The Dots That Join Japan, UK, Sri Lanka
Three major events in the world in less than a week is significant by any standards. The exit of three world leaders playing a major role on the global stage should be a cause of concern as it demonstrates the uncertainty of the times in highly dramatic language. One Prime Minister fell to an assassin's gun; another Prime Minister was literally made to resign by his own government; and a third Prime Minister (and President) were literally chased out of their homes by the people.
Let's take these one by one starting with perhaps what appears at first glance to be least complicated, but of course heinous. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was campaigning outside a train station when he was hit by bullets, in the chest and the neck. He did not survive the attack. It is strange that the gunman was able to come right up to him, reports suggest a slight pause between the first and second bullet, and he was able to do what he wanted with impunity. The absence of security around the PM was shocking, as the man came up from the back and clearly had full access to what security experts describe as the most vulnerable area. He was caught of course, but he expected to be as he had accomplished his mission.
Abe was a popular Prime Minister. He had taken Japan firmly into the US camp, moving away from a pacifist approach to a highly militaristic one. He had run into controversy at home on this. He had also managed to get some strategic rules relaxed whereby Japan would get more flexibility to raise its own defence. And as strategic expert Bharat Karnad has written, pave the way for Japan sometime in the future to go in for nuclear weapons.
Above all Abe is recognised as the brain behind the Quad, his relations with India described as excellent. He worked hard behind the scenes to build the Quad against China and was pivotal to the group. He worked closely with the member countries, in particular India, on defense and as Karnad has pointed out, was committed to making India a "hefty maritime power''.' His loss as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said is major for India, and it will take a while now for the new leadership to stabilise and take on Abe's mission.
More so as Abe was a highly controversial figure in Japan. He took 81 trips abroad between 2012-2020 to strengthen Japan's ties with the US and other countries. As the Washington Post has written, Abe wanted to transform core institutions of the postwar order introduced by the US occupation and he believed that these institutions had prevented Japan from taking its rightful place among the world's great powers. The Japanese Left was totally opposed, and as the newspaper pointed out, was totally against Abe's New Right. As were sections of the older generation in his own Liberal Democratic Party as they had experienced war.
His term has been cut short, even as investigators try to find the motive for the assassination that Japanese newspapers interestingly do not mention as such. Wss the killer mentally unstable? Was it a case of mistaken identity? Such questions are making the rounds but Abe's death has abruptly cut short a mission that was gathering speed by the day. And at some levels cutting into Japanese post war consensus, and polarising politics within. And of course without too, as the Quad moved closer together to isolate an angry China. Needless to say, China is openly celebrating his death.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been in a state of 'going, going …never gone' for a long while now. He has survived every challenge for two simple reasons . One, his own brashness and ability to ignore and dismiss criticism; Two, the Tory party that supported him through the thick and thin of his turbulent politics. Every scandal was ignored as the Conservatives stuck like glue to Johnson regardless of peoples opinion that they clearly hoped would subside. When it did not, and they realised that their own seats and political future was in question, they started the process of resignations. Interestingly Johnson fought back, until the initial two resignations multiplied within hours to become 44, and even he realised that he would have to quit.
He has quit, and now there is a 11 member strong race for his post within the Conservative Party. The latest to throw her hat into the ring is UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss. Johnson too had moved Britain, actually not much movement was needed, close to Washington, and working hard to keep the UK relevant and in the NATO ring seat. China and Russia remained the enemies, as Johnson was pushed more and more to war mongering given the opposition and dissent at home. In fact one of the reasons that he cited for not quitting, even as resignations from his party were drowning him, was that of the Ukraine war.
And then to the third dramatic exit of the week.President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe of Sri Lanka were taken away to some 'safe place' as mobs took over the streets and the Presidential palace, set on fire the private residence of the PM, and have made it clear that the people will not budge until both resign and the way is cleared for elections.
People's power has been on evidence for a while now in Sri Lanka with the food crisis driving people on to the street. The government managed to wriggle its way back in after the last round of protests with some cosmetic changes at the top, but this has not held. And the people who can see Sri Lank's rapid decline – where the leadership admitted it was bankrupt– are demanding a government that works to turn the economy around.
These protests are even more significant as the political connivings of decades are now exposed. Or at least no longer work. The attempts to stoke anti-Tamil and more recently anti-minority fires have been diffused by hunger and price rise. All citizens seem to have come together to demand their basic right to food, and livelihood. And in taking over the buildings of power sent out the message, loud and clear : 'get out and give us a government that delivers.' Corrupt and inefficient politicians run when the people take over the streets; or use guns and the security forces to try and silence them. In Sri Lanka the government collapsed as it did not have the wherewithal to stem the tide as it were. Of some significance thus, is the fact that the people's coup was effected without violence, and the take over was relatively peaceful from both ends.
So while it is difficult to join the dots between countries as spaced out as Britain, Japan and Sri Lanka there are similarities and messages that need to be noted. Abe was assassinated and until the real motive is known, it will be difficult to explain this in geo-political terms. Except for the fact that he had become controversial, was not as popular as before, and was looking at a Japan that could embrace nuclear power. This had riled pacifists at home, angered countries like China, as instead of continuing as a voice for peace Japan under his leadership was moving into international coalitions favouring war.
Boris Johnson too had similar interests, globally. He was looking for his spot in the sun though the Ukraine war, NATO of course, and strong antu-China posturing. He turned the people against him after winning a popular vote, because of his inability to govern. Indeed his disinterest in governance, that seeked to be a bit of a lark for the brash PM. An effective demonstration of this was that when faced with a spate of resignations, he moved not to resign, but to sack a minister who had advised him to listen to his cabinet and quit. It took him a full day to understand that he could not patchwork this particular crisis, and that his own government was falling under him.
Johnson, like Abe, was working closely with the US to build an anti-China global coalition. NATO was a commitment, and like many politicians, he figured that domestic issues could be eclipsed under nationalist sentiments. The Ukraine war for him was the cover for survival, and non-governance. However, In Britain too the people reeling under continuing Covid and an economic crisis had had enough of Johnson's antics and as the public opinion grew against him, his colleagues who had held on to his coattails for an extraordinary length of time let go. Again public opinion has made it very apparent that leaders are required to address domestic issues of livelihood first before they can sail through the oceans. And that was not compensation for abject non-governance.
The public opinion in Britain made itself felt through sections of the media, some protests on the street, and finally pressure on the elected representatives who realised that support for Johnson could cut their political careers very short. In Sri Lanka public opinion encountered several obstacles such as a controlled media, poor Opposition, and a government that refused to even react let alone actively respond. This despite continuing price rise and food shortages. Sporadic protests started becoming more organised and the last wave of violence led to the resignation of PM Rajapaksa with Wickremsinghe replacing him.
The people retreated for a few weeks, but when it was apparent that there was no change in policy, they came out in huge numbers leading the PM to quit. Word is awaited from the President but it is almost certain that an all party government will soon be in place. Sri Lankans have made it clear that they want their problems to be addressed, that they have seen through the ploys used to divide and distract them, and that this new found unity will remain until they get the government they want.
In both Britain and Sri Lanka the people have gone down to the basics of governance – economics. One through democratic pressure that the Tories at least listened to, and the other through people's power to ensure that their voices permeated the fog that most South Asian politicians create around themselves. This places the focus on good governance and a message that popular votes — both for Johnson and for the Rajapaksa family thousands of miles away –can vanish with the winds.