Regimes acquire tags, leaders too. When they resonate with general public perception they become part of everyday usage. It was Victor Ivan who called President Chandrika Kumaratunga ‘Chaura Regina’ (The Thieving Queen). It stuck. No one knows who first used ‘Sahodara Samaagama’ (‘The Company of Brothers’ or perhaps ‘Brothers Incorporated’) to describe President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers Basil and Gotabhaya, but it stuck.
Whether or not either of the Rajapaksa brothers were qualified and competent for the jobs they did is, of course, another matter. Basil in essence ran the economy and had his share of pluses and minuses. Gotabhaya was the trusted right hand man of the Commander-in-Chief and later took over the arduous task of rebuilding Colombo. Again, there are pluses and minuses. These have been discussed enough. The problem of this ‘samaagama’ was the ‘sahodara’ part. This is why there were passionately articulated pledges to ‘do away with nepotism’ by the then Opposition.
What do we have now though? We have Ravi Karunanayake and his brothers-in-law (yes, in the plural), Arjuna and Dhammika Ranatunga, Charitha and Suren Ratwatte and who knows who else in the offing. Now these brothers-in-arms may be competent and qualified. The case has to be made, however, that they are the most suitable for the particular job for nepotism-flak aside, a country with a serious human resource problem cannot afford mediocrity at the top.
A related question is, ‘why is it that politicians operate as though they’ve already forgotten the slogans of the election campaign?’ This is how it happens: if the person at the top does wrong, he or she is essentially issuing a general license for wrongdoing; if someone down the line does wrong it means the person at the top is also doing wrong or else is incompetent.
It began with the appointment of President Sirisena’s brother as Chairman, Sri Lanka Telecom. It would be hard to claim that the individual is the best suited for the job. What that appointment did was to give the green light to sahodara-samaagam or ‘fraternal’ arrangements. Those who went into business (shall we say?) with the near and dear or are planning to do so can brush off criticism easily with the following: ‘If it is good for the President, it’s good for us as well!’
President Maithripala Sirisena can still make things right. These are still early days of his tenure. He can say ‘I was poor in judgment’ and the people will forgive, forget and even applaud. The early signs, apart from that initial error in appointing his brother, are worrisome, however. He looked the other way when his daughter played ‘princess’ and he essentially conferred ‘prince’ on his son by taking him to New York. This kind of indulgence by Mahinda Rajapaksa would have earned the wrath of the self-appointed ‘Good Governance Police,’ one notes. Their silence is as scandalous as the President’s decisions and consequent silence.
Despite all this, President Sirisena can be bold, humble and thereby give a massive boost to the business of ‘putting things right’. It is what those who voted for him expect. The rot is seeping down and unless it is stopped at the top, it will spread all over the place. That is not ‘change’, Mr. President. That’s ‘Same old, same old!’