Who was Bandaranaike but a provincial politician? Who was Dudley Senanayake but a provincial chieftain of sorts? But to call them ‘provincials’ would have been a sick joke. They came from the provinces but were sophisticated and had some of the city slickers who thought they were good politicians, in their pockets.
But today it’s difficult to find provincial politicians who have the same suave sophistication of the old school politicians who had the Royal-St. Thomas background. Not that they need that sort of British public school style training.
The point being made is different. Provincial politicians of today have provincial fiefdoms most of the time. They are major politicians in their own right and do not want to have any particular say in national politics the way the Bandaranaikes and the Senanayakes did.
The provincial politicians are demi-gods and they are not necessarily squeaky clean to put things mildly. But they play a special brand of patronage politics that makes it difficult for the party leaders to have much control over them from the centre, or from Colombo.
It’s as if provincial politicians sometimes run small countries of their own. There is no democracy in these ‘countries.’ These provincial potentates are tyrants and laws unto themselves. But major parties cannot do without them most of the time because they dole out so much patronage that parties need to court these provincial big guns in order to succeed at the centre, and push through their agenda in Parliament.
Their weddings are weddings for the party leaders too, and nobody dares miss a funeral involving somebody near and dear to a provincial potentate. It’s why Colombo’s urbane leadership has to leave things behind and make time to attend a funeral, wedding, or these days, a coming out party of some sort in some far flung boondocks.
It would be good if provincial politicians have a say of this sort with the key players in the centre, someone may say — which begs the question why anyone is complaining?
The problem most of the time is that provincial politicians couldn’t care less about what happens at the centre. They vote because they are asked to vote a certain way, and they are often not aware of the policy intricacies that require them to vote a certain way over key issues in Parliament.
Why would they care? In their fiefdoms it doesn’t matter what happens with the key matters with regard to environment or economic policy. Folk in their fiefdoms feel that if they are looked after by the ‘big man’ in the province, that’s all they can ask for.
Occasionally there are technically provincial politicians who take control at the centre too, and these are essentially politicians from the older political families such as the Rajapaksas or the Samaraweeras.
But the regular provincial politician is not in that mould. He — sometimes a she — is powerful not necessarily because there is a family name that precedes them. Very often they have not made their money through legitimate means, and have all types of skeletons in very transparent cupboards.
Some of them made their money plundering provincial resources illegally. Gone are the days when there were clean, visionary politicians in the provinces such as C. P. de Silva who was called a god, the Minneriya Deviyo.
If anyone is called a god these days it’s because he doles out money and jobs to hangers-on. These days all powerful provincial politicians do that including those who are gentlemen with acceptable credentials in the city such as the late Mangala Samaraweera for instance.
But the difference is that in the end Samaraweera was respectable. He was not a thug, and he didn’t make big money plundering provincial resources, and was not a drug runner or a slash and burn fiend, who denuded forests.
Today’s rural politicians wield so much power over their constituents that they are used in their petty money making schemes. Some are well known drug runners turned drug barons.
During the war, some of these potentates made solid gains with their bases, because some of the areas they held sway over didn’t have the government’s writ running over them.
They took the opportunity to create virtually self-contained economies and this was due to no special talents on their part, and they get no points for these endevours because most of what they accomplished was by resorting to illegal ways of making big bucks.
We remember Veerappan in India, who made a fortune with his illicit sandalwood empire. But the man though a total law unto himself at least as far as is known, didn’t dabble in politics.
There are several small-time Veerapans that dabble in rural politics in this country, and the sad part is that the leadership of major political parties are often beholden to these petty tyrants.
The big parties have to bring these people under their tent if they are to have any chance of obtaining at least part of the substantial constituency nod in the rural areas.
It’s doubly a blow to the people of the country because these petty rural tyrants are not only thugs in general, but they are also not interested in national issues.
It goes without saying that there are exceptions to this rule and that there are some somewhat responsible provincial politicians. But the troublemakers are many, and they have become a big problem.
Often even if they are known murderers these rural potentates have to be tolerated. What’s to be done? Are they to be given extra provincial powers or left to their own devices, having autonomy over their provincial brand of politics?
That’s almost a funny question because they already do. They do mostly whatever they want in the provinces and do not care if their actions are sanctioned by law or not.
How do we get rid of this unhealthy trend? Legislate to make sure that bad eggs are kept out of politics? It’s easier said than done. If legislation keeps out anyone who had been in remand out of politics, there would be some good politicians who would be kept out too, as politics attracts false prosecutions that are politically motivated as well.
If no amount of legislation can keep provincial politicians out there is only one way, essentially, that it could be done. There should be better law enforcement so that such unruly elements are kept out of politics in the first place, but better still, there should be agreement among the ordinary people in the rural constituencies that they will not be dazzled by the patronage politics of rural bums.
It has happened on occasion with everyone including the party leaders turning against particularly egregious petty potentates. Where is that bearded menace that used to terrorise ordinary people and have them tied to trees for instance?
He was such a bad influence to everyone that he became a general embarrassment. So it’s seen that some bulls in the China-shop get their just desserts, but that’s only because they become uglier than ugly.
Provincial politics of this sort is a geographical fixture these days. But it’s not politics that can be talked of in polite society. When anyone talks about devolution of power or provincial autonomy they don’t have these petty tyrants on their minds. They’d talk about the political science behind the devolution of power, meaning the historical truths or the geographical verities that are involved.
But what if all this planning is devilishly undermined by plain thugs and ambitious hicks with swagger?
It’s not what political scientists or those who want to improve conditions in the peripheries had in mind when they said it’s better if rural people have agency over their own lives. But it’s what has happened.
There must be a way around this tyranny of the provincial thug, but it’s a matter of political culture more than political science. People in the rural heartlands have to decide that they have had enough, and do something about it.