Just across the Palk Strait, there is a tectonic shift in political power. While the constitutionality of President Maithripala Sirisena’s seemingly sudden decision to replace Ranil Wickremesinghe with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka’s prime minister is still under a dark cloud, its impact cannot be underestimated. Just under four years ago Rajapaksa was seen as the devil incarnate. Under his leadership, human rights violations were acceptable, corruption was a common last name and nepotism essential. Yet today he is back, occupying a space in public life that he had been ousted from, and he has done so courtesy Sirisena, the very man who had so stunningly removed him from that space in 2015. Of course the old adage “In politics there are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests” undoubtedly holds true. But it ducks the philosophical questions that Rajapaksa’s resurrection raises.

Sri Lanka’s three decades of violent civil strife ended in 2009 with bitterness, entirely lacking in any humaneness. Rajapaksa was then at the helm of the country and was initially touted as the monarch, the vanquisher. He thumped his chest and declared himself as the saviour of Sri Lanka, making every effort to diminish the minority Tamils, politically, emotionally and psychologically. It worked for a while, but soon the polarisation that he festered resulted in his own unmasking. Self-aggrandisement, arrogance, unaccountability, alienating rhetoric and parochial nationalism took their toll. As a response, the Opposition and his erstwhile friends came together, and in the election of January 2015 people threw him and his many-tentacled family out of the corridors of power. Ranil Wickremesinghe became prime minister, partnering with his political other – Siresena, who had won the presidential elections. This coming together was necessitated by commonality in adversariality. For all its “quick-fix” look, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe’s initiative gave people hope that dialogue, reconciliation, cleansing, friendship, healing and ethics would become the bedrock of a new political prototype. The switch was seen as a fresh start.

But what change was expected? Or in other words how was change viewed? Did the change come from a need for larger conversations? Did the change come from a realisation that remembrance was far more complex? Did the change recognise the blatant unevenness in Sri Lankan society and a need to engage in self-transformative ways? Divisions in Sri Lanka, like India, are based on caste, gender, linguistic and ethnic differences and these are stratified and entrenched in social and political perspectives. So when the liberals in Sri Lanka spoke of forward movement, were they willing to look within? Being decent or well-meaning has very little to do with asking difficult questions and acting upon them.

There is another word that we, Sri Lankans and Indians, constantly whine about: corruption. But what is corruption? Corruption is not just about counts and accounts. Far more dangerous is its equivalent in ethics or rather, the lack of it, which was and is rampant in Sri Lankan society, and it is the lack of any discussion on the workings of this ethical debasement that has brought Sri Lanka back in the hands of Rajapaksa.

Financial corruption is only one product of a corrupted conscience though the most visibly striking one. So when we move from one government to another, one administration to another or one set of leaders to another, nothing really changes. The system remains as it was and all of us do very little to change that. Patronage, nepotism, dictatorial structure, hierarchical authority remain static irrespective of who is in government. Only control shifts. The truth is that the post-Rajapaksa regime did very little to change any of this. The feudal set up remained, and old, rusty bureaucratic structures continued to flourish. As a result, financial corruption was also ignored. Liberals were willing to safeguard their own just to keep others away and promises of societal forward movement remained unrealised. Unrealised because there was no intention of self-introspection. Sri Lanka became a liberal controlled feudal society. Therefore Rajapaksa coming back to power is not a surprise for most observers of Sri Lanka, it is only the speed at which he has returned that has surprised many.

Lessons for Indians

For all of us in India who yearn for a new beginning post-Modi, there are learnings from the political developments in our southern neighbourhood. Modi has successfully polarised India in religious and caste terms. We may not have experienced anything close to Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Tamil conflict, yet over the past five years lynchings have taken place across our country, journalists shot dead, Dalits attacked, activists arrested, educational institutions stifled, governmental institutions paralysed and the press threatened and pressurised. These are all facts and unarguable. Many of us are desperate for all this to end, and are already doing the math for the 2019 general elections.

Irrespective of what may actually happen in 2019 we have to ask ourselves one question: what change do we seek? Are we just saying, anyone but Modi? At times I find that we, those who oppose the present dispensation, lack clarity about this possible future. Will a change in party magically transform our society?

Modi, Amit Shah and all their cronies are a product of our society and while not having them make national decisions will be relief, an unwillingness to delve into our own inadequacies will only bring such forces back in the future. For this, we have to confront our religiously divided, casteist nature and ethically rotting systems of governance. It serves us all well to paint this picture of communal harmony and lesser casteism during the pre-Modi era, but does that really mean anything?

Ever since Independence, we have tip-toed around caste even though Ambedkar made sure it was etched into our Constitution. We have accepted Ambedkar with great reluctance and even today, we, the upper caste, use him and his name for convenience. We do not really seek equality, do we? How much effort was really put into encouraging dialogue and understanding of and about caste within our society. We reduced caste to reservations and allowed that to become a tool for garnering votes and consolidating our own positions. And before non-political readers nod in agreement, let me make it abundantly clear that we, members of civil society, have all done exactly the same thing within our own spaces of relevance or influence.

The religious story is not very different. We rejoice in tales of Hindus, Muslims and Christians sharing space, revelling in togetherness, aiding one another in times of crisis and living in commonality. But many such stories emanate from the economically poorer sections of society where their overarching stigmatisation blurs these differences. Let us admit that for most of our inter-faith relationships are contractual, necessitated by context rather than born out of understanding of cultures. Communal harmony is not about looking beyond cultural differences, it is living within each others’ culture. Have we facilitated this over the past 70 years?

Much like Sri Lanka, feudalism and nepotism are values of governance in our country. We cannot separate these corrupt practices from the hierarchical modes of living that we have interiorised. This is fundamentally a tradition of segregatory behaviour that we justify and find acceptable.

We have normalised ethical, social and political corruption. Are we willing to become honest, brutally honest, cleanse the entire system and reshape the country? This is what we must demand of ourselves, and those in power. If we do not, only names, symbols and extents of dangerousness changes, but we remain a dishonest, oppressive society. And we will, undeterred, defend those who do not belong to the BJP ilk of all kinds of wrongdoing in order to keep the others at bay.

Rajapaksa’s political moves teach us that unless we vitally revolutionise our society, the Modis and Amit Shahs of India will always find fissures and breaches to claw their way back into our consciousness. We are accidentally being forewarned and we ignore the sign at our own peril.