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The force slumbers: in local political theatres last year


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 30 December 2015 00:00


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I have a bad feeling about this. Essaying any form of evaluation or assessment of Good Governance’s first year in office (or power, if you are in that mood) is bound to come a-cropper. Too cynical, and the powers that be could be inclined to crucify you. Too sentimental, and one’s reading public should do well to sniff in disdain and turn to other more critically engaged and less charitable pages. Too middle of the road (mediocre, balanced.) – and I wouldn’t be able to sleep the snoozes of the just ...sdg

So, what does one do when one feels the itch which nothing but the scratch of a pointed column can cure? When many fond hopes have been dashed on the hard rocks of realpolitik? And idealistic dreams shattered and drowned in the raging seas of reality between the Scylla of swirling deceitful wiles and the Charybdis of ever-raging corruption?

One pauses briefly. One considers sailing away to safety. One reconsiders one’s duty, right, and responsibility. One plunges back in. One chooses carefully what to write. One says what one has to. One adds a dash of spice to the mix. One has to be selective amongst such a smorgasbord.

 

People

It is said that great minds talk about ideas, average minds about events, small minds people. But the truth is that we all talk about all or a mix of these three most of the time. So to target the powers that be for our critique is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.

a) The presidency

Strengths: A senior politician with a track record of commitment, service, reliability. 

Weaknesses: A longstanding member of a less than desirable (tough, crooked) regime.

Opportunities: To break with the immediate past, garner broad consensus, coalesce true progress. 

Threats: The DNA of cronyism and nepotism runs deep. Plus power corrupts any human nature.

b) The premiership

Strengths: A demonstrably capable technocrat. A cunning strategist. An ostensibly committed democrat.

Weaknesses: Penchant for favouring loyalists and other trustworthy aides amenable to royalist causes. Proclivity to forge ahead even in the face of dissent and despite the absence of consensus.

Opportunities: To challenge the old order, change the present decay and decline, shape a truly inclusive and accountable political culture.

Threats: Waywardness within the party. Stalwarts not walking the talk and being manifestly let off the hook ... for the sake of friendship, sentimental favouritism, fiscal/fiduciary stability.

c) The formal opposition

Strengths: A long overdue and just appointment that has resonated well with parliamentary culture and liberal civil society.  

Weaknesses: A tatterdemalion of erstwhile Tamil agendas. Fraught with internecine rifts and rivalry; not necessarily commensurate with the larger polity on the ground at home and overseas in the Diaspora, which it aspires to represent.

Opportunities: To speak peace with justice and reconciliation with equitability into the national consciousness and conscience.

Threats: Of being hijacked by hidden interests within its coalition. Of being sidelined by the mainstream agenda by dint of the same, or the real or imaginary fear of the same.

d) The shadow opposition

Strengths: A sterling parliamentary group long on principle and unafraid enough of polite convention to speak its – often contrary but usually on-the-nose – mind. 

Weaknesses: A small band of brothers short on ability to do, or experience to try, government; such that their credibility as the voice of discerning dissidence is perhaps unfairly compromised in the popular imagination.

Opportunities: To stiffen the sinews of a truly national government, while militating for the strengthening of weak state institutions and streamlining of administrative procedure.

Threats: Of going a bridge too far away from the emerging internationalist national interest in its desire to remain true to its grassroots constituency and its genesis as an erstwhile guerrilla group with socialist origins.  

e) Parliament

Strengths: A House seemingly united in the larger legislative interest, and committed to national government (by Machiavellian diktat, if not meaningful voluntary decision).

Weaknesses: A House cripplingly divided in the smaller, petty, partisan, subdivisions between people, parties, splinter groups, et al.

Opportunities: To use a rapidly closing window of opportunity to usher in a new ethos of representing one’s polities with integrity and introducing productive / fruitful legislation with responsibility.

Threats: Of – on the one hand – not going far enough down the primrose path of dalliance with former opponents (e.g. perversely hamstringing an ultimately emaciated 19A). Of – on the other – going too far along the gentle slopes to perdition and endorsing constitution- and country-changing legislation without due care and diligence (viz. perhaps let’s see what happens on January 9 with the legislature as a constituent assembly before we comment further).

f) Cabinet

Strengths: Size. More heads and hands and hearts – to the fore... to work... if its potential for this can be seen thus, and therefore actualized. 

Weaknesses: Size. More mouths to feed, and egos to bruise, and then placate. And if we’re lucky, some real work will actually get done ... but there’s no real sign of a change from past or recent regimes.

Opportunities: To truly serve the leadership of this nation by design – ergo, the nation itself, by default – rather than serving self ... as has been the custom and habit of past cabals.

Threats: Of being overly clannish (“we few”). Of being unashamedly claque-ish (“hail our leaders! down with all traitors!”). Of being irredeemably coquettish about self-interest when the chips are down (“me first always, so out of my way anyway”).

g) Judiciary

Strengths: Standing firm, apart/aloof as behoves it, regaining ground and reputation as a legit third leg of government.

Weaknesses: Still bogged down by backlog and bureaucracy, with the law’s delays allowing justice in some cases to appear to be denied. 

Opportunities: To re-establish democratic-republican hopes in the ideal of the division of and separation of powers.

Threats: To be inveigled willy-nilly into the neo-republican project such that its independence and integrity are allegedly, potentially, or actually, eroded and corroded once again.

h) Civil society (except Media)

Strengths: Able to sense a unique opportunity for regime- and republican-ethos change, and come alive accordingly, as it did to some extent in January and August of the year under review. 

Weaknesses: Prone to slumber when the opportunity passes. Peevish, but seemingly impotent when fresh opportunities arise to continue to apply the pressure requisite to keep ‘Good Governance’ on the straight and narrow.

Opportunities: To play an ongoing role as true stakeholders in the rebellion against autocratic regimes and the revolution to end antidemocratic hostage-taking by residual elements of political tyranny and family-centred despotism. To see that even ‘the good guys’ can turn bad at the drop of a hat – or the throw of a bra!  

Threats: Of slumbering away its constitution-guaranteed right to entreat or enforce the social contract between state and nation.

i) Fourth estate

Strengths: A burgeoning sense – and reality – of freedom to write, show, comment, with only just or expected consequences. (No media are ever truly free of political, social, cultural, economic, consequences. If they claim it, they’re naive – or faking it. But they can be – are now, and are now seen and felt to be – free from fear of rough justice.)

Weaknesses: An often invertebrate bunch of fireless dragons and feckless dinosaurs, lacking vision but making up for it with style, studied sensibility, or staid old platitudes.

Opportunities: To create and craft a new media culture that corresponds to – but does not kowtow to – the new socio-political culture.

Threats: Of being shanghaied by vested interests in high places. Of being struck down in their prime by democratic regimes tending once again towards statism and dictatorialism (in attitude if not in behaviour or in character).

 

Plans

The incumbent administration initially arrested the attention of its electorate with its ‘100-Day Plan’. This, around Christmas time last year, seemed like a Santa’s bag of goodies: good governance in its manifest glory, restoration of law and order touted, establishment of independent commissions mooted, a small cabinet envisaged, everything but the kitchen sink promised. Today, a year on, so many clauses (pun intended) have given the lie to at least half the promises made. Of course, the glass half-full brigade will highlight the estimated fifty percent or so of election manifesto intentions made good...

Still, for those who once occupied the high moral ground – and continue to do, heaping calumny on their predecessors from their high and exalted offices – this is hardly the stuff that legendary democracies due to be held in high esteem by posterity are made of.

But credit where it is due. For half a good job well done ... e.g.: repealing the prohibitive 18th Amendment, introducing the liberating 19th, an RTI bill and electoral reforms in the works, etc.  

Conventional wisdom: From National Advisory Councils to involve academics and professionals in better governance to National Audit Bills to keep errant public-sector players on the straight and narrow, the Government has kept its word; safeguarded its honour; retained its integrity. 

Devil’s Advocate: The art of the possible has proven to be impossible in some cases. Since those making the promises had a seemingly sure-fire plan to be expedited no sooner they came into office, cynics and sceptics will be forgiven for assuming that it was all a lot of hot air (“we didn’t know procedural impasses would slow us down”) or cold turkey (“we’re not like the other lot – it takes time to properly undo what was done in a decade”) in the first place. > Reader, please take your pick of these charitable or condemnatory views as you will...



Policy

Time and space – to say nothing of flagging interest – constrain one from a comprehensive approach. But to limit this comment to the Government’s worldview on matters financial might well be representative. In terms of its economic weltanschauung, there’s little to hit the powers that be over the head with... unless one is old-fashioned Marxist, newfangled Machiavellian, or a moronic progressive. It is precisely in the fiscal or fiduciary fields that Good Governance has demonstrated that with great ideas come idiosyncratic gaps. To and fro on Budget 2016 has shown this up. It has also been the cornerstone (“here we stand”) or tesseract (“with great power, great responsibility”) or silver bullet (“know it all, can fix anything”) of whatever sphere Midas-minded mandarins of the present state skim and touch.   

The Good: Visionary ideas and a principled approach to policy matters means that Government is working with ‘SMART’ objectives in mind ... even if its communication style and content lack a certain je ne sais quoi.

The Bad: Everything under the sun has suddenly sprung a bottom line ... The people factor appears to have been eschewed, and the ‘warm hearts with cool hands’ orientation is a missing ingredient in development.

The Ugly: The prosecution of past misdemeanours in terms of usurpation of rights and abuse of responsibilities has been limited to the pseudo-economic sphere in the main ... It is a great pity and a matter for deep lament and mourning that only financial crimes of past regimes are being investigated with any degree of agency and instrumentality (other post-mortems being mostly propaganda to make former strongmen behave or the disillusioned populace shiver with eager anticipation yet again). 

 

Projects/Programs

And once again, for the sake of brevity (but representational accuracy and completeness), let hard infrastructure be the case in point. Like all governments, this one is proud of the roads and highways, and airports and ports – or port cities – it builds or is building. Unlike previous regimes, this lot might get it done without systemic corruption throwing a spanner in the works for a captive populace who will pay off bad and/or high-interest loans for generations to come. Maybe there is something of a cynical skimming of the customary 10 per cent off the bottom (the Malaysia-Singapore early development syndrome). Instead of 20-30 per cent off the top (the putative Sri Lankan model of the mid-1990s to the post-millennial ‘naughties’). Nuff said. It is mainly conjecture, besides. Until the UNP part of the combine is ready to fess up to its quiddity not being too different at DNA level from the administrative and procedural oddities of the MR and CBK years. Mighty are the fallen of the present dispensation, even if they don’t suss it out yet.

Naive: Good Governance is composed of sea-green incorruptibles today. More power to their programs.  

Necessary: A little oil is needed to grease the wheels of commerce and industry, as much as it is pragmatic to permit some leeway and even turn a Nelsonian eye on certain ‘irregularities’ within specified ‘limits’ in even the most ambitious of ‘clean’ (if environmentally unsound) mega-political developmental projects.   

Naughty: #Unuth ekai. #Munuth ekai. (‘One lot’s the same as the other.’)

Nasty: Piggybacking on past governments’ achievements while riding them hard on the capital graft endemic to their regime has become a cynical ploy for some segments of the incumbent administration. Pride in one’s superstructure comes before a mega fall.

It is a momentary stratagem to pause and look back briefly, thoughtfully, honestly. For a running leap into a future where delivering on all of the most significant changes held out and called for is a reality, not a half-remembered ideal or a half-forgotten promise. Fine-tuning the state media to make a mockery of ousted tyrants while essaying hagiographies of incumbent leaders in the free media is not nice and not by any means the need of the hour. Yahapālanaya is – and can and must be – better than that.

To wit. In a year with much good, there has been some bad and a little ugly mixed. Only history and posterity will tell whether it was good enough. Providing an environment to enable a lasting peace and quiet for all its people everywhere has been the most major – and the most welcome – achievement of Government. Even if it means that rabble-rousers and rumour-mongers still run free snapping at the heels of Good Governance as it if was they who were the pi-dogs, and not vice versa. Prosecuting the real villains of the piece is still the need of the hour. Even if it means no longer treating ex-Defence Secretaries and Basil-the-rats with the same kid gloves as the Defender-despatching former Beauty Queen of the rotten-borough. 

Just remember that it was we the people who arose from our slumber of over a decade to give you a chance to seize the day; to give us a hope and a dream; to give you a firm place to stand.

Now it is up to you to move the earth as you said you would. Not decline and fall all over the empire of the previous regime, which you were called upon to dismantle – and erect a new republic in its place instead of an amusement park or a fancy playground or some mega-ego-polis of your own.


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