Immortal leaders

Saturday, 29 January 2022 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In April 1945, with the end of the deadliest conflict in human history in sight, the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), died from a massive cerebral haemorrhage. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, called the death of the US leader ‘divine justice and a miracle’ and is reported to have informed Adolf Hitler that this would be a turning point in the war for the Nazi regime. Goebbels cannot be faulted for this thinking because in Nazi Germany where the whole machinery of the State revolved around the Führer, the moment the leader was taken out of the equation, the regime would collapse.

It is for this reason Goebbels and his propaganda machinery had to create a false narrative around Hitler, to project him as an immortal deity. The German people were deliberately kept in the dark about Hitler’s deteriorating health. To reveal such information would be to make the leader seem a mere mortal. Hitler’s nemesis at this point, FDR was by contrast the polar opposite. The only US President to be disabled at the time of assuming high office, it was no secret that FDR was wheelchair-bound due to paralysis. After his death in April 1945, Vice President Harry Truman succeeded him in accordance with the US constitution, the Supreme Allied Commanders in Europe and the Pacific finished the war in both theatres with victory and post-World War II, the US went on to become the most powerful nation in the world.

It is only in nations where democratic institutions are weak or non-existent that the stability of a regime should depend on individual leaders. In such countries there are no clear paths for succession or non-violent transfers of power. Sri Lanka for its long democratic history since 1930 has never been such a country: until now. It is in this context that a rather bizarre story concerning Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s health is unfolding. 

The Premier is well into his 70s and it should be no surprise to anyone if he were to suffer from certain infirmities common to advanced age. Several media organisations reported this week that he had recently undergone a surgery, which was then denied by the prime minister’s office and the PM’s son, Minister Namal Rajapaksa. These denials have now been cast into serious doubt with Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s older sibling, Minister Chamal Rajapaksa confirming that the surgery did in fact take place and the PM was currently in recovery.

The drama surrounding the (non) surgery of prime minister Rajapaksa is an indictment about the insecurity of the current ruling regime. It is clear that the sole source of credibility and legitimacy for the regime lies with the war winning former president. It is as though the Government has not been elected on policy but solely on the popularity of the former President and head of the SLPP. Even though President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had some individual brand value despite being the younger sibling of Mahinda Rajapaksa as a no-nonsense technocrat, independent of the corruption associated with the previous administration of his brother, all that has since vanished. 

Rightly or wrongly today, Mahinda Rajapaksa has become the lynchpin that holds the current ruling administration and its fellow travellers together. Therefore, it has now become imperative to maintain the image that this 76-year-old human being is an immortal God-King immune to disease and decay.

History has proven time and time again that such attempts to prop up failing regimes on the back of mortal men are bound to fail. The only way to ensure stability for the current ruling regime is to strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law so that in the eventuality of a president or a prime minister becoming incapacitated in office, as all other human beings do, the whole country will not be plunged into chaos.