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Presidential sonatas in five not-so easy pieces

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 20 May 2016 00:05




There’s a nip in the air these days … and I don’t mean the depressive cyclonic weather that we’ve been flooded by. It’s the windy, heady, overflow of adrenaline that comes once in a while with the joys of being a democratic republic or a republican democracy. The euphoria is not only from repudiating dominion status in 1972, or divesting ourselves of those colonial shackles in 1948, but shaking the *pseudo-democratic, *anti-republican, beast off our backs in 2015. While the day we once commemorated it – 22 May – is likely to be subsumed by this wet weekend and the light of Vesak festivities alike, the erstwhile public holiday that it was (from 1972-8, and in brief in the 1990s) holds a lot of potential. Not least for those who promised and we who still expect a truly new and different political culture to eventuate.



A republic – as opposed to the colony which we once were, or a kingdom or panoply of king-ruled provinces before that – has many salutary features. In the recent past, we might have forgotten (for many reasons or excuses which it would be unendurable tedium to go into now, here, again,) its more salient points. But a plethora of developments in the political sphere of late have begun to remind us that then Ceylon and now Sri Lanka is, was, and will conceivably be for the foreseeable future, a republic. Some of the desiderata associated with such a democratic ethic are inter alia:

  •  A sovereign state in which the people’s will to elect their political representatives is supreme; 
  •  An inclusivity as regards every demographic and an exclusion of would-be monarchs; 
  •  The legitimacy of a government derived from the constitution; 
  •  Least emphasis on individual ambition but better nuanced popular suffrage; 
  •  Last but by no means least a guarantee that law and order would be effected throughout the length and breadth of the land … irrespective of persons and personages, statuses, or special exceptional situations such as national emergency or political expediency.



Recently, a concatenation of circumstances has resulted in a new dimension to Sri Lanka’s re-emerging republican ethic. (Conspiracy theorists might suggest that it is a suspicious coincidence of opinion among sundry stakeholders – from foreign powers to facile press folks – which has necessitated this … I willingly suspend disbelief for the sake of the potential outcome of this trend. And hope you would, also.) I refer, of course, to the burgeoning confidence that people from all walks of life – from plebeian to patrician – have placed in the person and work of our incumbent President Sirisena.

So who is Maithri, what is he, that all his swains commend him? (So highly, that is…)


Dimension #1: the Man

Well, for starters, as a popular strand of developing thought has it, our head of state – despite his feet of clay – is an outstanding specimen of humanity and political acumen incorporated into his present avatar.

To some: “Agreeable.” “Self-effacing.” “Shunning the limelight.” “Holding top ministerial posts.” [But has] “offended practically nobody.” “Nobody doubts Mr. Sirisena’s sincerity.” To others: “A man of few words who smiles and shies away.” “I really personally believe Sirisena never had any ambitions” [for the presidency – as had others around him]. “None of them [“more efficient, more iconic persons”] would have been able to win the trust and confidence of so many…”

Well, let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. But, let us leave what could possibly be otherwise construed as an ad hominem argument by cautioning a man’s – albeit a singular man’s – rash of champions. For, once before, nay many times afore, or once too often, we have put our faith in horses some (those political thoroughbreds of the mid-1990s), chariots others (force of arms and military might in the 2000s).

So let us not put too much stock now in anything other than the power of principles (“Do unto others…”) and the glory of values (#Democratic-Republicanism) most … and people – clay-footed, caught between the Scylla of a split party and the Charybdis of posterity’s favourable impressions – least. Also, we have been down the primrose path of dalliance with would-be messiahs and political saviours, as much as military deliverers, of late, not to be at least leery – if not wary or weary – of folks who make their persona (which interpreters charitably read as *character* into their least utterances) a premise for the people’s trust.

“I am not a man who rushes into things – that is my policy,” MS says …

Well, hasten slowly, sir. ^Festina lente^ has often been the maxim of Augustan leaders such as come to the helm of state once in a republic-turning-empire’s history (except that our Augustus comes to dismantle empire and exhume the republic). But make haste, do, because the caravans depart for the dawn of nothingness even as you waver. And rabid dogs of yore do still but bark on the boundaries of decency, taking bite-sized chunks out of the flesh wound yet to heal in the nation’s side. 

Make haste, for time might be the least of commodities which a president who has pledged to seek no more political favours than one significant term in office has at his disposal. And, the goodwill of the generously-governed. Also, the groundswell towards transitional justice and all that it entails which government has failed to generate and sustain at the will and pleasure of a majority of its still egregiously majoritarian-thinking people. For the powers that be and the people they govern are grievously slow to let transitional justice take root in the soil of the national psyche.


Dimension #2: the Movement

But, for those of us who prefer to see people – no matter how grandly presidential or gloriously republican – as part and parcel of a project or a process, there are other aspects of the bigger picture that such naïve and sentimental lovers as praise them uncritically may have failed (or chosen not to) paint. 

@ For one, that it is incumbent on more than one man to swing the pendulum towards a truly just and fair national reconciliation process. For that one man has made it more than evident that he is not really responsible for some if not many of the policy decisions that his administration makes in his name. The VAT fiasco for which his putative electorate is paying the price is a case in point, despite his protestations that he would not permit his people to bear the brunt of his government’s augmented tax regimen. The only relief burdened consumers might see as a silver lining is that the clouds of Gaullism and arrogant executives bending the other branches of Government to their cyclonic will seems to have passed. The barometer has lowered the bar effectively to levels where lack of executive teeth portends an altogether pleasanter if more effete presidency. 

@ For another, that there are more stakeholders outside Government than within it who need to be brought quite tangibly and more demonstrably into the fold … Rather than be let loose to roam around the countryside rattling sabre in the interests of playing to the gallery of one’s electorate – be it ethnic or economic. Better republics than ours are undone by rabble-rousers unrestrained or chauvinistic regimes permitted to resurface in the guise of asserting their democratic rights over their responsibilities to the republic they once were wont to run (I almost wrote ruin). The consequences of free speech abused must be attributed more formally and stringently to these former lawmakers – if, as, and when, they attempt – by increasingly open and strident criticism of the incumbent – to undo the good that is being done… and reintroduce the ugly ethos of our recent past… 

@ For one more, that many non-political subscribers to the national movement against authoritarian regimes have fallen by the wayside, by default or design. Or have simply run out of steam by dint of not having been committed to the vision in the first place, or committed to it at all or at present. Or by being incapable of sustaining the momentum due to their dirty, secret, seductive, passions by virtue of the administration’s complicity; from which they cannot – or will not permit themselves to – be rescued. The failure of the Government to provide fair exposure and insight into the Central Bank bond scandals and full closure and indictment is a moot point in this regard, giving the so-called Joint Opposition far too much ammunition against >Good >Governance. 

Therefore, it is incumbent on the republican movement en masse – and not merely its manifesto-thumping mandarins – to begin militating more meaningfully against the counter-revolution. More meaningfully, for instance, than criminal investigations led by allegedly corrupt law enforcement machinery – per opposition-supporting newspaper editorials. Or by sidelining Potemkin villages (e.g. Government’s plans for SriLankan Airlines) from media slighting – as much as showcasing Port cities (the Colombo Port City Development Project) to stem the tide of public displeasure. 

It can or must strive harder to ensure that the inertia of a long overdue #Revolution (the idea is a more popular one to describe what happened in Jan 2015 than mere #Regime-change) – as encapsulated by 19A done and RTI to be done – does not run aground on the rocks of timely and chronically recurring realpolitik.  So perks for parliamentarians useful for programmatic constitutional reform, which is the government’s Holy Grail, cannot continue to be cavalierly indulged while the proletariat is expected to tighten its belt. 

>Good >Governance cannot simply preach a form of selective austerity and ask the people to play the taxing game for the sake of treasury coffers; to streamline its GDP (and its #Growth #Development #Progress) agenda, while not practising it. We see some Lords High Poo Bah being treated to super-luxury cars at the taxpayers’ expense imported and distributed at will … and the Mikado himself has secured bulletproof, bomb-proof, etc., vehicular transport in a milieu where war victory has undergone a sea-change from parades to remembrances to forgetfulness.

Good, this rich and strange post-conflict milieu we live in! But against whom are we protecting our leaders under ostensible threat? Or is it all part of a larger picture the legislature sees but the populace doesn’t? Is there a threat or isn’t there? Trust Government will make up its mind... soon…    



Dimension #3: the Machine

Then again, as far as the republican presidency goes… A deeper probe than a superficial scratching of the surface or stroking the face of populist or personality-focused politics might still yield a more disturbing façade than the kindly paterfamilias of a republican counter-regime. MS is a man (we mean it kindly), after all, where MR was a demigod (satire isn’t sufficient to disabuse his stubborn sycophants of this convenient fallacy even today, it seems). Such divinities as once shaped our ends have an inconvenient afterlife. These continue to play larger than life roles in the public imagination to the public detriment – if only the Joint Opposition would stop being so disingenuous about their motives. But the good that democratic-republican non-Caesars do in the present dispensation can be buried with their bones. 

For instance, what guarantee does anyone – least of all the incumbent himself, enthroned in the silken deceptiveness of his humility – have that when it comes time to step down (as much as he did stand up in his time against deified giants) that the spirit will be willing but the flesh weak? Or that the tyrannical streak which surfaced in his predecessor to surprise the polity (time and again, O ye – O we – the deluded) will not lie dormant in Mr. Simplicity until it is too late to stifle the renascence of a rarer democratic-republican despotism? The principles of the UNP!

A mercurial minister recently reminded a nation of newspaper readers that this President unlike his predecessors neither assaults nor assassinates the Editors of the free press opposed to him in word or deed. And only that gives us a smidgen of hope … and reassurance.

So faith in the son of a paddy-farmer to hand over the sceptre of power once the required task is done – as another sterling farmer handed back the fasces of dictatorship once his beloved city had been delivered from the barbarian or enemy at the gate – is all we have. And the guarantees of the UNFFGG!

In a reflection on the state of the republic under statesmen entirely great, I wrote elaborating on that element of democratic-republicanism as far back as 8 May last year. [See http://www.ft.lk/2015/05/08/that-farmer-who-gave-up-his-fasces/] I am trusting fervently now that my faith at the time, as much as that of other naïve and sentimental lovers (and strategic or even subversive stakeholders), is not abused and us disabused of our romance.  



Dimension #4: the Monster

So, what lies beneath – or, to be fairer to the man than mere cynicism might permit, what might lie below – may well be cause for no concern to us this time round. But, time not yet out of mind, it has been proven to the public – by the tweaking of their noses and the sacking of their treasuries – that power tends to corrupt and absolute power absolutely. Thus, if us no ifs and but us no buts. Rather, reveal in due course or the fullness of time what the strategy is to phase out the powerful mechanism – the beast of the executive presidency per se, albeit declawed a bit by now – that has made nasty pariahs of political messiahs and national parasites of family men. That is our right to information and Government’s responsibility to the voter to disseminate. For in the end, 19A alone might not be enough to pre-empt an unproductive hamstringing of House and Hill by a President from one split party and a Premier from another principled faction who will be opposed to one another and not supposedly united in national government as now.


Dimension #5: the Monument

In the final analysis, however, there is no comparing apples with oranges or apples with papols (to give the idiom an endemic flavour). In any case, comparisons are odious. One cannot – in fact, one must not – and we will not presume to – compare and/or contrast past with present presidents. (Even if they do!) That would not only set a bad precedent for the future, but establish a paradigm for we the people to dig ourselves into our own grave of disappointment. So let the personages and works of respective regimes and their leaders stand or fall on their own merits or lack thereof, perceived or real … or manufactured – as the present case might portend if the elitist press of the foreign powers that be and their local champions is to be taken at face value. If the end is good, so let the means – and the men to accomplish the ends through theirs or other means – be good … or made good … or made out to be good … it matters little in the end – all things considered.

Yes, there’s a nip in the air these days … but there’s also many a slip between cup and lip – so let’s not count our constitutional chickens before they’re fully fledged, much less hatched as a plot to keep the hoi polloi happy.

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