The superman controller

At the heart of the political, social and psychological problems of Sri Lanka is the executive presidency of the 1978 Constitution. It has turned into a political monster with virtually no parallel. The executive president is a person freed from any and every kind of check and balance. He is not under any constitutional, economic or social force. He is a power unto himself.

The executive president, while holding such power, is completely disconnected from the apparatus of the government. Since he alone has power, nobody else has real independence to run the institutions of state. He must run them. All below depend upon him. None have authority or entitlements of their own. This is unworkable. It is not possible for any single person to run all institutions all the time. Therefore, institutions malfunction, to the point of complete dysfunction in Sri Lanka to which the AHRC has adverted many times previously. The dysfunction characterising Sri Lanka’s public institutions will continue for as long as the executive presidential system under the 1978 constitution is in effect.

Michael Roberts has described this style of misgovernment as a consequence of the ‘Ashokan Persona’:

The Big Man (invariably male) has to control every fiddling little thing. My theory therefore highlights a deeply-rooted cultural tendency towards the over-concentration of power at the head of organisations and a failure (if not an ingrained inability) to delegate power.

Elsewhere, novelist Aravind Adiga has in The White Tiger brought out a similar idea of social control through ‘the rooster coop’:

The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop. Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench — the stench of terrified, feathered flesh. On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.

He thereafter explains why the rooster coop was made possible. He attributes it to the Indian conception of family and the system of punishment where entire families of the servant class are punished for any transgression of one member. Asking the reason for its existence and why no one tries to get out of it, he continues:

The answer to the first question is that the pride and glory of our nation, the repository of all our love and sacrifice, the subject of no doubt considerable space in the pamphlet that the prime minister will hand over to you, the Indian family, is the reason we are trapped and fled to the coop. The answer to the second question is that only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed — hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters — can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.

From this perspective we can return to the problem of the superman controller in the 1978 Constitution. This constitution was meant to dismantle, or at least to undermine seriously, the rule-of-law system introduced by the British so that the ‘rooster coop’ could resurface. It was meant to remove barriers against corruption, undermine every possible avenue—including judicial intervention—to abuse of authority and not to have any system at all except the direct use of force on all, trade unions, and opposition political parties, young radicals looking for new avenues and on everyone else. A further important component was to close the electoral map.

The survival of the constitution was greatly enhanced by the rise of militancy in the south from the mid 1980s and Tamil nationalism, which finally came under the grip of the LTTE. It was possible to deflect the attention of people to the need for repressing terrorism and thereby to ensure that no real democratic challenge was made against the constitution itself.

Roberts correctly points out that, “What the Sri Lankan President gives as a constitutional gift, he can withdraw too”; the 17th Amendment is an example of this. This remains possible as long as the constitution is premised on the notion of the superman controller rather than the balance of powers. In a place where the law has little meaning and the supremacy of the law has been removed and replaced with the supremacy of the ‘Big Man’ all that can happen is the continuance of the ‘rooster coop’.

In a piece first published on the Sri Lanka Guardian website and reproduced in article 2 (vol. 8, no. 3, September 2009), Fernando explored the problems created by the superman controller through a fictional conversation among a group of imaginary characters: a journalist; a senior police officer; a retired judge; a political scientist; and, a philosopher. The conversation included an account of the political concept of Gyges Ring in terms of the current conditions in Sri Lanka:

Political scientist: The Greeks talked about Gyges’ ring. When one wears this ring one becomes invisible. Then you can do whatever you like. You can even rape the queen. Now we seem to have developed a home grown Gyges’ ring. We have replaced the paramount law with it. In that transformation the 1978 Constitution played a very significant role. Perhaps we need to discuss this more.

Philosopher: At this stage, I think it is better to recall the legend of Gyges’ Ring. According to the legend, an ancestor of Gyges of Lydia was a shepherd in the service of King Candaules. After an earthquake, a cave was revealed in a mountainside where Gyges was feeding his flock. Entering the cave, Gyges discovered that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse containing a corpse, larger than that of a man, who wore a golden ring, which Gyges pocketed. He discovered that the ring gave him the power to become invisible by adjusting it. Gyges then arranged to be chosen as one of the messengers who reported to the king as to the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, Gyges used his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murdered the king, and became king of Lydia himself.

Political scientist: Now, the moral of the story is that a typical person would not be moral if he or she did not have to fear the consequences of their actions. If anyone can be invisible, it is possible to do things that one may not be willing to do because of bad publicity and other adverse consequences.

Senior police officer: I think I understand this legend and what it tries to say. But, I cannot agree that we should encourage our officers or leaders to follow the moral of this story. If we have to become visible, we cannot do anything. We will become powerless. How can we ask our officers to kill undesirable people, bad criminals, if they have to do that openly? If their wives and children know these things, they will think they are bad people. Ordinary folk need to observe morals. If they know what we do, they will try to emulate us and then there will be more problems. We need to have the capacity to do many things in an invisible way.

Retired judge: Some people might say that what our police officer says is wrong. However, he is simply saying honestly what everybody knows to be happening.

Political scientist: Now, let us go back to our original question. In 1978 when the executive presidential system was created, the president got Gyges’ Ring. We rejected western democracy and created our own thing.

Philosopher: What you mean, I think, is that we replaced the paramount law idea with the idea of the paramount persona. Large, big, tall, fat personae as we see them in ancient statues are really our idea of who the powerful person should be.

Senior police officer: Let us be frank. Do you think that we can persuade people to work for the government and hold high office if they are to be told that they have account for every rupee they spend, that they have to keep books and be audited, that they can’t use their official position to help their family or friends and the like? If we ask our officers to bring every suspect before judges, that they should not torture people who do not give information, or that they have to produce every dead body before a magistrate to have a post mortem, will they do anything? We will have to pay officers who do nothing.

Retired judge: I think what you are saying is that we must be more flexible. We must give people room to exercise power, more freedom. Freedom of those in authority is more important than the so-called people’s freedom. People are free only if they obey rulers and respect rulers.

Philosopher: So this is what has happened since 1978. This is our new order.

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