THE POLITICS OF PRINCIPLED PRECEPTS NOT PRACTISED? – When political messiahs ride to the rescue of a republic tottering under the totalitarianism of an oppressive regime, the people expected to be rescued from repression as much as rotten rhetoric. Sadly for social and political reform, even Good Governance does not seem to be above the spouting of platitudes and the cliché that democracy is the worst form of governance except for all the others seems to hold true… Until and unless the incumbents – who perhaps need to be reminded time and again that they received a once suppressed polity’s vote – endorse real change and not trite traditionalism that reinforces the status quo of the old political culture sans terror and tribulation, true, but no less removed from the customs and rituals of corruption as usual – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
I didn’t watch the Independence Day parades this year. Which was hard for me, as I like to see the march past of the nation’s military might, machine and human. The sight of Sri Lanka’s valiant defenders and the glorious sound of our National Anthem in two national languages is a heady and heart-warming combination.
Even at the height of the war against the LTTE, especially in the dark thick of the last press through towards a breakthrough to break terrorism’s spine, I enjoyed the banshee wail of beautiful jet engines (the aesthetic of aircraft in flight) as much as I decried the indiscriminate bombing of free citizens in the zero-civilian-casualty offensive (the ethics of implacable antagonists who fight to the death). Which I suppose is a craven way of saying that most men and maybe many women are conflicted about the feelings that armies and air forces arouse in them. So you will imagine my mixed sentiments about missing the 69th Freedom Day fly over and military tattoos.
But it was not the clichéd struggle between an atavistic enthusiasm for the martial arts of mortals and a more civilised concern for humanity that kept me away from the idiot box that 69th morning of liberty, fraternity, etc. Rather it was my growing inability to stomach the trite bon mots and tired sentiments that spout forth from many lips on such and sundry occasions.
It has become traditional to mouth platitudes to please the masses, appease friends and foes alike, and salve one’s own conscience at such State events which are Sri Lanka’s cynosure. Regrettably those pounding the pulpit with lofty principles rarely if ever practise what they preach when it comes to the lowdown of realpolitik in our thrice-blessed republic. Examples of this abound out and about today, but a salient offering follows here below.
So forgive me if I wonder whether our Head of State means it when he appealed to the country in general and its leaders in particular to be holy, humble, and honest. Holy as in set apart to the task for which they are elected or appointed. Humble as in not standing on ceremony or acting out of arrogance of office held. Honest as in being above waste, mismanagement of State resources, corruption, bureaucracy, the spiritual bribery akin to a mess of pottage for which mandarins sell their souls to the highest bidder in polity and parliament.
How sophisticated a politico does one have to be to tread a plank and try to establish a platform on principles which one knows are honoured more in the breach than the observance? Hasn’t the President heard about irony, self-deception, and the road to hell being paved with good intentions no one has any desire to put into action?
It has been said ad infinitum that justice delayed is justice denied. It has also been essayed ad nauseam by naïve sentimental lovers of this elusive concept that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. But it is neither expeditiously done nor decidedly exemplary in its doing. So observers would be forgiven for assuming that this is just another good idea about a nice thing to say from a decent enough talking head if one is not too fussy about delivery on promises made or determination to make one’s principles one’s practice.
Such schizophrenia has been the bane of island politics – hell, yes, universal politics – since the dawn of civilisation; and democracy is no guarantee one’s representatives will be any more noble than the demagogues and rogues they ousted. Such bipolar disorders have been the order of things since good governance began to traverse the time-honoured road of bad and ugly governments before them…
There is little (if any, or none at all.) explanation as to why “corruption, waste, and malpractice” – the president’s present bugbear and the bane of his prime minister – have not been identified, addressed, and increasingly eliminated (except rumours of a reshuffle in which certain responsibilities might be transferred from one rogue minister to another).
If it is essential for politicians and civil servants to ensure this sea-green incorruptibility – as the Chief Executive has assured the country on the eve of our 70th year of life and liberty – then Caesar himself must demonstrate that the State-engine is above suspicion in this respect first of all. And part of the proof of the pudding is in the eating of humble pie, and admitting that all is not holy and honest among the household gods we venerate today.
There has been little (if anything, or nothing at all) done to reassure the people that past misdeeds will be freely and fairly brought to book. Even if some of these – especially if some of these – are alleged misdemeanours of the venerable venerated ones themselves. For example has the use, abuse, and misuse of public funds under past presidents been adequately investigated – and where necessary prosecuted?
Sauce for geese as much as ganders
It would be good if judgment – following free and fair investigation – were to begin with the household gods being venerated today.
If the rot were thought to start with the most senior living president, let the probe begin with her reign – er, tenure. Let it be the egregious use under her dispensation of the very military whose might we admire today being targeted through campaign material (leave alone being illegally used to distribute electioneering propaganda through airlifting leaflets at State expense) be the first to come under the hammer.
If the sitting president is serious about making an example of politicians vis-à-vis waste, abuse of State resources, and misuse of national property, let the then minister in charge of a certain river-valley development scheme be asked to account for State sponsorship of those campaigning for him on the electoral trail at the turn of the century. One could go on about the same senior minister under the erstwhile regime and a slew of allegations against him with regard to use of Mahaweli Authority vehicles and offices; but one suspects the president gets the point.
If our supercilious Prime Minister is jealous of his reputation as the one man deserving of the appellation Mr Clean in a decidedly dirty game, let him divest himself of pride and discharge a stern duty in explaining to a parliamentary select committee he is not guilty of cronyism or nepotism in the same vein as the previous regime. Permit us to encourage him to regain the lost moral high ground by distancing himself permanently from crooked gubernatorial flunkeys, incompetent mandarins monkeying around with State finances, and shadowy super-ministers up to God knows what.
It would be good if judgment were to broaden her wings to embrace the plethora of sins committed by a shamelessly corruption-tolerant ex-president now evidently staging a sinister comeback under the wings of national socialism’s latent appeal to our nascent society of gullible jingoists. But all the President’s men are unwilling to enable him to keep the hounds of Hambantota at bay. Because no doubt many of them are culpable and don’t wish their own public track record scrutinised too closely. And all the Prime Minister’s hangers-on seem unable to make him willing to sacrifice a few baa-lambs precious to the real power behind the throne so that the UNP can throw off the shackles of its bondage to business as usual with the old boy network and happy club.
So it’s politics as usual, and realpolitik as perhaps never before. While the spotty offenders from the past and present go scot-free, the spotted dicks of the CID and FCID remain at a loss when the band comes marching in.
I’m sad I missed the military show on our 69th celebration of independence. But there’s a managed spectacle – bells, spells, thrills, whistles, and all that jazz – to keep us amused and entertained. Twas ever thus. Twill ever be. Just spare us the pointless rhetoric of realpolitik if applause at ideas expressed but not implemented is your idea of democratic social reform.