This remark was from a friend of mine, a college batchmate from Karnataka, India. He was on a family vacation in Sri Lanka in early November. I was dropping him off at the airport. I didn’t volunteer him the ugly history of election violence in Sri Lanka, to which I have been a witness at least since 1977. I casually asked, has India not changed? He responded saying it never will. “You know, India is India. With no violence, an Indian election will not be an election.” Then, as if that made him less patriotic, he added, “…of course, Pakistan and Bangladesh are worse.” 1977 was certainly not the beginning of blood-stained elections in Sri Lanka; only the earliest in my memory. Postelection violence of 1977 was legendary. Houses were burnt down, including that of young Arjuna Ranatunge’s family. His father was a candidate who didn’t get elected. The future national cricket captain, he recalled later, could save only his bat.

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The 1982 Presidential Election – relatively a peaceful contest – was followed by a Referendum – the opposite. Malpractices were so prevalent that Hector Kobbekaduwa, the chief opposition candidate in the previous Presidential Election, was horrified to discover some unidentified person has already exercised his ballot. Before that, Jaffna Public Library, which housed one of the best Thamilian collections in the world, burned to the ground during the 1981 local government election.


1994 was not very violent, but towards the end of the decade provincial council elections in the North Western province became the most rigged in recent Sri Lankan history. Ten young men were killed at Udathalawinna, a suburb of Kandy, during the December 2001 parliamentary elections, by security personnel of a powerful minister. These are just a few incidents selected from a chain of thousands of such events. Violence was such a common occurrence that the Commissioner of Elections commenced his declaration with an apology or a message of condolences to those affected or families of the dead.

Every election meant a couple of deaths. Somewhere down the line, one single individual changed all that. The transformation was dramatic. Take the 2019 Presidential Election for example. Complaints on election law violations were minor. 139 cases in total (against, thousands a decade or two ago). Only seven incidents during election day itself – including a stabbing incident at Deraniyagala and a shooting incident at Thanthirimale. In that incident, several busses transporting voters were fired at, fortunately with no injuries. Only one – yes, just one reported – case of impersonation. In the election termed the most peaceful ever in Sri Lanka, no candidate, among the 35 that contested, complained about malpractices. It was the most environmentally friendly too. No giant cut-outs of candidates. Only the occasional poster. Polythene use was minimal. Firecrackers, yes – that was the only matter to be addressed by election officers in future contests. Since its inception in 1955, the Department of Elections has had many distinguished career civil servants leading it. A Arulpiragasam, Felix Dias Abeysinghe, M A Piyasekara, Chandrananda de Silva and Dayananda Dissanayake. All of them were senior and experienced administrators. Yet they were not successful in ensuring free, fair, peaceful and environmentally friendly elections.


Mahinda Deshapriya was the first to do it. How did he achieve it, when many of his equally eminent predecessors failed? Long public sector experience, being smart, dedication and integrity had little to do with the outcome. These were common attributes across the board. They were maybe necessary but not sufficient conditions. Deshapriya had something more. First, he took high risks. No ordinary officer would have wholeheartedly endorsed police shooting impersonators. Neither would a low-risk taker think of removing cut-outs of presidential candidates. Deshapriya understood this type of risk-taking would ensure discipline. He was not concerned about the outcome if he were to fail. High-risk takers have only a Plan A. No question of a Plan B.

Second, his very political family background provided him insight into local political behaviour. He understood what risks politicians would take and which they would not. He was their shepherd, leading them confidentially, his predecessors – with little experience in local politics – wouldn’t dare do that.

Third, he had – to put it bluntly – a big mouth. It did not mean he abused anyone. Yet, he had that rare skill to appear threatening, when he was not; and offensive when using words as politely as possible. It was like challenging a bandit with an empty pistol. And it worked well.

Fourth, and most importantly, he didn’t care for his critics. He was like Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead – the individualistic young architect who designs modernist buildings and refuses to compromise with an architectural establishment unwilling to accept innovation.

Toohey, a socialist architecture critic who uses his influence to promote his political and social agenda, tries to destroy Roark’s career but fails. Later he meets Roark and asks what the latter thinks about the former. Roark modestly says: ‘I don’t think about you’. That was what Deshapriya would have told his critics. He could do that because he was familiar with media – both mainstream and social – in the same manner he was familiar with politicians. An active and dedicated social media activist he knew precisely when and how to react to critics in social media, irrespective of whether they identified themselves or not. He didn’t mind being called ‘Mako’ – a homonym of ‘Macaw’ – a longtailed, often colourful new world parrot.

He warned immature TV journalists against treating him as a politician; they must respect a public officer. He criticised media owners in their own channels, no holy cows. Finally, he was tech-savvy. Deshapriya, though from the old school in many ways, was not afraid of technology. He also received the excellent support of the ministry of ICTs, coincidentally led by his brother.

Computerisation of the process of conducting elections reduced malpractices. The next step could be electronic voting, as done in the developed world. If implemented sooner rather than later, the process of electing representatives will be near perfect. Sri Lanka, since independence, certainly had many leaders that led transformations. Strangely, pubic officers among them are few.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was one such exemplary example in both of his roles in military and civil administration. His roles in ending the 30-year civil conflict and transforming Colombo are legendary. They are recognised with respect even by his opponents. His tenure was just ten years. Mahinda Deshapriya, with a different style, has played a decisive role in another sphere in the same period. They may be chalk and cheese, but both roles are worthy of study, for they both have achieved what was once thought unachievable: making Sri Lanka a better place to live.