I feel something queer come over me, as the actress said to the bishop. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi in the air these days… a balmy in wonderland mixture of introspective nostalgia and prospective newness. Maybe it’s all those fumes from myriad aeroplanes flying overhead in preparation for a seventieth birthday celebration, intoxicating us all with a rich mix of high octane and high-jinks. Perhaps that’s what’s making me airy, light, aethery, and more ready than at other times to overlook the faux pas of my fellow citizens and the petty foibles of our elected representatives.
Be that as it may, before anyone of us gets all sentimental and maudlin about shows of military legerdemain, let me hasten to assure the demographics in our island-nation still marginalised by a long-forgotten war that some of us haven’t forgotten the high cost of conflict. Both to the national interest and state coffers, as well as the price the people of a once peaceful republic paid over issues nascent in any emerging democracy where a colonial ruler had previously applied its notorious divide and conquer strategy. Which is to say that it is not stirring speeches or press cachet about national integrity and sovereign territoriality that stirs the blood. But rather a nagging suspicion that despite the hype and hoopla, and because of discernible strides made in other developmental spheres over the past decade or so, now there is a niggling sense that it is not politicos who contribute most significantly to the spirit of a nation’s birthday celebrations.
With that said, let us deny the devil his due credit. An unwinnable war which was prosecuted in the spirit of a Cato demanding time and again that Carthage must be destroyed must for ever redound to the rather dubious honour of a triad comprising erstwhile president, former senior bureaucrat, and ex-army chief. That trifecta of executive authority, state agency, and military instrumentality in ensuring and maintaining the peace remains a consummation devoutly to be wished in a more effete milieu in which many lament that a glory has passed from the earth. The signal honours due to a duumvirate that has worked – if not very well, at least quite hard – at determining that post-war triumphalism in a failed or failing state must more readily convert into post-conflicttenacity to succeed as a functioning democratic republic must not be withheld grudgingly either.
If one regime then is to be feted for its furious approach to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, perhaps its successors and their supporters are to be allowed a certain freedom to prick that balloon for its most egregious excesses. If another more republican government is to be faulted for its lack of spine in prosecuting crimes past for fear of future backlashes against its perpetuity in power, its more vociferous critics in opposition today may be chided for their churlish lack of recognition of significant accomplishments militating towards democratic institutional reform. Do I sound like I want to have my cake and eat it, which is what many if not most common or garden Sri Lankans desire? Yes, it is that kind of a celebration – a nod to three score and ten; and ten more if the spirit is willing though the flesh be weak… And also no, it is not a craven indulgence of coalition politics for fear any alternative is no better; nor a cowardly ignorance that fails to confront the burning issues of the day which remain despite the best (and/or worst) intentions of our governors and their gremlins in the machine.
Which brings me to the rest of today’s column. The acid tests of yore. An exam which all of us as co-celebrants on the cusp of 70 can take together. Not to try one another’s patience. But to assess the state of the nation as sensed in the nous of its more sensitive denizens such as that which read Daily FT. And evaluate in an arbitrary frame of mind the new trends we might determine to develop in concert with the folks albeit we invited to hold the sceptre over us for a while at least. So do try this set of reflections below for size, and surprise yourself as well as us all.
If Life (L), Independence (I), Freedom (F), Equality (E), are the main ingredients in our birthday cake, write out a recipe for the rest of the stuff you’d want to have… and eat – bake at 20180F for 70 minutes in a post-conflict oven after having shed your post-war attire and post-colonial hang-ups. Whistle the national anthem while you work… there are no words, so it’s not like someone’s holding a gun to your head at Galle Face Green and saying, “See, it’s in all three national languages – so that must mean we’re united after all…” – think hard about whether LIFE in the still newly rescued republic is legally mandated, or whether the feeling springs spontaneously from all its citizens’ hearts and minds, like a little ethnically nondescript whistle on the lips…
B. Short Answers
i.In a post-war milieu short ambitious folks like the Corsican general turned French Emperor Napoleon might have been the cat’s whiskers with his bon mots like “in any army the holy trinity is infantry, artillery, and cavalry – no single cadre can do without the other”. But if you were invited to stop being infantile about shows of arms, and resist the temptation to trot out your increasingly expensive arsenal at the drop of a hat, would you be cavalier enough to essay different trio in your seventieth birthday celebrations? State clearly whether your new balance of power favours executive, legislature, and judiciary equally. (Perhaps this is a longer answer than short-answer questions warrant. Please invest the time… it is important to get the mix of ingredients right in the fresh constitutional cake…)
ii. If Frozen was the theme of our reformist movement, whom would you like to hear the nation sing ‘Let It Go’ to? (HINT: Ravi, Ranil, rotters like the killers in cold blood of errant editors and unrepentant reporters, rather not write the name of him who shall not be mentioned because heaven knows he’s still evil and might make a comeback if this pusillanimous and party-game-playing regime gets it wrong.)
C. Multiple Choice Questions
a. …is a two-act play in which President and Premier have to pretend to be at loggerheads with one another for the nonce, so that their respective party apparatuses can get into high gear for the hugely confrontational local government polls (it’s all right, dear, we do understand the meaning of managed spectacle)
b. Begins at 70 (70 is the new 50 in the lives of nation-states, so we’re still young.)
c. Continues for the corrupt and criminally insane under a republican government as cynical as the crooked regime it replaced (No? So prove it!)
2. Birthdays are for nation-states…
a. …to anticipate what the state of the nation will look like after another dreary year in which there is nothing new under the sun
b. Be born again, because power is passing from the politicos to the people in a few days’ time
c. …to look back in fear, anger, waking terrors, etc., and resolve: “never again”; unless, of course, we fail to heed the sundry lessons of the past with a more salutary approach to national reconciliation than building venues for the entertainment of a subject people desiring liberté, egalité, fraternité – and jobs… not just for the boys…
3. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (to ‘culturally appropriate’ from another constitution) are threatened by:
a. A polity that is treated with disrespect by two bit thugs and their cynical political bosses who naively assume that all the people can be fooled all the time (sadly, almost every election proves that adage virtually irrefutable – so, what’s the alternative? think harder, use extra paper to pour out your thoughts – but under no circumstances attempt to write on both sides of the sheet at once … as some two-timing MPs are prone to do, but get away with it because a former Chief Justice stymied the much needed legislation to prevent our elected representatives from switching horses midstream)
b. Both coalitions in the coalition of coalition government that takes the people’s mandate for sweeping reforms for granted (old brooms could still sweep you out, if the ordinary folks can suspend their stomachs for a few months and bite the bullet of yet another poll)
c. Cynical (I’ve said it three times thus far, but won’t repent of my scepticism vis-à-vis the so-called new political culture until it reforms) politicians masquerading as statesmen or national saviours(sin, men – they can hardly be expected to do any other job properly but wear a mask and indulge their narcissism at state expense)
4. Fill In the Blanks
i. All citizens today are _____ (blessed/cheated/developed/enthused/forgotten) equally in the eyes of their governors
ii. Bond scams, PRECIFAC reports, etc. are _____ (alternative realities/ fake news/ a managed spectacle/ the most pressing issues/ non sequiturs/ what PRECIFAC report I was too busy trying to open up the taverns in the town to my lady friends)
iii. Constitutional changes at hand are _____ (classy/cynical/cheerful/cosmetic)
iv. Democracy is the LIFE to do what _____ (you/someone else/other people/one’s elected representatives/constitutional experts/charlatan statesmen) want to do
5. Quote Completion
“Nationalism is the_____ (last/first/eternal) refuge of the _____(scoundrel/statesman/anything else synonymous with unscrupulous self-serving politico).
One last thing
The last twist of the knife is that there are still far too many people who have not savoured the flavour of the abundant LIFE that successive parties’ manifestos promise. These have-nots include demographics as diverse as ex militants with war wounds of a lifetime on both sides of the divide, forgotten women workers in foreign fields, Sri Lanka’s innocent children who continue to be exploited by the shameful secret sex trade for which we are reputed in dark places overseas. They deserve a slice of the cake the haves are baking this year for the seventieth time…it’s time… it’s time past… in five years’ time we’ll be 75 (75 is the new 25) – and it’s a second chance for Sri Lanka to be 25 once again and shining in the bright spots of its renascent youth.
(A senior journalist, the writer is Editor-at-large of LMD.Today he feels that 50 is the new 30, well all right 40.)