Corruption: the third leg of a Government’s crooked stool

Friday, 21 July 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

01If the human race is fallen, politics – perhaps – is where it shows most blushingly. It is, after all, the world’s oldest profession; having thrived before the fall. In the beginning, when God began to create all the other pastimes and vocations, there was chaos and darkness brooded over the deep… but who created the chaos? In case you’re thinking prostitution is the oldest profession, perhaps you can now attribute it to policy – or the creation of employment for fallen humanity by prediluvian politicos with their eye on the main chance or their preferential votes! Both branches of work have survived the fall, the flood, any future cataclysms or apocalypses.

But seriously folks. From time immemorial, maybe no other trade has embraced the trinity of fallenness more than government. Money, power, sex! There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this triad. Be that as it may, the uses, abuses, misuses, of all or each of our trio in a twin helix with another or a threesome with both others has given the media and moralists all the ammunition we need for our newssheets and scandal-mongering since the dawn of civilisation. 

The Greeks gave us democracy, demagoguery, – and the delightfully debilitating use of a drachma to buy out our political opponents. Lucre! The Romans were mad about order, oratory, – and orgies. Lust! The Brits were not bashful about dividing and conquering, and disciplining and chastising. Lashes! Let me disabuse you of the notion that ‘Western civilisation’ – that lost art of living in a city – invented the unholy trinity of money, power, sex: just look at the Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Egyptians, Mohenjodaro-Harappans, Huns, Hans, Mings, Mongols, et al., to know that any ‘oriental’ world order worth its salt knew how the games were played, as well as any ‘occidental’. 

Lest we get carried away, let us return to the res. Maybe in a future column, when you have the time and I the inclination, we can deal pleasurably with sex or potently with power. For the purposes of the present, it is ‘money’ (wealth, resources, assets, treasury, haves, etc.) and its uses, abuses, misuses – ‘corruption’, not to coin a phrase – which arrests our attention. Not because the requisite arrests of criminal masterminds under a previous regime have been made as promised; not even under good governance: but because they haven’t, and they’re looking increasingly unlikely to be made for the duration of this pointlessly pontificating sharply cloven coalition. 

That the incumbent administration has long since missed the bus to bag the crooked mandarins it ejected from places of power is clear. It is less clear whether it still desires to do so – or indeed whether it ever intended to do so in the first place. It might be immaterial what the truth is – for in politics as in prostitution, appearances are impressionable even if the performance is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Crime of the century

The first thing that any government serious about addressing, uprooting, eradicating, corruption in all its hydra-headed forms must 02do is set up a panoply of institutions, establishments, mechanisms to start lopping off this hydra’s heads. Of course, it is also precisely what any set of the powers that be – and will be, and would want to be again and again, under some guise of government in some fresh new incarnation of the same old trite, trite and tested, but failed new (old) political culture – who don’t want corruption done in will also do. It is exactly the same thing in a new mask. Under a previous systematically corrupt regime the existing agencies of law and instrumentalities of enforcing it were subversively dismantled or disregarded – and no major criminals guilty of fiscal or fiduciary wrongdoing were persecuted. 

This is what the present administration had us believe, and it was an easy story to swallow because we had all seen and heard what the vagaries and vicissitudes of a conveniently protracted civil war could do to the probity of state, government, and sundry players in the fiesta of personal-familial financial harvesting. It was an unrepeatable era in many senses in which the most powerful politicians of their day were like grim reapers in fields of gold. Then the strong arm of destiny handed the opportunity of a political lifetime on a silver platter to the sea-green incorruptibles who promised that justice would not only be done but be seen to be done during their conceivably short term of office. 

That nothing of the sort has occurred in a longer period than warrants such pusillanimity bodes ill for the democratic-republican ethos we craved. It speaks volumes for the fallenness of all political parties in general and specific pragmatic groupings in particular. Which, sadly, have to kowtow to the pragmatic demands of simultaneously pleasing the people while struggling to stay on top of their bed-mates in a strange political union once the honeymoon was over.

Subtlety lost on you?

There is now the unmanning spectacle of pragmatist marriage partners squabbling in public, much to the dismay of their admirers. Where once the party of the greens were looking like the Assyrian who came down like a wolf, their cohorts all gleaming in purple and gold, the UNP is now looking like – and being accused of – losing steam. Whether by default (“the fault is not ours but that of procedural delays and purposely placed roadblocks,” they plead) or by design (the opposition’s feeling is that there is pragmatic machination behind these omissions and failures of commissions) has to be seen. 

Their lackadaisical pursuit of the previous powers that be has been interpreted by the leader of the badly split blue party as the greens playing politics in advance of an impending presidential election. Towards the Holy Grail of executive power our once- and only-once executive’s champions are now militating in favour of his return to the hustings in 2020. Which is to say, ironically enough, that the SLFP’s chief enemy qua the presidential race is not the UNP, but its brothers in the JO; and that the UNP’s safest hedge against Sirisena’s hegemony in time to come is to rouse the rabble in the JO now. The UNP’s detractors don’t see it as being above hunting with the hound of the PA’s former president while running with the hare of the UNP-SLFP coalition’s present president. It also stands accused of applying the brakes on key investigations against major players in the previous regime, in an ostensible move to use the weight of corrupt former officials against its now and future president. 

To add injury to insult, the JO concurrently and simultaneously claims that the FCID in the hands of the UNP is nothing more than an axe of political vengeance wielded over their hapless heads. To add insult to injury, civil society including sections of the free media have charged that the UNP-led but SLFP-hamstrung government is either lacking in competence to prosecute the egregious wrongdoings of the previous regime, or long in the tooth as far as cynicism goes, never having intended to go as far as (say) bringing Gota, Basil, & Company to book… for fear of skeletons in their own closet. To add insidiousness to both injury/insult and insult/injury, the Central Bank bond scams and ostensible impunity for the coalition’s ruling party’s blue-eyed boys robbed the UNP of its high moral ground. 

The greens didn’t quite expect such a grenade with its pin pulled to be lobbed into their, er, closet. It must be galling for them – the sea-green incorruptible among them, once the last best hope for a brighter cleaner Sri Lanka – to forego their reputation for probity and moral rectitude – for not only did they not speak up and out against sin in their camp (unthinkable for career politicos dependent on the goodwill of their party leadership), they blithely defended their prime minister’s erstwhile stubborn refusal to budge (unforgiveable for conscientious politicians democratically elected and accountable to the people, not the system).



So we have a president grumbling long and loud that his prime minister’s party is blocking corruption investigations. (Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much. Since he no less and his compatriots no more are also under the microscope.) We have a former president rattling sabre about the political persecution he and his allegedly criminal cronies are facing. (Methinks that gentleman doth not protest long and loud enough. Really some people have too little shame and far too much scurrilous tactics.) And we have a prime minister and his party of closet, er I mean closest, confidantes pursuing their own agenda in terms of nation-building, constitution-reforming, and nest-feathering. (Methinks we should worry that neither he nor his cohorts protest at all, except when their blue-eyed boys are caught with their pinkies in the state cookie-jar.)

Corruption is not the bailiwick of any set of crooked governors. Governments from the time of Hammurabi to Hambantota’s “humbugs” have been culpable of bribery and other forms of criminal financial activity. Sad as it is to admit, those with arguably the best chance in democratic-donkey’s years of making a sea-change have faltered, flailed, and failed for one of three reasons:

a.    being cynical about not really wanting a change but appearing to; 

b.    not being competent enough once in power to implement a good idea that came to them when they were out of power;

c.    being human/fallen enough to prioritise partisan agendas – winning elections, staying in power (sometimes deceiving themselves – and us – that the only way to ensure transformation is to retain one’s station in life…)

That is the only conclusion we readers reach while floating in a sea of no less than a dozen agents and instruments to investigate and indict corruption – ah! – but not a single big fish on the hooks to date…

Guess we have to be grateful that (living as we do in a ‘shame culture’) no sex scandals flutter like dirty linen on a public washing-line. On the other hand, the ‘fear factor’ leftover from a former regime’s most egregious abuses of power seems like a thing of the past… Given an exceptional flutter in the hearts of those who dared to speak truth to power at a time when government acted like the very villainous terrorists it eliminated so ruthlessly. But the ‘guilt’ bit, part by part, by hook or by crook, is still being dangled like bait before a gobsmacked public’s eyes… in which it is becoming harder by the day to say who the villain, who the vigilante, who the vindicated – and who’s to say that someone, somewhere, isn’t laughing all the way to the bank shouting out loud, “Lord, what fools these fallen mortals be!”? 

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