Question for the house – has the Opposition forgotten the people? – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
In a recent television interview, a Member of Parliament reminded me of Marie Antoinette. Not because he was a type of cheerful queen inviting the hoi polloi to sample some sweeter stuff if savouries proved to be in short supply. But because, like the soon-to-be guillotined monarch in the probably apocryphal story, he seemed to have misplaced the people’s well-being in the thrust and parry of party politics. And for the want of bread, between being the opposition and trying to get back into government, a larger franchise could be lost...
The MP in question was explaining to the patient interviewer what the duties of an opposition were in the House. First, as is to be expected of any parliamentary grouping worth its salt and its name, it must critically engage with the government of the day on its policies. Then, as is only to be expected under the aegis of an administration with such a strong popular mandate, the opposition can earnestly seek to support the regime in its more salutary national development programmes. And, wait... no – there was no third leg to this parliamentarian’s stool. If it isn’t election time, our elected representatives seem to forget us their electors?
More is the pity. But par for the course in a milieu where arcane ideas about liberal democracy still dominate the worldview of republicans who haven’t quite noticed that there has been a none too subtle shift in the weltanschauung. And the sooner these formerly sea-green incorruptibles realise – whether liberals or advocates of a post-democratic state – that it’s about service as much as it is about power – the better.
Or else that old conspiracy theory about there being only one party – those in ‘Government 2.0’ (Executive and Opposition) – will hold true. To be fair by our articulate interlocutor, it is he who made the point about government being comprised of three entities – not only the executive and its cabinet.
My worry is that when you’re No. 2 – like Avis – you don’t necessarily try too hard to please the people. It is government that has to defend and secure its mandate. Government, we hope, won’t try too hard to please the people who elected it; while the Opposition, we trust, will try to win over the rest... not necessarily the majority they may think they need...
At present, it bodes ill for the polity that even the demonstrably best among our elected representatives no longer lack conviction now, but are full of passionate intensity about quite the wrong things – from the people’s point of view. One can be arguably squeaky-clean and brandish the most unsullied escutcheon in terms of political and corporate track records, and still not be able to speak credibly because one has done little to match one’s words with one’s convictions.
To be fair by this reputable business leader turned national policy-maker, it is hard to walk the talk in this country. On the one hand, adversarial politics is such that any party hoping to get a sizeable look-in after the poll has to make promises in its manifesto that haven’t the chance of a naked icy choc in this August heat of being implemented once the promising party comes into power. On the other, if and when challenged in House, town hall or market square – about why the government of the day hasn’t delivered – they can fall back on the grassy knoll of allowing justice to run its course without executive interference or legislative meddling.
Not so much to look back in anger and ask fatuously why the ostensible culprits of alleged past crimes have never been brought to book in a court of law save the small fry feeling the wrath of a magistrate. But to say that we the people have yet to learn that manifestoes are best taken like even the spiciest achcharu – with a pinch of salt. And the electorate must grow up from being a lover who’s wooed once in five or six years and then neglected, like the war widow or orphan until the watching world or polite society clears its throat pointedly.
There was once only so much humbug that the people would take. Now, after decades of one bunch of do-gooders replacing the previous with the next batch of castles in the air, we can like it or lump it. This is not to undermine in any way the active role that governments of the past, present and no doubt future round up the usual suspects in the first flush of electoral victories. However, the arresting and reversal of crime in this country has to be programmatic and not only predicated on the proverbial ‘our rogues are cleaner than yours’ outlook which justifies the ugly-mugs ensconced in the front rows...
The government of the day has intuitively tapped into a rich vein of populism whereby for every criminal who is caught red-handed or summarily dispatched into the next world ‘while trying to escape’, there’s a cheer in Colombo 3, 5, 7, and the social media citadel or echo self-congratulatory echo chamber. The opposition had better buck up and get with the programme. It needs a third limb of support for the tripod of a praxis that comprises critically engaging government, supporting salutary and sustainable national development – and accurately taking the pulse of the people.
Not to enjoin developing two contesting populisms. But the zeitgeist is such that not for the first time, we have a promising government with a seemingly salutary programmatic approach to at least crime-fighting. And it would be a good thing to raise the sights beyond prisoners on death row in parliament while poor bottom-trawling junkies get the high jump. Also, if you can’t join them, beat them at their own game.
| Journalist | Editor-at-Large of LMD | Writer at the Barricades | Storming the Bastille |