came from other authorities.”

Prof Fonseka does himself a disservice when he guesses at the reason for my lack of response. I was engaged at the time in serial polemics in the newspapers as part of the debate over devolution. That was however, only one reason. There was and is another, which prevents me from taking the subject seriously. More of that in a moment.

Not only was Machiavelli the founder of modern political science, he was rightly recognised by radical emancipationist thinkers such as Rousseau, Gramsci and Althusser as a republican and a progressive thinker in his era.

The sharp swerve from theology and Christian ethics that Machiavelli undertook, which was a necessary rupture from the dominant thinking of his time, resulted in a lop-sidedness which has long been corrected by theorists and practitioners who have advocated and sought a synthesis of power and virtue, of realism and idealism. I have dealt in a book-length study, with an example of such synthesis in the Jesuit educated revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro. An outstanding contemporary statement of another attempt at synthesis is contained in President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

My second reason is that the Carlo-RMB debate is in a sense irrelevant. There is no Machiavellianism --defined as the pursuit of enlightened self-interest of the state by the state—in practice in Sri Lankan politics today, either by the regime or the pathetic caricature of leadership provided by the alternative/aspirant.

From a political science perspective, the Machiavellian moment (and I mean that as a compliment) was during the war years and the first term of President Rajapaksa, right up to his re-election. The post-war period and the second term has seen the replacement of that Machiavellian lucidity with neoconservative ultranationalist dogma and delusion.

A Machiavellian perspective would have dictated the holding of Northern Provincial elections in 2009, while the TNA was still reeling and Colombo’s ally the EPDP would have prevailed.

Machiavellianism would have continued a process of negotiation with the TNA in order to co-opt and contain, not broken it off in high dudgeon.

Machiavellianism would not have lost the support of India, Brazil, Uruguay, Malaysia and South Africa, all of which supported Sri Lanka in May 2009.

An authentically Machiavellian perspective would identify and isolate the main enemy while winning over allies and neutralising those could not be won over. It would not engage, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence has done, in compiling a proliferating menu of perceived threats, ranging from the West to Tamils, Muslims, Leftists, street demonstrators and websites!

Machiavellianism is hard-nosed realism. It does not confuse Sri Lanka for Israel or Pakistan. It understands that China is too far from Sri Lanka to unfurl a protective umbrella over an island on India’s doorstep. It does not dabble with atomic energy in collaboration with Pakistan, thus setting itself up as a target of a frame-up with enormously dangerous consequences.

Machiavellianism is relentlessly modern, rational and republican; no one who looks through a parochial, backward ethno-religious prism can be Machiavellian.

Vladmir Putin is Machiavellian. So is Lee Kuan Yew. A distant and faint Sri Lankan approximation would (arguably) be JR Jayewardene.

The Mickey Mouse Machiavellianism manqué of the rulers and Opposition leadership of post-war Sri Lanka is an insult to Machiavelli. That is the second reason that I had not replied to Prof Fonseka’s kind invitation.

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