Lamenting opportunities lost and ruing the opportunity cost…

Wijith DeChickera essays an ABC of contemporary politics

e-sotn-oct16-350xaThere isn’t a business-minded person who isn’t ruing the way politics is playing out in the republic, today. Once, not too long ago, we were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about democracy’s new-found prospects.

Hope in good governance, and its ramifications for the state of the nation, was strong. Eyes were on common candidates rescued from political obscurity, and capable technocrats waiting in the wings for their cardinal chance to redeem their reputations, while salvaging the national political economy.

Their moment of glory was only an ambitious harbinger of the aspirations half of Sri Lanka shared.

Today, there isn’t a disappointed citizen who harbours any idealistic notion about a paradigmatic change in the political culture. True, there have been significant changes on the legislative front – the 19th Amendment, RTI Act and so on – that have reinforced the once-crumbling edifice of our once-effete constitutionalism.

To be fair, a semblance of law and order was returned to the streets, as much as shady places, in the upper echelons of the Administration (although recently expressed prime ministerial concerns leaves one to wonder whether law enforcement is still effective). For once, the media was free. Good.

There has been open, public dissent: critiques of government, protests against its policies and civil society activism resurrected. Better still.

However, of late, we have begun to feel the iron fist in the velvet glove. The glory is beginning to fade. And the rot runs deep – and, disconcertingly, parallel to the lapses and lacunae of past regimes.

ADVERSARIAL POLITICS For one, key figures in the upper rungs of the Government continue to opt for confrontational politics. Hostility in the House is tangible, and could be cut with a schoolboy’s Swiss Army knife. The next generation of Sri Lankan leaders – our youth, I mean, not the hyenas who hang on to today’s leaders’ coat-tails – are the unfortunate victims and witnesses of today’s leaders’ turncoat treachery!

Of course, one cannot deny a cannier breed of elected representative, nor the exquisite cut and thrust of parliamentary banter. But the calibre of some MPs today is more akin to that of a rapist than a raconteur, with rapier-like wit!

The culture of aggression and self-aggrandizement has spilled over into public life at penthouse level, too. No less than the President of our much-vaunted ancient civilisation publicly threatens his political adversaries to toe the line…

There is more than one way to skin a cat (or a hyena hanging on to the coat-tails of a declawed war-wounded lion, if you know whom we mean…). And one dearly wishes that a more cultured breed of leader, who relishes political sophistication, would emerge to employ some of these modes in national political discourse, in the national interest.

Some of these are critical engagement – to be opposed, but not necessarily antagonistic, and of careful evasion – to live and let live, as in the case of non-overlapping ‘magisteria’ such as executive and judicial decisions; and consensual enthusiasm – to integrate plans, programmes and policies, in the greater interests of the national democratic-republican project.

CUSTOMARY REFUGE In the meantime, need one elaborate on cornered political regimes’ customary refuge – deceit, dissembling and disingenuousness?

Do you not see for yourself that Financial City is a rose by another name, with the same thorny issues that beset the previous government, too?

Or shall I not beat about the bush about how duplicity in revamped Port City projects is repackaged and represented as a triumph of diplomacy?

Of course, one sympathises with the predicament of newcomer coalition administrations – hamstrung by their predecessor’s short-sightedness, with greed and grubby-fingered policies and national commitments. Be that as it may, we would probably be able to better empathise with their quandary, if a modicum of accountability to the common or garden citizen were offered to those who engineered their ascension to power, rather
than a transparent reliance on propagandists to gild the faded lily…

CULTURE OF SANCTITY Another prospect that does not please, is the penchant of the powers that be to crown themselves with many crowns, while condemning to the gallows – or the fiery bellows of the FCID, CID or CIABOC – those inimical to their interests (by the way, we are happy to see the belligerent bureaucrats of yore hauled up before the awful majesty of the law for alleged war-criminal-level corruption… but what about mandarins under former administrations, who are safely ensconced in the Government’s ranks today, while minions pay the price for their ‘loyalty’?)

However, the former – as much as the incumbent – Mikados and Lords High Poo-bah are not to be touched with a bargepole. Touch the Prez, and you could be sued for a criminal act, if you are a citizen; or have your case file opened for public scrutiny, if you’re a political opponent.

Fail to stroke the PM’s ego, and run the risk of being accused of subverting ‘his’ democratic-republican project – even if you are a member of civil society; or be threatened with exposure as a bought media hack (if you’re a part of the Fourth Estate).

This is not comic. It is costly. The opportunity for paradigm change is passing.

Would the real democratic-republicans please step up, and take charge? We seem to have lost control of Project Transform Sri Lanka!