Concretes & Abstracts A transformational leader opposite the Shangri-La
The 119th Birth Anniversary of Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike was commemorated recently at the Galle Face Green. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike was the most consequential leader in our dysfunctional democracy.
To date, he remains the only leader who attempted to explain his political values and made a genuine attempt to convert his beliefs into action. He was ambitious in the pursuit of power and 'recklessly over generous' once he reached the top of the greasy pole of political power.
The bronze statue of this pivotal leader now stands on a mound of manicured grass, displaying an uncaring disdain for the opulence of the gleaming new tower of the Shangri-La Hotel. His slight forward step is decidedly away from the promised port city. He belongs to a different land in a different age. Not to this age when the Prime Minister instigates chaos in the Chamber! Not in this Sham Shangri-La.
The luxury hotel brand 'Shangri- La' is inspired by the magical Himalayan land described in the 1933 novel 'Lost Horizon' by James Hilton.
There is, yet another Chinese tale that explains 'Shangri-La' that is poignantly paroral to the narrative of this transformational leader.
The expression Shangri-La appears in a poem called 'Preach Blossom Shangri-La' that describes a utopian setting where people pursue their dreams insulated from the harsh realities of the world. The poem describes how a fisherman follows a stream and discovers miles of blossoming peach trees. Eventually, he reaches the source of the stream and discovers the idyllic land where people live happily with their dreams. The fisherman returns home to take his fellow villagers to this magical land. But he is unable to retrace his steps.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike too dreamt of a Shangri-La where people were free to pursue their dreams. He was the first leader who spoke of the age of the common man. It was his government that created the Employees Provident Fund – the repository of common man's dreams and source of filthy lucre of the privileged.
In these disturbingly disoriented times of political sophistry and skulduggery, it is wise and appropriate to recall those prophetic words of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
'I feel that this age is not so much a new age but an age of transition between a state of society , a civilization which is obviously decaying and dying, and a new society, whatever may be its final form, which will replace it. It is therefore essentially an age of transition, a formative age where a great responsibility rests upon all of us of this generation to think clearly,and correctly, in shaping that new civilization, whatever may be its final form.'
Prime Minister Bandaranaike was telling us that civilizational resilience demands and secures a newer order that responds to a particular period in history.
On Independence, our leaders found the socio-political status quo that the British were leaving to be both reassuring and rewarding. They were keen on keeping it that way. The hierarchical socio-political order was rigid and regulated by wealth and privilege. Continuity and stability was the order of the day and age.
Britain's first High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Sir Walter Hankinson after one year of Independence reassured Whitehall in 1949 that Ceylon was an exemplary dominion. "There have been no startling changes in the domestic political scene; there have been no disturbances among any section of the population; there have been no sudden or sharp alterations in any of the institutions of Government; there have up to the present been no untoward changes in the economic situation... Nearly all the public institutions, Governmental and other in Ceylon, are based on English models, laid down often many decades ago by the Colonial administration. The result is that an appearance startlingly familiar to English eyes is presented by the political scene. The Cabinet, the House of Representatives, the manner in which parliamentary business is transacted and relationship of the Civil Service to the political executive all follow the English model. This combined with good relations prevailing between Europeans and Ceylonese has produced an atmosphere in which an English observer feels almost strangely at home."
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike dismantled the vestigial remnants of the colonial outpost. "I feel I am in my own small way both a nurse and a midwife. I am a nurse at a death bed. I realize that the thing is dying. I would like to see, as should be at every deathbed, that the death is reasonably peaceful and dignified. ...I am also, I feel a midwife at a birth. I would like that birth to be auspicious and painless as far as possible..."
Despite many flaws, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike was solely responsible for the social transformation that radically reoriented the national consciousness of his people. Though himself a patrician, he held the country's elite in contempt. He was genuinely egalitarian. It was his government that set up the Employees Provident Fund in 1958, a fact that needs reiteration when current leaders are exposed as having their fingers in the cookie jar. Let us hope that President Maithripala Sirisena can be both nurse and midwife in these times of great deceit and deception.
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