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Pragmatic democracy and other disasters

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 15 June 2016 00:00


 65556How can the new political culture justify excesses such as supplementary estimates amounting to billions of rupees amidst exigencies such as natural and unnatural disasters burying its people under tragedy, death, and taxes? How a superfluity of opinions and perspectives explains and rationalises such egregious apathy, indifference, greed, will make or unmake the island we love; no matter how much less we love its politics and exploitative politicos…




My eye is drawn to an arresting headline. “What ails Sri Lanka?” The editorialist supplies self-evident answers. Of late it has been a barrage of natural phenomena – and then one man-made disaster. Wind, heavy cloud cover, deluge, cyclone, downpour, landslide. To pour salt on our wounds, the explosive conflagration of Salawa followed in short order.

But the nation’s attention is soon drawn to a different indignity. “What price our politics!” ejaculates the subeditor in 72-point bold. In the midst of sudden death, carnage, and the terrors of spreading fire at a military armoury, that supplementary horror of luxury vehicles for the people’s representatives comes as a shock to the system. A wake-up call in the middle of yahapālanaya’s young-enough night. A very expensive wake-up call (to cost taxpayers an estimated Rs. 1,175 million) for 32 servants of the people – to better serve their electorates (or so they say or claim) by being able to visit them in style now that they have wheels. Indignation; outrage; hot air; the balloon goes up; wrath of the populace worse than the anger of the weather gods. To add insult to injury, it is ostensible ‘good governance’ which entertains plans to please its self-serving ministerial mandarins with super-luxurious vehicular perks. 2

Then – suddenly, out of the blue (and gold) – uncommon common sense prevails. There is a puzzling quiet on the western front from the now-royal common candidate. But his patrician premier is unequivocal. No importation of that self-indulgent fleet until Kosgama’s burning villages are doused and rebuilt! No feting the vertical and entirely upright stalwarts of the House until Aranayake’s dead among other hamlets inundated by Roanu are honoured in the observance and not the breach! A round of hurrahs: cue applause for prime ministerial largesse and attendant nobility redolent with statesmanship in our time of tragedy! Though cynics might mutter, carefully, in column and at café society cocktails: “Why afford ANY privileges AT ALL for those who only serve themselves…” (’Twas ever thus.)

Joint Opposition not satisfied with point conceded, car-plan abandoned? Makes nasty cracks about ^car-pālanaya. Insists that motion to divert car-plan funds to Kosgama town-rebuilding be debated in parliament. Forgets northern hamlets set on fire by its warmongering idols. Forgets Potemkin villages in the south for its prelates which cost the country valuable silver once and for which its people are still paying. Admits that the no-confidence motion against a government fat-cat was only to send out a strong signal to the coalition that it fondly imagines is creaking at the seams. It seems not. At least according to the coalition against corruption which serenely dreams it is in the right. We won the no-confidence motion, it preens. We are Mr Cleans. (Er, not quite.) 

My mind’s eye, as it pans over what I have penned above, boggles. And wonders if, in some weird inversion more appropriate to topsy-turvy-land, we aren’t living in some conniving politico’s lucid dream – or some other pathetic citizenry’s waking nightmare. Have we risked life and place of power and reputation among our peers to evict a cabal of infinitely corruptible demigod-like governors of the realm – Only to find that their replacements (once squeaky-clean and squeaking cutely about their cleanliness) are as bad as the previous regime? Could it be that administrations change but human nature remains essentially the same… Would that a whole new political culture had disabused us of this bitter realisation! Should, however, the responsible critic and reasonable citizen swallow the galling pill in the greater interests of nation-building after a decade and arguably more of abuse by loot- and power-hungry dynasties? 

As always, opinion is divided – and rightly so, for things are as they are; and/but behind them there is nothing. Or something. It depends on one’s personal perspective, political point of view, and/or subscription to a national, social, or cultural worldview. It is on this divided opinionated-ness that divisive opinion-makers thrive – and survive to rule the roost. It is this superfluity of interpretations of our present reality that provides pragmatists in parliament and other more hallowed corridors of power a window of opportunity to push by now emaciated agendas through. Of course, all this, while pulling the public’s leg, and pulling the wool over a gullible and gulled media’s own myopic mindset, which is often as blinkered as that of its political masters’ or that of the ‘statesmen’ it so admires.

On the one hand, a simplistic binary configuration helps perpetuate the dualistic myth that politics is an orb with two spheres only… the good and the bad. In this cosmos there is an eternal struggle between two camps across clearly drawn battle lines, in which alternatively one or the other has the upper hand – albeit briefly. First one political party, grouping, or coalition of forces spearheads its agenda for a summer or six in the sun. Then another comes along, amidst growing dissent and dissidence on the part of a populace predictably grown weary with grandstanding and general inability to deliver on promises made and plans for development once so gloriously envisaged. 

And when the incumbents are inevitably thrown out – and they are eventually evicted, no matter how long their stay: 17 years or merely 10 – the twin electorates settle down soon enough to suffering a series of collective setbacks that occur as regularly as tea-breaks in a state department office. In this interpretation, the response of dualistic politics to landslide and floods and fires has two shapes: 


Respectful Commitment 

(a naïve view):

~ The recent tragedies were a sad and sudden interruption to life as usual in our island republic. But the state of the nation as it ever was must prevail. So it is natural for government to table a supplementary estimate to continue with its political agenda. Besides there are sufficient funds for both restoration to normalcy of devastated areas and rehabilitation of affected people as well as investment in party stalwarts as part of their service perks. Joint Opposition’s protests are normal and represent a best practice in the tradition of honourable bipartisan parliamentary politics.


Reluctant Cohabitation 

(a natural or pragmatic view):

~ In the midst of life, we are in death. But life must go on. So it is practical for government to table a supplementary estimate to continue with its political agenda. It seems or it can be made out that there are sufficient funds for both restoration to normalcy of devastated areas – at least the hardest hit – and investment in the stability of government – especially the support of most important stalwarts to secure. Joint Opposition’s protests are timely and staged, symbolising the ruthless cut and thrust of coalition and antithetical politics. It’s not ideal, but the best we can do under trying and even tragic circumstances.   

On the other hand, a more sophisticated bifurcation (trifurcation, really) promotes a more realistic legend that civics and governance is an interplay between a triad of forces: the *good, the *bad, the *ugly. In this schema there is a three-sided tussle among a trinity of valences, in which each force goes from one valence to another to the other: good à bad à ugly. 

When they are out of power, towards the tag-end of the incumbents’ reign, alternative political forces appear most attractive (ergo, the appeal of ‘good governance’ at a time when our rulers were anything but good… in fact, egregiously bad bordering on the unprecedentedly ugly). After they usurp power, however, the erstwhile aspirants to the throne go from good to bad in a year or so – no matter how good their original intentions may have seemed. 

And if through happenstance, chance, or a concatenation of circumstances, they stay in power long – say 10 years or an excessive 17 – the ugly grows like a carapace over their once-lovely façade. Until, in comparison, their ousted opponents start to look again like the lesser of the two evils: bad à ugly à good. Under this worldview, interpretation of the events around Aranayake and Kosgama in the light of ^Car-Palanaya’s Car-Plan take two forms:


Resigned Compliance 

(a strategic view):

~ All governments are soon corrupt. Some more so than others. Let’s go along as far as the road takes us. Maybe some good might come out of it.


Resentful Complicity 

(a cynical view):

~ This government like others needs to be corrupt. But we must ensure that previous corruption is punished. Or at least tried in the court of opinion and propaganda, or if possible by complicit stakeholders such as crony media. We are working or appearing to work towards a justifiable end. So let’s make hay while the sun shines – even if the hay isn’t made at all. Or the sun stops shining for those who aren’t our sterling supporters. There is nothing new under the sun. We’re protesting the state of things because we’re not included in the stack that’s being made. 

This embarrassment of opinions isn’t helpful. But it is democratic. It’s what we wanted, needed, voted for. There is, however, a fifth column of perspectives which is not normal but not unnatural; practical but refusing to pander to realpolitik; strategic while eschewing the party lines that favours succouring key stakeholders. It’s #Realistic Critique. More on that in weeks to come.

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