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Is "‘good’ governance" good (enough) for us?


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 29 July 2015 00:14


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This, among other questions, has been on many hearts and minds in the past six months or so. After the initial euphoria of early January 2015 died down, it began to be clear – or, at least, strongly felt – that ‘good governance’ was still very much a consummation devoutly to be wished. tu

To be fair by the Powers That Be, they were severely hamstrung. Years – a decade or more – of gargantuan corruption, cronyism/nepotism, and a systematic dismantling of democratic checks and balances, had left our republic in a parlous state. Still, public expectations were high. For the unlikely coalition that had launched the so-called ‘revolution’ had made many attractive promises en route to their coup de main against Mahinda’s ‘Machine’ (a large part of which was the entire machinery of state that many if not most of the ex-President’s men are evidently missing, big time, this time round). 

Now, almost seven months down the road to accidia, the puzzled and letdown polity is faced with a conundrum. Was Good Governance sincere in its approach, and was its singular lack of success in some spheres of promised activity due to unseen obstacles to its delivery – in which case, were its small to middling failures the result of naïveté and general greenness at governance? Or were the governors simply being strategic to seize power – such that their failure to achieve some of the more sterling objectives set out in their pre-8 January election manifesto was only to be expected? (NOTE: Both answers may be correct. CAUTION: Do not attempt to write on both sides of the exam paper – the ballot – at the same time...)

Now, less than three weeks before the country goes to the polls again, its voters are faced with a dilemma. Is Good Governance sincere in its restated goals – to strengthen re-established democratic-republicanism through major gains such as 19A? Or is it a cynical tactic to try and stay in parliamentary power – seemingly against strong odds – that prompts it to invite us to permit it a reprise of the immediately past revolutionary ballot? (While dangling the carrots of growth to its stakeholders, 20A to its would-be coalition partners, and “laissez-faire, laissez passer,” to the media and big business?)

Now, in the fortnight in which the larger than life players of the most recently ousted regime are beginning to bestride the national political stage again like colossi, the Powers That Would Be themselves are faced with a plethora of difficulties and challenges. (Our sympathy, dears. Really and truly do our hearts bleed for you!)

How to gain the understandably disappointed people’s hearts again, while gainsaying the Beast that is slouching towards Battaramulla to be born again? How to garner a broad front of support of ideals by principled visionaries and cynical opportunists across the broadest spectrum that will guarantee them the Holy Grail of a 113 seats in the House? How to soothe the naysayers among the annoyed loyalists in their precarious alliance of 200 days… How to salve their conscience at must-dos (e.g. sackings) deliberately left undone, and salvage their credibility over can-dos or could-dos (e.g. RTI bill) not done… How to silence their most vociferous critics within the enemy camp… not forgetting the few in the Fourth Estate who have the courage of their convictions to call a gull an alleged plot or ploy – albeit a plot or ploy with good intentions (“get serious about governance for a term”) if not great (“set democratic-republican benchmarks for posterity”).

Now all this might be just a tad bit over the top for the average lowbrow voter. But not for the high-minded reader of this esteemed rag. And therefore we essay with confidence a quartet of lenses through which to view the unfolding drama of what could well be the most kaleidoscopic election since – well, the last one at the beginning of the year…

Just one thing. Keep in mind that politics in our blessed isle today is a prism through which the light of governance is filtered. None of the perspectives below is wholly and entirely true… or accurate and complete – just a part of the whole. Mind you don’t miss the dawn for the brightness of the sun, and fail to realise that we don’t believe in Good Governance because we see it; but that we know it exists (or must exist) because we see everything else in, with, and through it.    

 

   

A. Naïve: “Good Governance is good”

This view has it that Maithri was always the statesman-in-waiting, that Ranil was the able all-benevolent power behind the newly enabled throne. This perfect brace was perfectly bracketed by the instrumentality of a newly benign CBK, a demonstrably well-meaning pair of priestly types, and a host of other principled civil society actors. The campaign was superlative; the victory memorable; the subsequent achievements more than laudable. Only the ill-will of the political opposition and procedural barriers prevented the National Unity Government from making a clean sweep of the Augean Stables they had been voted in to cleanse. 

Such an innocent view of the state of the nation in the time slot under scrutiny will always see good reason to give Good Governance the green light (well, a mixed signal of green and blue lights – but hey, Good Governance is about democratic checks and balances, right?). 

 



B. Pragmatic: “Good Governance is good enough”

Such a point of view admits that Maithri was not the perfect embodiment of a good governor, and that Ranil was only the master tactician who didn’t mind playing kingmaker to an unexpected political messiah. This possibly unprecedented political marriage saw players of all stripes practising or acting out the axiom that politics is the beautiful and occasionally gratifying art of the possible (“quick, let’s make this work”). The strange bedfellows cooperated well; the ensuing victory was tight but well within bounds of the doable; the consequent political achievements a natural outcome of erstwhile political foes in tandem burying the hatchet for the common good. The proponents of such a point of view would argue that flops and failures of the joint administration were also a matter of necessity: for a counter-revolution was bound to be mounted in response. 

Such a practical take of the way things have panned out in the past six months might generally adopt a positive outlook on the next six years, usually finding a good rationale to give Good Governance the thumbs-up for another shot at the art of the probable (“let’s take it slowly this time, and make things happen”).

 



C. Cynical: “Good Governance is the lesser of the two evils”

The perspective which confesses that while there was little to distinguish Maithri from his erstwhile political master in the early years, of late there had been a sharp rift in the lute... one that was craftily exploited by technocratic Ranil and his coterie of cunning strategists. They would maintain that both camps and their cardinal supporters sensed an unrepeatable opportunity and grasped the nettle with little thought of many of the consequences for the nation; just the coalition and their cohorts. The strategic alliance was hardly perfect, with the cracks showing up almost immediately and remaining visible throughout a tendentious relationship; but the deliverable benefits to the disaffected polity, now placated, momentarily outweighed any undesirable consequences. 

These realists would take in their stride the manoeuvrings of both sides and the subsequent stresses and tensions between personages as much as parties. In the limit, a perspective that is sceptical about the ethos of any political party or fragile coalition would welcome the relative merits of an interim administration that released much of the pressure on the apparatus of state, the burden of the people, and the condition of the nation at large. Its proponents will find good enough excuses to give Good Governance yet another chance at the forthcoming election; on the grounds that this lot is a lot less egregious (and ethical about it, to boot, bar some spectacular boo-boos) than the excesses of the other lot (although some of them might concede that comparisons are odious – or, indeed, that there is no comparison).

 



D. Subversive: “There is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so”

This is the Machiavellian mindset that encompasses Maithri as the ambivalent deus ex machina to exorcise the twin devils of post-war triumphalism and post-conflict apathy, and entertain Ranil and his bunch of merry men as the coup de grace to a decade of (at least) benevolent tyranny and (at most) malignant despotism. It would see in the machinations of the diverse parties juggling various agendas and jostling sundry players for their place in the sun as simply politics being the extension of war by other means. The Byzantine nature of this state, condition, and degree of politics would not be averse to being blinded by the corruption and decadence of parties of all hues and stripes and persuasions. 

These hyper-realists would be content to sit on the sidelines and (at least) point fingers at both coalition/national government and party faction/de facto opposition, or (at most) systematically undermine the bipartisan ethic of our legislature with a view to (one day) emerging as a ‘third force’ of a sort. Its adherents will find good, bad, or ugly explanations as to why Good Governance is a faҫade that is foisted on an unsuspecting populace, while stopping short of proposing or presenting an alternative worldview. To its credit, such subversives (and they occupy the fringes of power/commentary/instrumentality in our ever shape-changing polity) will, while not supporting ‘good’ governance per se in its present form, condemn the ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ forms of government in their previous/ still fresh in the national memory/ stirring dire emotions again/ incarnation.  

 



Bridge passage

So much for theoretical lenses or speculative prisms. The gritty or even grim realities of realpolitik may be quiddities that you and I, the average reader of and writer about politics, might never grasp. As a savvy lawyer and ex-journalist whom I know once remarked, “However much you think you have our politicos pegged and stored in a box, mate, they’re usually five steps ahead of the game... and you.” So be it, then. That said, from the common or garden citizen’s commonweal, it behooves us to take stock of several realities, their alternatives, and their ramifications. It’s never too early to start thinking about how – and why – you will commit to ‘X’ marking your spot. (It will mark where you stand in our society or political culture. It could mark where you lie in our common grave – and I suspect that this isn’t going to be entirely metaphorical.)

 



Broken promises

Apologists for the goulash of a government touting Good Governance maintain that there is a panoply of acceptable reasons why the MS-RW combine must be forgiven their lapses. 

(Admittedly, these are few and far in-between, in comparison. Some are spectacular, if debatable – and consequently, passionately debated on both sides. No wonder – there is a lot riding on their interpretation and the conclusions reached by the electorate.) 

These reasons (or excuses?) range from political opposition to proposed outcomes to benefit the nation/masses to procedural obstacles to making progress in a panoply of investigations. 

And, the assumption that promises have been honoured more in the breach than the observance may be more than misleading; they may be enemy action, or propaganda. At least in the opinion and analysis of some – even several – assuredly neutral (a dirty word in terms of the national interest) governance-trackers and semi-professional or expert government-performance monitors, Maithri & Co. may be thought to have kept at least half – or thereabouts – of their promises.

Also, although comparisons are odious, the long sad trail of broken promises stretches back to the dawn of politics; nay, the birth or fall of humanity. 

Again, not to harp too much on relative merits, but we would not be imprudent to force a contrast between a hamstrung short-lived government that fails to keep its word in some instances (a ‘bad’ government by default) and a powerful instrumental government with all the agency of the executive that actively breaks the law (an ‘ugly’ government by design). 

 



Breaking down strongholds

If there is one thing that an impartial polity might grant the incumbent administration it is that it has striven to attack all (all right, some of) that which is ungodly in the republic. It has taken on authoritarianism and prevailed in making the executive more accountable to the legislature, for example. It has disadvantaged much of the legislature’s political culture whereby “bookies, crookies, and druggies” (to say nothing of “rookies”: a more memorable tagline) tend to thrive. It has taken a stand against the “thousand ills” that our “mortal” political culture has been heir to.   

 



Building up the republic

If there is another thing that a grateful people must acknowledge about its present set or rulers it is that it has sought to advance all (ok, much) that is good in the dominion of democracy. It has taken leave of the nasty penchant of previous presidents to interfere with the judiciary, for example. It has granted leave to the long arm of the law to reach out without awaiting presidential and prime ministerial fiat to do so. For all the good that it has done a police force whose arms still seem unnaturally foreshortened (why aren’t those sly politicos making wild and incendiary allegations questioned or arrested?) or awaiting a gentle nudge or firmer push or shove when push comes to shove (e.g. allegations that FCID is politicised; a potential storm of questions that could be rained on the CID in the Thajudeen ‘breakthrough’)!

In this context, for all its brio and bravado (a false front, perhaps, in every sense), the brand of Good Governance advertised by the incumbents under pressure is still “a consummation devoutly to be wished”. Both in its own right as an idea that has come of age – Sri Lanka as a fruitful (not banana) republic – and as a reasonable response to the principles and ideals (for want of better terms) of its predecessors and present antagonists. 

Better, one thinks, such a brand of good – if creaky and crumbling – governance (warts, weaknesses, and all). Better, one feels, such a vague and woozy governance than the alternative vision of a government of power in the centre over minorities and other dissenters, a government of power in the periphery over the prerogative to indebt the nation to invest in infrastructure. 

Good Governance had better be made of sterner stuff than the less than sterling performance it has put up in its first six months in office. But better such a mediocre and well-meaning government than a powerful synthesis of presidential and prime ministerial powers from parties of the same part.

Until and unless an alternative vision that encompasses governance with accountability and peace with justice, growth with equity, and progress with transparency is put forward, my vote is for a somewhat lame, rather hamstrung, often lacklustre ‘good’ government (with occasional – and, if allowed, maybe regular flashes of inspired brilliance) that is far better in the few things we can value over GDP and guns to keep our own citizens in check. My vote is for a broad front of sundry folks who know they are not so ‘good’ but may well try not to be too ‘bad’ for the sake of their own power as much as the benefit of the people they represent. My vote is against a narrow cabal of sinister agents who know they are ‘bad’ and have to try and foment fear and suspicion in order to return to power that could turn ‘ugly’ again. What’s yours?


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