Home / Opinion and Issues/ ‘Politics sans policies and principles’ presses us to think more deeply about many issues: Part I

‘Politics sans policies and principles’ presses us to think more deeply about many issues: Part I

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Reviewed by Austin I. Pulle

Charitha Ratwatte and I studied law together at the Faculty of Law in the University of Colombo. Many of our batch-mates rose to prominence in the law, politics, foreign service, academia, and in other fields. If, at the time we were law students, someone told that this would be the case, I would have become a firm believer in the claim that one’s fate is determined solely by planetary configurations present at one’s birth. 

Chari belongs to a handful of my batch-mates whose achievements did not require any such auspicious configuration of the planets. His successful life after graduation was meritocratic. A reflective person, Chari has shared his thoughts in various short essays which, now fortunately for us, have been collected in the book under review. 

For those who believe that an unexamined life is not worth living, the contents of Chari’s essays provide plenty of material for reflection. His essays press us to think more deeply about a range of issues. Deeply informed by wide reading and his experiences as a distinguished public servant, his essays, written in a clear and engaging style, will stimulate reflection among his readers on the topics that he discusses. 

Millions of his fellow citizens echo his Cri de Coeurin wondering why in a country so abundant with talented and good people and also blessed with wonderful natural resources, so many millions of our fellow citizens have to eke out a living or require hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens to work in foreign lands under abusive employers.

His book helps us think about these issues with accessible essays that are grounded in real life examples. His essays on democracy, power, public administration, governance, economics and the role of government in delivering happiness are fun to read because he doesn’t pull any punches and has vivid examples and anecdotes that keep us engaged. 


in fashion!’

Chari examines many aspects of democracy, governance, and civic responsibilities by not only examining our historical record and culture but also considers the relevance of the experiences of other countries. In the essay entitled ‘Democracy in fashion!’ he correctly argues that even the most tyrannical governments try to address the legitimacy deficit by claiming a democratic mandate. 

He chooses to illustrate his theme by reference to Potemkin village democracies of Russia, China, and Iran. Most people around the world exposed to social media would in this day and age agree with the social contract theorists that in order for a government to be legitimate, it has to be based on the consent of the governed. In November 1863, the Great Emancipator said that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” How wrong he was! Even those who have never heard of Gettysburg know, as they know that the sun will appear after the night, that for a government to be legitimate, it must be a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. 

Judged against these criteria, most countries get failing grades whether they be in the Global South or in the country with the oldest written constitution. Passions, easily manipulated, can displace reason and elected representatives can become puppets whose only goals are to remain in office, become rich, and do the bidding of their puppeteers. The citizens of societies, whether in Brexit Britain, Sri Lanka or in China, still ingest the blue pill referred to in the movie, The Matrix and so are vulnerable to politicians who promise utopian paradise. 

The controversial Ayn Rand warned of the perils of following the great leader on a white horse instead of being guided by ethical egoism. But the leader on the white horse whether in the White House, Brexit Britain or in Sri Lanka promising to take the people back to the idyllic past is the dominant figure in contemporary politics. Taking the red pill, offered in The Matrix, threatens a radical disorientation. In our default states, the fight or flight tendency dominates our behavior. 

For example, the Abrahamic religions have leveraged on our evolutionary need for survival by encouraging attacks on the detestable other. So at various times in the history of these religions, mass murder has been regarded as an act of worship. Buddhism by contrast has not only spurned the idea of demonising the other but radically commands adherents to override their default settings by extending compassion and love not only to all human beings but to all sentient beings. Of course, human nature being what it is, such injunctions are easily overlooked against perceived threats as we have seen far too often in Sri Lanka.

‘Politics sans policies and principles’ 

The essay entitled ‘Politics sans policies and principles’ provides the title for the collection of essays. Chari bemoans the lot of voters in a democracy and his arguments will resonate with the millions, if not billions, of frustrated voters all over the world. The dreadful decision of a sharply decided US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission struck down vital campaign finance laws and accorded to corporations, creatures of the state’s power to create artificial persons, the same rights given to human beings under the American Bill of Rights. The result has been the opening of the floodgates of corporate cash to candidates that will support the agenda of various billionaire donors, however inimical that agenda may be to the welfare of the citizenry and the safety of our Earth. 

As toddlers are massacred in New Town Connecticut and concert goers are massacred in Las Vegas, lawmakers terrified at losing the campaign cash provided by the National Rifle Association put their electoral survival ahead of the lives of their fellow citizens. Democracy has been hijacked by special interests in America as it has been for decades in the Global South. 

Kellyanne Conway, commenting on the size of the crowd that attended the inauguration of President Trump, introduced the world to the concept of “alternative facts”. This term has quickly become synonymous with a willingness to persevere with a particular belief either in complete ignorance of or with a total disregard for reality. 

Whether the issue be the size of a crowd at a presidential inauguration or whether the proposed new constitution will continue to accord Buddhism the foremost place, the increasing incidence of alt-facts in the popular and political arena creates a critical conundrum for anyone interested in deliberative democracy, since it is unclear how rational debate can proceed if empirical evidence holds no persuasive value. 

Data mining and data analysis by companies such as Cambridge Analytica can raise dog whistle politics to an entirely new level. Such data mining can discover the vulnerabilities of opposing candidates and target specific geographic pockets in electorates, a process that delivered the Electoral College to Donald Trump. Popular voting influencedby targeted messages spat out by algorithms combined with alt-facts would appear to be the toxic wave of the future. 

Should there be term limits for elected politicians? Chari quotes with approval the observation that politicians should be changed like diapers for the same reason. In countries such as Sri Lanka where a particular class of people are possessed by a frenzy to serve the people and whose DNA compels their progeny to also serve their people, the issue of term limits is of particular relevance. Unfortunately, in the US, California’s move to extend term limits to senators and congresspersons in Washington was struck down as unconstitutional. 

There are many arguments for and against term limits in Sri Lanka especially in view of the reluctance of many decent people to enter politics. Aristotle, the father of virtue ethics, correctly recognised the phenomenon of garbage in – garbage out and GIGO has been a good explanation for what passes as governance in South Asia. Perhaps the remedy lies in developing a strong grass roots movements in political parties which put pressure on leaders seen to be engaging in corruption. 

Lee Kuan Yew famously required his cabinet to dress all in white when taking oaths to affirm their commitment to clean government. In Sri Lanka, civil society groups could perhaps establish a code of conduct for politicians and ask them to sign a pledge affirming to uphold those principles. 

In most countries, including Sri Lanka, the voters are usually confronted at elections with the choice of the political equivalent of a Coke or Pepsi. However, a stronger brew like bootleg arrack is often on offer when base passions can be inflamed with deadly effect. The Book of Proverbs counsels us: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” When gullible people allow their hearts to be used as septic tanks by unscrupulous politicians or clergy, what follows are the barbarities that accompanied the partition of India, the “Final Solution”, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and all too well known eruptions of hate in our own country of which the most recent example was the sight of a band of intrepid defenders of the country that included some clergy, their snarling faces contorted by hate, abusing and threatening Rohingya mothers and their terrified children. 

The issue of power 

In many essays, Chari addresses the issue of power, a characteristic that Henry Kissinger called the greatest aphrodisiac. He quotes Lord Acton’s famous aphorism about power and its tendency to corrupt absolutely. The Global South has witnessed time and again the truth of Lord Acton’s observations. In our part of Asia, we have seen the consequences of unbridled power not only in Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Philippines but also in Sri Lanka. 

Recent studies on power have provided a nuance to the Acton aphorism. Power, it has been found, can be viewed as freedom or as responsibility and accountability. Power viewed as freedom allows the wielder of power to do anything he likes. The Emperor Caligula famously made his horse a consul. In Sri Lanka too, human equivalents of Caligula’s equine have been appointed to high positions. Instances of power viewed as responsibility and accountability are very rare. In ancient China, the mandate from heaven had to be preserved. Confucius famously observed that a ruler could sacrifice weapons and food but not trust. Singapore is perhaps the closest example of a country where the government views power as responsibility. In most countries, including Sri Lanka, it can be stated that rulers are more than willing forego the trust of the ruled. The consequences of this squandering of trust are obvious. 

As one would expect, Shakespeare examines power from various perspectives that are instructive. It’s a use it or lose it view of power that is the theme of Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and Richard II. The tragic figure of Coriolanus shows the danger of the aloofness of power. One can’t scorn the people as rabble and still govern effectively. Even in Singapore, attempts are being made to humanise officials who were once perceived as elitist, haughty, and contemptuous of the average person in the hinterland. Macbeth, Richard III and Julius Caesar point to the fatal consequences of unbridled ambition. 

Macbeth’s lament about life being “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” is an apt description of some of the lives of our country’s leaders. Sic mundi transit gloria (“thus passes away the glory of the world”) a slave would remind a new Roman emperor as he lit a brilliant flare that extinguished itself in a few seconds. The poet Shelly penned a memorable poem, “Ozymandias” about the vanity projects that end up broken in the sand. 

If there is a country where the airport, every highway, and other monument must be named after one person, it is Singapore. However, the late founder of Singapore decreed that none of this should happen and his own family has split over his command that his dwelling be demolished lest it become a shrine. Contrast this attitude with our country where every dirt street, sports stadium, airport, and performing hall is named after some worthy or another. If the Tigers had not been defeated, Colombo would have run out of the space necessary to accommodate the statues of victims of those savage bombings. Pigeons might regret the loss of more statues but not the citizens of Colombo. 

As a former Secretary of the Treasury, Chari is all too aware of the perilous siren calls of “rice from the moon”. In Singapore, the citizens are continuously given a reality check in economics but many Sri Lankan citizens are illiterate in basic economics. Politicians frequently travel to Kandy to piously accept bromides from prelates whose advice they don’t seem to follow. It is a wonder that the esteemed prelates are willing to be used in such cynical charades.

It is obvious that the advice from the prelates is not followed. Would the country have such massive debt if the beneficial advice had been followed? The corrupt looting of country resources will continue to flourish until the people really buy into the idea that having the sovereignty vested in them is a meaningless piece of rhetoric unless the abuse of public funds and resources is regarded as violating a fiduciary obligation. Scores of ministers going to the airport to welcome back the president on his return is a common sight and is as unacceptable as distributing sil redi. 

If Sri Lanka’s gold standard in politicians, the late Lee Kuan Yew, were to be welcomed in this way, he would ask his greeters why they were not in their offices doing their work and would perhaps ask them to reimburse the treasury for the taxpayer money they were wasting by not being at work and having themselves driven in their luxury cars and convoys to the airport. 

FDI, corporatism, and globalisation

The three essays on FDI, corporatism, and globalisation have linked themes and should be read together. Chari starts off by discussing competitiveness as a driver of FDI. Sri Lanka’s 52d rank has to be improved if FDI is to play its much touted role in the economy of the country. This would require both changes in the mindset of doing business as well as absorbing the implications of globalisation which require rapid reform, the rule of law, and accountability. 

The late Lee recognised that time was a limited resource and was therefore precious. The importance of time in a competitiveness rubric is one of the main causes of Singapore being ranked first, year after year, in the ease of doing business ranking. In Singapore, one can incorporate and be ready to do business in one day. Unfortunately, the link between a wise use of time and productivity and success is not appreciated by those who run the country. 

When a national holiday is declared when Sri Lanka first won a test match, a wrong signal was sent. Overtime had to be paid by factories and businesses to operate on that day, a strange way of rewarding those risk takers and the true heroes of Sri Lanka who are in the frontline of providing jobs and delivering prosperity to the country. The closure of businesses to accommodate night races had the same effect. National holidays on full moon days also is not business friendly. Reducing time wasted standing in Government offices or in traffic is not something beyond the competence of planners. Frequent public protests that cause traffic jams have a cost in wasted time and lost productivity. 

The quick turn-around at the passport office shows what Sri Lankan officials are capable of, and an antidote to time wasting might be an increase in e-government which, quite extensive in Singapore, can only help Sri Lanka with its competitiveness rankings.

(The writer is an Attorney.)

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