Sri Lankan economy recovers
In April 2022, Sri Lanka declared its worst economic crisis since its independence from Britain in 1948, triggering months-long street protests that led to then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa's ouster | File photo

What India can learn from Sri Lanka's poll panel and Supreme Court

When Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe tried postponing the already delayed local government elections, he had egg on his face after the fiercely independent Election Commission (EC) stood up to him.

On January 6, Wickremesinghe summoned a group of election officials and pleaded that holding elections amid the island’s worst economic crisis was not a sound idea after all. It is a line that some ministers in the government had been parroting for a while.

No way, the officials told the President, politely but firmly. The elections can only be postponed through constitutional or judicial action. Failing either, they will have to be held in March this year.

Sri Lankan’s Election Commission stands its ground

Nevertheless, the next day, on the direction of cabinet secretary Donald Fernando, home affairs secretary Neel Bandara Hapuhinna told district secretaries – who act as Returning Officers – not to accept deposits from election contestants. The circular had to be withdrawn and the home secretary offered a meek apology after an outburst of anger from the people. Political parties and independent media demanded that the elections be held to test people’s will.

The EC, not only stood its ground but went on to announce that nominations will be accepted for four days ending on January 21, to fill up posts in 340 local government bodies across Sri Lanka.

Also read: Sri Lanka’s local election generates lot of heat, some uncertainty

When a retired army officer, widely suspected to be a government proxy moved the Supreme Court against the elections, the poll panel argued that the democratic battle very much needed to be held.

SC tightens the screws

At a time when the EC was asserting its independence, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court (SC) delivered a landmark verdict holding then President Maithripala Sirisena and his senior security officials, responsible for failing to foil the 2019 Easter bombings that killed around 270 people and injured over 500, despite adequate intelligence warnings.

On March 13, a seven-member bench told Sirirsena to pay ₹100 million. Former police chief Pujith Jayasundara, the former state Intelligence Services head Nilantha Jayawardene, former defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando and the former National Intelligence Service chief Sirisa Mendis, were asked to cough up amounts ranging between ₹75 million and ₹10 million.

All of them were ordered to pay from their personal funds to a victim fund maintained by the Office of Reparations. The SC also said it must be informed about the payment within six months.

The judgement was as deadly as the bombings themselves. It shook up the country’s political players who, like in many Third World countries, had gotten used to escaping all scrutiny and, until recently, any punishment.

Also read: Sri Lanka: Ex-President told to pay over Rs 300 million over Easter bombings

When rules changed for the first time in Sri Lanka

In many ways, the rules changed, for the first time, in 2022 in Sri Lanka.

This was the momentous year when tens of thousands of people, sick and tired of the economic mess the country was in because of ill-serving politicians, overran the Presidential Palace and forced then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country.

The stunning moment and its long-term consequence were sought to be eclipsed by a crafty political establishment which, after Wickremesinghe was elected the President, went after all those who had taken part in the mass revolt, jailing many activists.

With the economy still in tailspin, the government and its disgraced ruling party leaders thought it would be best to put off elections to local government bodies so that mass anger doesn’t get reflected in the ballot boxes. The EC has now foiled the conspiracy.

Sri Lankan media accurately reflects popular anger

Sri Lanka’s independent media – as opposed to the cash-rich state-run media – also continues to accurately reflect popular anger against politicians, including those who were once heroes among the majority Sinhalese community for crushing the Tamil Tigers.

When former President Sirisena, after the Supreme Court rap, whined that he did not have ₹100 million rupees to pay and that he will take help from friends to raise the money, the media made mincemeat of him.

Also read: Indian warnings at the heart of historic Sri Lanka judgment

In a stinging editorial on Tuesday (January 17), The Island newspaper said all Sri Lankan politicians would have the public believe that they were in indigence, as it were.

“But, the comforts of life are certainly far from lacking for them,” it said in an editorial. “They and their progeny continue to live high on the hog. They own palatial houses, here and overseas, and fleets of luxury vehicles. Their children are members of the leisure class and splurge on ultra-expensive vehicles, designer wear and fairy tale weddings, while the ordinary youth are working their fingers to the bones to make both ends meet.”

The English-language newspaper reminded its readers that former strongman Basil Rajapaksa, who is still said to remote control the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the main force in Parliament propping up President Wickremesinghe, had claimed some years ago that the only asset he had was a herd of cows.

“Basil,” The Island said, “must be the only small-scale Sri Lankan daily farmer to live the life of Riley, owning properties in the US, flying first/business class and paying for VIP facilities at airports!”

Sri Lanka may be enveloped by the worst economic disaster in history but its democratic credentials are more or less intact. Institutions so vital to preserve democracy, the fourth estate included are largely thriving, and India can learn a lesson or two from the conduct of their counterparts in the island nation.

This is particularly true for India’s SC, which retains a semblance of independence even as some recent rulings have come under a cloud, and the EC, which for long was a source of pride for all Indians but which now looks a pale shadow of its once vocally independent self.

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