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Election exam done; a return to reality!

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 21 August 2015 00:00



There is every possibility that the UNP and its partners in constituting the new government might interpret the people’s will as a mandate to implement the plans spelled out in its election manifesto. That would be missing much of the point



An election, in many ways, is like an exam. You have to work hard for years before facing it. You have to study the curriculum carefully, paying close attention to detail while keeping an eye on the bigger picture. You have to apply yourself diligently during the actual time of taking the test. In the end, however, you are subject to the vagaries of your examiners.seg

The election only just past, in many ways, was like the very ‘A’-Level Exam it interrupted. The victors (who were erstwhile losers at many prior tests) had evidently worked hard at it for years. They had been sowing the seeds of their present success with a cross section of demographics (which paid rich dividends in the end). They had studied the syllabus for several terms out of power and one term in office, and were ready to face a tough invigilation this time round. Those who emerged victors had no doubt applied themselves in the run-up to the election, and demonstrated their mastery of both the issues at stake and the electors at hand. It was not these to-be victors who were subjected to the vicissitudes of the examining electorate, but those losers who had failed to study well and hard enough to pass muster.

Thus electorates can be tough test-paper setters, although many politicos had begun to take them for granted under previous sub-democratic regimes. Our electors have long memories – longer than semi-tyrants would like. And shorter flashes of gratitude for favours granted. War-winning governments are often voted out no sooner than wars are won (as Churchill’s government knew). Churchill himself, home-tutored, was a poor exam-facer in an earlier incarnation as a student. As he eloquently groused on being flunked: “My examiner and I were ill-matched. I would much rather have had it so that he could experience the extent of my knowledge. But he was more than determined to expose my ignorance.” The runners-up at the recent polls might share some of these sentiments, at the same time as conceding defeat. 

So to the victor belong the spoils. Let us add our voices of congratulation to the chorus of well-wishers. Also in our (appointed? or arrogated?) role as this island’s watchmen, let us stand behind you as you mount your ceremonial chariot in your moment of triumph – and whisper in your shell-like ear that “you too are mortal, O Caesar”. There is a time for victors to indulge in celebrations and there is a time for those invested with ‘power’ (read ‘responsibility’, O republicans) to return to the business of governance. Lest the thrill of victory degenerate into the agony of defeat down the long hard five-year road to delivering results on promises made, let us on behalf of the people you now represent with a clearer, fuller, mandate, share our heart with you – as you did with us in the hustings. dfh

The exam is over, the real test has begun. In school or college or varsity, the real test is usually the hard work of the next term or the hard truth of real life in the world out there. In politics, it is the arresting fact that the polity just voted out your predecessors for failing to deliver on promises made... or making promises – whether to family and friends and foes – that did not resonate (or no longer resonate) with the electorate. That you face the same prospect if you fail to learn from the lessons of contemporary history is a lesson that it is not too soon to learn.



But first, a word to our own critics: Many well-meaning individuals have taken us to task for daring to take up the powers that be on their offer for us in civil society to engage and critique their promises and their performances. These critics of the critics claim that the media especially is being irresponsible in pointing fingers at the proponents and practitioners of good governance. They claim that the Fourth Estate was guilty of cowardice or selective engagement during the twin terms of the previous regime. And that it is unfair, unreasonable, unproductive, to now give the so-called “good guys” a hard time... 

Well, let the record show that some scribes who spoke out against administrations of the past two or three decades when they erred continued to do so under the rule of men not entirely great, either. True, they might have couched their critiques in terms of the classics, for instance, or historical and literary allusions. Sirs, it would have been foolhardy to do otherwise when the unforgiving assassin was mightier than the unrepentant ass (wild, or otherwise). That, too, “not that we loved Caesar less” – although we did like him and his ilk very little, truth be told – “but that we loved Rome more”. Plus, it would be an opportunity cost and an opportunity lost not to have taken up the present president and the returning prime minister on their respective offers to “hang tough stuff” on them and their mandates and missions.  

With that done, back to the res. Here, for what it is worth, is what this scribe thinks could or should be in soft focus these days. Even while the government-to-be works sharp-focussed to make a working, workable, workmanlike arrangement with parties in agreement to playing the part to meet the national needs of the hour.


Interpreting the mandate

There is every possibility that the UNP and its partners in constituting the new government might interpret the people’s will as a mandate to implement the plans spelled out in its election manifesto. That would be missing much of the point. The majority of people who voted for ‘good governance’ did much more than merely endorse the programmes and policies of a contesting party. It was also an acknowledgment, acceptance, and affirmation of a set of avowed principles that resonated with the country’s aspirations as much as the coalition’s ambitions. A set of principles that not so much colours a party, but captures the emerging mood and probably dominant spirit of our times.

There are large – and often deep – pockets (in every sense of that word) spread across the southern and north-western parts of the electoral map which did not imbibe and ingest that spirit. They seemed intoxicated on another, stronger, liquor: that of nationalism and nation-building through a kraterocracy (the rule by might, and might is right). The mandate of the people who cast their ballot against such a zeitgeist – the ghost of wars past, and conjured up battles to come – must be interpreted as a vote against such a rule by fear and power founded on the frustration of an unyielding majoritarian ethic. It is an old, old, fundamentalism practised by brutish tinpot governments and benevolent tyrannical gerrymanders, which the mainstream of the voting populace has rejected. So the mantle falls squarely on the shoulders of an administration that has not been afraid to challenge chauvinism and cronyism and corruptionism (to coin a phrase) in the same breath – and prevailed.

There is now some danger, however, that the UNFFGG might fall into a trap of its own making. That lotus-eating mindset in which it and its supporters (some might say “royalists and/or loyalists”) can do no wrong. And perhaps more pertinently can be said to, or be seen to, or be shown to, be in the wrong. It is against this torpor of the Old Guard in the Grand Old Party that the relative newcomers to politics – mostly clean, caring, competent – must guard. A government of the ‘good’ shot through with tinges of the old ‘bad’ and vestiges of the old, old, ‘ugly’ will breed a moral turpitude that could undo all that ‘good governance’ has promised and has the potential to deliver on. And there is arguably no better moment than now – when the cleansing of the ancient Augean Stables has ostensibly begun – to send out a strong signal that the proponents and practitioners of this much-vaunted avatar of good governance really and truly mean business. That it is not going to be *business and politics as usual*. After all that has been said and done about *business and politics as unusual*. 

After all it is only the exam that is over... tests start again today; life in the island-republic gets in the way of doing what good governance was planning; and we don’t want the good to be found wanting in the same way that the bad and the ugly were found wanting, and were left at the altar – unwanted.

There are four lenses through which we can look at the mandate extended by the people, and the corresponding interpretations which the powers that be could give these:

NAIVE: The people have spoken; let the victors govern. 

This is simple and straightforward, but not strong enough an interpretation for ushering in anything more than a mere different – thus, new – political culture.

NECESSARY: The voting has allowed for some wiggle room; let the party and other parties concerned do what is pragmatic in securing power and settling present concerns. 

This is a blank cheque that most Machiavellian governments would willingly cash, and one that is not worthy of a republic in which much more than mere regime-change was – and is – at stake.

STRATEGIC: The result is an interim one, driven by tactical – even ad hominem (ergo, contra a man and a machine and a movement) – needs; let the coalescing national unity government set an agenda that will drive growth while keeping the grumblers at bay. 

This would be the most natural tendency of the polity, but one which will disadvantage the influential voice that civil society has recently regained, so the temptation to opt out of active engagement needs must be resisted with vim, vigour, and vitality.

SUBVERSIVE: The victory is a resounding landslide, giving the new government carte blanche; let the egregious business of politics as usual be done and dusted, but let us return to business and politics as usual with cronyism that is not disinclusive/exclusive and corruption that is not as excessive/cynical. 

This is the worst possible scenario, in which the voters are as cynical as a potentially infinitely corruptible government, and we hope and pray it never comes to this. 


Making the mission meaningful and significant

Be the Grand Old Party’s main foci as they may, forming and maintaining a new government will no doubt propel them headlong into the mundane matters of the nation-state they have inherited for the first time (in a sense). So, in the hectic hurly-burly of everyday governance, the concentration of their good intentions will be threatened with dilution from an opposition that may not immediately discern the value of cooperation in the matter of transforming nation-state. The main opposition itself is likely to interpret its 95 seats as a mandate in itself – or near enough as goddamn – to run interference from the word go. That there is a remnant of politicos in the ranks of Tuscany across the well of House who see the validity of the UNP’s vision and sense that as a nation-state we are on the cusp of destiny will be in and of itself cold comfort. 

There will also be lingering past concerns (e.g. the curve ball of national security thrown by malingerers from the previous regime); latent present tensions (e.g. the elephant in the room whose name begins with F, and how best to fob off the federal agenda of certain nationalist parties without losing the UNP’s pluralist credibility); and impending walks through minefields (viz. how to manage and manoeuvre through the UN and Diaspora-driven war crimes schema).

Be that as it may, the core of the new government’s mission may rest on these three areas. A. Managing, maintaining, and containing the cost of living within acceptable parameters on a sustainable basis – and not simply as a short-term gimmick akin to pulling of sundry rabbits out of a credulous public’s hat. B. Driving economic growth and development projects in a manner that better balances patently grassroots demands with global partners’ imperatives – which tightrope the UNP’s predecessors persistently refused to walk, preferring instead to play ball with one or two heavyweights. C. Finding space, spine, and sense to reintroduce the leitmotifs of a genuinely democratic-republican life... power with control, peace with justice, plenty and prosperity across the depths and range of all demographics. 

These three broad spheres (A. = Economic maintenance, B. = Ergonomic growth, C. = Equitable standard of living/quality of life) might be thought to comprise a sort of raison d’etre for why the electorate ignored, say, the JVP, in favour of a more ‘moderate’, ‘experienced’, ‘mainline’, party to manage the affairs of state pro tem.


Separating the marketing-speak from the ministry-vision

There is one more area in which the new government can – and must – make a difference. That arena of activism before and during the 100+ days immediately past. That arena of activity which, in the 1800 days ahead, could – and should – define and determine whether the UNP is simply about ushering in a new political culture; or instituting and constituting a whole new society. The sphere is a hot potato indeed. One that has been riddled with controversy in the past, one that has the potential to create rifts within the ranks of government in general and parliament in particular. To say nothing of separating what is ersatz in our polity and society from what is authentic. 

It is how, and when, and if at all, the raft of investigations into a plethora of abductions, alleged murders, absurdly long disappearances – of scribes, sports stars, and sundry civilians – will be effected and executed. 

A great deal more than whether good governance is sincere hangs in the balance. A good deal more than whether a government that is clearly better in its appreciation and application of human rights issues can continue to undertake for voiceless victims is at stake. 

In the run-up to the election, the reopening or the re-emergence of the famous ruggerite’s alleged murder case created quite a stir in our scandal-driven and rumour-mongering society. I wrote at the time that be it happenstance or coincidence that lay behind the circumstances of the case’s re-entry into the spotlight, the deliberate pursuit of its particulars for political gain demonstrably constituted propaganda that was used by “both sides” for partisan nous and electoral leverage. One <savvy marketer> in my circles who knows a <smart media personality> who is close to a <strategic politician> derided me for being prudish and unnecessarily proper in decrying what she called “a good marketing gimmick”. Hope she is wrong. Trust that the government of the day, pursuivant in principle of the promises it made, will not rest lest too lightly on its laurels for justice to be denied any longer by juridical investigations delayed. Whether a correspondingly similar eagerness will be shown in reopening or reordering the expedition of a panoply of pending cases on the backburner will be an acid test of this government’s credibility and sincerity. 

Will the manhandlers and murderers of outspoken editors and outrageous cartoonists be brought to book? How far back will government choose to go, how deep will it choose to dig? Would the law’s delays and procedural obstacles continue to obfuscate the truth and frustrate family and friends who yearn for justice with peace to be done?

Government’s exam is over. Good governance’s ongoing test is about to begin. We wish it well. It deserves every break it can get. We (well most of us anyway, and certainly almost all of us who are reading this journal right now) got the government we deserve – and/or think we deserve. We could do with a break from business and politics as usual, too. 

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