Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Democracy Dance in Diapers

by Sachi Sri Kantha

This September 11, the editor of the Sangam website directed an appreciative Tamil reader’s query to me.  The query posed by reader Elango was on the dilemma faced by the current Election Chief Dayananda Dissanayake on scheduling the next Presidential election in the island and the plight of democracy in Sri Lanka. 

Initially I thought that the query was a no brainer.  Despite the attempts made by tub-thumping politicians – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhist priests - to hoodwink the public, there is no democracy in Sri Lanka; so, why bother about it?

For democracy to face a dilemma, first it should exist.  Can any straight-thinking person say that democracy of any variety lives and breathes in Sri Lanka?  Nope.  The first death-knell to democracy in Sri Lanka occurred when Dudley Senanayake was appointed as the prime minister to replace his father D.S. Senanayake in 1952, as per the wishes of the latter and against the opposition of one of the senior claimants to the office, John Kotelawala.  Here one witnessed a political power transfer along monarchic traditions.  Then we have seen ad nauseam the burlesque theater of Solomon Bandaranaike’s family (wife, daughter and now son) becoming automatic leaders; again the transfer of political power was on monarchic traditions.  Those who reached the top political incumbent post in Sri Lanka – J.R. Jayewardene and R. Premadasa – also pretended and prosecuted their functions like despotic monarchs, until their retirement or demise.  Only those who suffer from amnesia would say that these two behaved like democrats in letter and spirit, between 1977 and 1993.

My Credo

Thus, in 1988, I had become a convert from a pious flag-holder for democracy to a (politically incorrect) admirer of monarchic traditions.  My credo is that Tamils need to be ruled by a Tamil monarch – not by Sinhalese despots.  I mentioned the year 1988.  Two events happened to me in that year.  First, I became a father at the age of 35; and I was introduced to the world of diapers.  When I got used to handling the diapers, I realized that democracy and diapers share quite a number of commonalities.  [For an elaboration on this point, see below]. 

Second and most importantly, then living in Tokyo, I bought a Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) book from the bargain shelf.  It was a Penguin edition entitled, ‘Plays Political’, incorporating definitive texts and lengthy introductions by the eminent playwright.  Having reached the half-way mark of the Biblical life span and having spent the previous decade reading mainly science papers, I wanted to learn literary English.  And since time was a premium, I had to select a master and I chose Shaw.  His canvas is broad, bright, captivating and deep as well.  Shaw may provoke a reader to disagree but would never disappoint.  The three political plays of Shaw featured in that Penguin edition book were, The Apple Cart, On the Rocks and Geneva.  First I bought the book for the simple reason that I wanted to read Shaw’s characterization of Sir Jafna Pandaranath [‘Jafna’, in Shaw’s spelling, a character in which the playwright has honored Jaffna], in the play On the Rocks.  Why Shaw came to honor Jaffna as a character in one of his political plays was a curiosity for me then.

Intellectual Debt to Shaw

Reading Shaw’s expose on democracy in his introduction to the play The Apple Cart, convinced me that the democracy show paraded by political charlatans and half-baked analysts is just humbug. I could not disagree with Shaw on what he had written in 1930.  It was as if, even at a time when India and Ceylon were colonies of British Empire, he had seen with a crystal ball how the post-independence politicians of these two nations would parade in the political theater for duping the masses. 

In the 1990s, I contributed my criticism on democracy [as it is practised in the second half of 20th century] to newspapers and magazines.

This began after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, when – as one would expect – there was much wailing among the press pundits on the threat to democracy in India.  This was despite the fact that Rajiv Gandhi himself, at the instigation of political handlers, was (1) instrumental in the rigging of elections held in Eelam (Sri Lanka), Punjab and Kashmir; and also (2) had toppled ‘democratically elected’ state governments of India – Tamil Nadu included – according to the whims of his Congress Party mandarins.  Here is a list of my published letters on democracy, which appeared in the newspapers and magazines circulated from Tokyo, Colombo and London.

1. Democracy in India, West differ. Asahi Evening News, June 6, 1991, p.8.

2. Lincoln’s definition of democracy. Lanka Guardian, Sept.1, 1991, p.24.

3. Utopian dream of democracy. Mainichi Daily News, Sept.10, 1991, p.2.

4. Democracy, a utopian dream. Tamil Times, Oct.1991, p.22.

5. The dilemma of democracy. Tamil Nation, Feb.15, 1992, p.4.

6. Nepotism knows no boundaries. Japan Times, March 8, 1992, p.20.

7. The non-democracy phenomenon. Lanka Guardian, Oct.1, 1992, p.5.

8. The mirage of democracy. Lanka Guardian, Nov.15, 1992, p.11.

9. Trick of democracy. Mainichi Daily News, June 19, 1992, p.2.

10. Bare facts on American democracy. Mainichi Daily News, July 18, 1992, p.2.

11. Democracy, an Emperor’s invisible cloth? Mainichi Daily News, July 31, 1992, p.2.

12. The significance of loonies. Mainichi Daily News, Jan.21, 1994, p.2.

13. Notorious ‘nepocracy’ and a spineless electorate. Hot Spring, Feb-March 1999, p.11.

All these 13 letters were inspired from my reading of Shaw and in a few I had openly acknowledged my debt to Shaw.  It was Shaw, a no-nonsense master of literary exposition, who exposed the worthless democracy prevailing in the world now.  For those who like to read Shaw in the original, I provide excerpts of his 'Introduction' to ‘The Apple Cart’ below.  Quite a handful of critics responded to these ‘anti-democratic’ letters of mine.  Among the Sri Lankans, Izeth Hussain, while criticising my thoughts, acknowledged himself in the pages of the Lanka Guardian, that Sri Lanka is an example of nonsensical democracy. 

One Indian reader, in defence of India’s sham democracy, took cover with Winston Churchill’s old chestnut, "Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe.  No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.  Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." [Speech at House of Commons, 11 November 1947].  But, as typical of a half-baked analyst, this Indian critic completely ignored the ethno-religious pluralities and the population overload prevailing in India, as opposed to the UK.

Democracy and Diapers

Politicians everywhere, including Sri Lanka and India, put on diapers and parade their democracy dance for the entertainment of the gullibles. 

So, to answer reader Elango’s specific query, Sri Lankan election chief Dayananda Dissanayake is merely an extra in this democracy dance show of politicians in diapers.  Eelam Tamils need not bother anything about when he will announce the next presidential election date and what bells and whistles the announcement will carry.  The traditional Tamil theater has a wonderful song to guide our attention on this issue; "Aariya koothaadinaalum Thandava Kone – Kadamai Kaariyathil Kann Vaiyada Thanadava Kone" [Even when you dance for the Ariyan play – Keep an eye on your duty and relay], sung by Chidambaran S. Jayaraman and acted by the legendary Sivaji Ganesan, for the movie Parasakthi (1952).

As aptly noted by Shaw in 1930, the inefficiency of parliamentary democracy is that "Its painfully evolved machinery of parliament and Party System and Cabinet is so effective in obstruction that we take thirty years by constitutional methods to do thirty minutes work." And mind you, this was the scene in England, with a nominally mono-ethnic and mono-religious (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) constituency.  And how hopeless the parliamentary democracy has turned out to be in India and Sri Lanka, with multi-ethnic and multi-religious constituencies, during the past 50 years.

Now to the comparison of democracy and diapers; both are convenient and comfortable at a critical moment of a person’s and nation’s life as a baby and toddler.  But, both become soiled.  Then, both have to be changed.  Just because it is comfortable, one cannot keep on wearing the old 'pampers' for long.  If done, this will lead to discomfort and ill health.  One has to outgrow the diaper phase.  Why?  The diaper serves a need when the wearer cannot control his/her voluntary muscle function. 

Just a few historical facts on democracy.  The oldest cradle of democracy was Athens.  It was a city state, consisting of patriarchs, plebians and slaves.  The voter base was small, not numbering more than perhaps ten thousand.  Slaves did not have a vote.  The current cradle of democracy, established in late 18th century, is the USA.  Though not a city state, it also consisted of patriarchs, plebians and [Black] slaves.  Even the majority white Women did not get their vote until the 1920s.  With a population explosion, the stark fact is that the democracy as a viable political instrument has outlived its usefulness, like diapers around the waist of adult humans.  Just think for a while, how "representative" are the 100 multi-millionaire/billionaire American senators, of average American citizens Joe and Jane, despite all the media blitz.  Even America, despite its posturing as the current cradle of democracy has turned into a closet ‘Royalist’ nation; George '41 (1989-1992) and George '68 (2000- present, with a ‘selected’ nomination in 2000 despite losing the popular vote) are blood kins.  Already bets are on that Clinton, the wife, may be tempted to follow the footsteps of Clinton, the husband (1993-2000), in 2008.

In my view, the advocacy of "Pluralism among Tamils", raised in quite a few quarters at international podiums in the name of democracy, is nothing but old wine with a new label; the ‘Divide and Rule’ strategy of colonial masters who were Christians by label, but not in spirit.  Also note a point which Shaw makes that William Ralph Inge (1860-1954) had mentioned, that democracy is a Christian principle.  Inge was a professor of divinity at Cambridge University and was chosen as the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 1911.  So democracy may have chance to prevail as a political system, if the entire country belongs to the Christian faith.  But practically this may not be so.  A good example is the Philippines, a country where the majority was converted to Christianity.  This also explains why democracy has not flowered and does not exist [despite the phony statistics and erroneous cooking of facts by the bureaucrats of UN agencies and their counterparts] in countries practising nominally Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faiths.  My stand is that, if pluralism among those practising different religious faiths is accepted in principle, then pluralism among those practising different political administrative systems need to be accepted.

Please read excerpts from Shaw’s expose on democracy, provided below, for pleasure and learning.

Excerpts from Bernard Shaw’s Preface to his play ‘The Apple Cart’ [1930]

[courtesy: Bernard Shaw, Plays Political; definitive text, edited by Dan H. Laurence, Penguin Books, 1986, pp.11-41. Note the italics and parenthesis, in the paragragh relating to Lincoln, are as in the original.  Shaw’s dart applies equally to Lincoln as well as Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was born two years later in 1932.]

The first performances of this play at home and abroad provoked several confident anticipations that it would be published with an elaborate prefatory treatise on Democracy to explain why I, formerly a notorious democrat, have apparently veered round to the opposite quarter and become a devoted Royalist. In Dresden the performance was actually prohibited as a blasphemy against Democracy….

On the subject of Democracy generally I have nothing to say that can take the problem farther than I have already carried it in my Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. We have to solve two inseparable main problems: the economic problem of how to produce and distribute our subsistence, and the political problem of how to select our rulers and prevent them from abusing their authority in their own interests or those of their class or religion.

Our solution of the economic problem is the Capitalist system, which achieves miracles in production, but fails ludicrously and disastrously to distribute its products rationally, or to produce in the order of social need, that is always complaining of being paralysed by its ‘overproduction’ of things of which millions of us stand in desperate want. Our solution of the political problem is Votes for Everybody and Every Authority Elected by Vote, an expedient originally devised to prevent rulers from tryrannizing by the very effectual method of preventing them from doing anything, and thus leaving everything to irresponsible private enterprise. But as private enterprise will do nothing that is not profitable to its little self, and the very existence of civilization now depends on the swift and unhampered public execution of enterprises that supercede private enterprise and are not merely profitable but vitally necessary to the whole community, this purely inhibitive check on tyranny has become a stranglehold on genuine democracy.

Its painfully evolved machinery of parliament and Party System and Cabinet is so effective in obstruction that we take thirty years by constitutional methods to do thirty minutes work, and shall presently be forced to clear up thirty years arrears in thirty minutes by unconstitutional ones unless we pass a Reform Bill that will make a complete revolution in our political machinery and procedure….

As it is, the voters have no real choice of candidates; they have to take what they can get and make the best of it according to their lights, which is often the worst of it by the light of heaven. By chance rather than by judgment they find themselves represented in parliament by a fortunate proportion of reasonably honest and public spirited persons who happen to be also successful public speakers. The rest are in parliament because they can afford it and have a fancy for it or an interest in it….

Democracy, as you know it, is seldom more than a long word beginning with a capital letter, which we accept reverently or disparage contemptuously without asking any questions. Now we should never accept anything reverently until we have asked it a great many very searching questions, the first two being ‘What are you?’ and ‘Where do you live?’ When I put these questions to Democracy the answer I get is ‘My name is Demos; and I live in the British Empire, the United States of America, and wherever the love of liberty burns in the heart of man. You, my friend Shaw, are a unit of Democracy; your name is also Demos; you are a citizen of a great democratic community; you are a potential constituent of the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.’

At this I usually burst into loud cheers, which do credit to my enthusiastic nature. Tonight, however, I shall do nothing of the sort; I shall say ‘Don’t talk nonsense. My name is not Demos; it is Bernard Shaw. My address is not the British Empire, nor the United States of America, nor wherever the love of liberty burns in the heart of man; it is at such and such a number in such and such a street in London; and it will be time enough to discuss my seat in the Parliament of Man when that celebrated institution comes into existence. I don’t believe your name is Demos; nobody’s name is Demos; and all I can make of your address is that you have no address, and are just a tramp – if indeed you exist at all.’

You will notice that I am too polite to call Demos a windbag or a hot air merchant; but I am going to ask you to begin our study of Democracy by considering it first as a big balloon, filled with gas or hot air, and sent up so that you shall be kept looking up at the sky whilst other people are picking your pockets. When the balloon comes down to earth every five years or so you are invited to get into the basket if you can throw out one of the people who are sitting tightly in it; but as you can afford neither the time nor the money, and there are forty millions of you and hardly room for six hundred in the basket, the balloon goes up again with much the same lot in it and leaves you where you were before. I think you will admit that the balloon as an image of Democracy corresponds to the parliamentary facts.

Now let us examine a more poetic conception of Democracy. Abraham Lincoln is represented as standing amid the carnage of the battlefield of Gettysburg, and declaring that all that slaughter of Americans by Americans occurred in order that Democracy, defined as government of the people for the people by the people, should not perish from the earth. Let us pick this famous peroration to pieces and see what there really is inside it. (By the way, Lincoln did not really declaim it on the field of Gettysburg; and the American Civil War was not fought in defence of any such principle, but, on the contrary, to enable one half of the United States to force the other half to be governed as they did not wish to be governed. But never mind that. I mentioned it only to remind you that it seems impossible for statesmen to make speeches about Democracy, or journalists to report them, without obscuring it in a cloud of humbug.)

Now for the three articles of the definition. Number One: Government of the people; that, evidently, is necessary; a human community can no more exist without a government than a human being can exist without a co-ordinated control of its breathing and blood circulation. Number Two: Government for the people, is most important. Dean Inge put it perfectly for us when he called Democracy a form of society which means equal consideration for all. He added that it is a Christian principle, and that, as a Christian, he believes in it. So do I. That is why I insist on equality of income. Equal consideration for a person with a hundred a year and one with a hundred thousand is impossible. But Number Three: Government by the people, is quite a different matter. All the monarchs, all the tyrants, all the dictators, all the Diehard Tories are agreed that we must be governed.

Democrats like the Dean and myself are agreed that we must be governed with equal consideration for everybody. But we repudiate Number Three on the ground that the people cannot govern. The thing is a physical impossibility. Every citizen cannot be a ruler any more than every boy can be an engine driver or a pirate king. A nation of prime ministers or dictators is as absurd as an army of field marshals. Government by the people is not and never can be a reality; it is only a cry by which demagogues humbug us into voting for them. If you doubt this – if you ask me ‘Why should not the people make their own laws?’ I need only ask you ‘Why should not the people write their own plays?’ They cannot. It is much easier to write a good play than to make a good law. And there are not a hundred men in the world who can write a play good enough to stand daily wear and tear as long as a law must…

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Posted September 20, 2005