Of pseudo-democrats, discipline and the coming death of liberty?

Friday, 15 February 2019 00:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Triad: sad! Or mad, bad, and dangerous to know?”

I despair of our politicos and would-be politicians. Not that they are not all honourable men. From the honourable prime minister to the former defence secretary discharging his duty honourably after premature retirement! But that honour often dresses up the nakedness of shame, guilt and fear. And ostensibly honourable ideas often conceal the original sin we fallen beings call by many names – from pride and lust to cupidity for things that must not be grasped human hands. 

Think about the irony that some of those dangerously honourable ideas hold dear, as if they were light or warmth. Just this week, a triad of those were inserted into the public consciousness by a trinity of Promethean figures in the political arena of today.

The first is that inclusive democrats plan for far futures for the benefit of all. The second: that discipline is paramount in public if not private life. The third, that trafficking in drugs should court death… not only in bodily health, but also as a criminal penalty.

Lab tech savvy liberal

Firstly, speaking this week at the launch of Sri Lanka’s first ‘social innovation lab’, the prime minister came across as the most liberal and forward-thinking social democrat that this isle has had the good fortune to be blessed with. In a milieu where prototyping and testing agile and holistic solutions to the island-nation’s most pressing development problems is paramount, the premier was positively a pioneer of technocratic social democracy for a brave new future.

Of course, the problem is that despite digitalisation in some state sectors, technology remains a consummation devoutly to be wished in many government offices. On top of that, a widespread bureaucratic mindset among far too many civil servants – I use the term lightly – means that this technocrat’s highfalutin vision falls at the very first hurdle. It’s a visionary idea hamstrung by human beings blind to its potential. 

To add insult to injury, the 4G apps of today may not be viable in the efficient future of 45 years from now, which the PM (who seems to have forgotten AI, AR and VR in his hurry to endorse mobile technology based apps) envisages. To crown it all, his fervent wish to build a country very liveable for a future generation doesn’t seem to extend to the still un-democratised non-inclusive regime of his own Grand Old Party. It’s a visionary individual handicapped by his own wilful myopia.

If and when I see a Sajith or a Navin share and exercise as much power as the UNP’s oligarchs, those usual suspects, I’d be more willing to swallow whole these idealistic visions of even the most well-intentioned and plausible but hypocritically compromised dinosaurs. It’s time, no?  

Beast slouching towards… 

Secondly, there’s the second coming – or is it the third? or fourth? or fifth? I’ve lost count – of the real strongman. I don’t mean the man who would be king again but can’t because of the constitution. But his once powerful brother, the dynamic bureaucrat. Since of late, he seems to have his party’s imprimatur for future national leadership. And has been rattling sabre in the background to a mixed reception. (Tremulous delight by craven big biz and nationalist blocs, trepidation on the part of those republicans who love liberty and fear commercial as much as conceptual gas-chambers.) 

However, the SLPP’s formal hierarchy in the person of the former president has to date not officially nominated the budding candidate for the forthcoming polls. Therefore, and also until the moot issue of citizenship in foreign fields is settled satisfactorily, one can speak only hypothetically of the return of the erstwhile king… of matters military, urban development and an iron hand in state security, and the stamping out of dissent in the past.

So when the once and future king asks rhetorical questions about ‘discipline’, the mind boggles. On the one hand, most civic conscious folk would rue its absence on the roads as much as in the corridors of power – and yearn for its reinstatement. On the other, many citizens with long memories have not forgotten the brutal crackdowns on protestors in Rathuspaswela and the IPZ – to name but two corners of Sri Lanka that felt the martial jackboot and unforgiving bullet.

...born-again strongman bureaucracy? 

There is also the framework in which the formerly unassailable soldier turned strongman bureaucrat is phrasing his question. Please note it’s not an appeal to law and order. Or the primacy of the writ of constitutional rights and responsibilities. Or anything legal and defensible like that.

However salutary it may seem at first glance, it’s a very intense personal take on the need for an iron hand… and the velvet glove, once demonstrably off, is not mentioned at all. 

Rather, it’s hidden. Like the hand in a spate of still-unsolved extrajudicial killings of errant editors. And dozens of dissenting denizens irritant to the powers that once were. To say nothing of citizens murdered, abducted, tortured. By whom, or under whose strong arm, it is yet to be established under our effete pseudo-democracy.

For the powers that be today: There are questions to be raised over the would-be disciplinarian’s statements: 

#1 “I did not bring about the concept of white van abductions.” So, who did? In a milieu where the regime was all-powerful, who else could? And should there be impunity for those who aided and abetted this egregious ethos?

#2 “Lasantha, Keith, Prageeth were done by two individuals for purely personal reasons.” So, who are the two? I think it incumbent on law-abiding (dual) citizens of (two) democratic societies to name and shame! And what personal reasons can be imputed to a set of purely politically expedient assassinations that will hold water? 

#3 “I have not done anything against the minorities.” So, was Vasu wrong? I wonder who’s really behind the excesses of scorched-earth war and setting fire to minority dominant towns and ensuring an entire district becomes a national conflagration? And was the venerable monk, a protégé, only a cat’s-paw?

A line in the sand… 

Last but by no means least, the president’s ongoing campaign to convince the people that drug traffickers deserve the death penalty. But while he may persuade tough-minded philosophers from stern clerics to whitewashed sepulchres in the town square, the head of state may not have though through consequences for the nation at large.

If implemented – and plans are afoot to recruit a murderous hangman far more qualified educationally than your average House-bound MP – the ramifications will range from loss of GSP+ privileges to further tarnishing Sri Lanka’s prospects as the prettiest girl on the beach of a Lonely Planet. 

A campaign to bolster the flagging popularity of a loose cannon chief executive could ricochet on him during the very second term he so assiduously seeks with a little help from his religious and philosophical friends. 

Rot like this might be our lot if the realpolitik we all rue in the western hemisphere of our country continues. It looks like another marriage of convenience, between Bud and Betel Leaf, is on the cards, doesn’t it?

…or crack on the head!

So give us liberty or give us death. I for one, can live with the pseudo-democrats holding out idealistic visions of technological Shangri-Las. No visionary idealist will mar my dream of a social democracy in which progress with responsibility rules. His only shame may be not using the technology he likes so much – and as promised he would use, way back when – to garner a more inclusive consensus for constitutional reforms of which he is the chief political architect. 

But a disciplinarian who doesn’t discipline his disciples is altogether another threat to my liberty and the death of transparency and accountability. There is much to fear here. And as for that populist chief executive who’s dreaming of another season, there’s nothing new under the sun about power corrupting and making once common candidates commoner and shoddier by the day. It is a guilty conscience for which we’re paying daily with ludicrous gazettes based on mouldy bylaws; the sooner we’re done with the gazetteer, the better.

(Journalist | Editor-at-large of LMD | Writer #SpeakingTruthToPower)