President Maithripala Sirisena, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. A triad of issues – and not necessarily whether Government brings brigands under past regimes to book – may well enter the lists as the key issues on which good governance will stand – or fall... the economy, corruption, and nationalism vs national reconciliation
Last week, in a fit of journalistic pique, I wrote that Good Governance had lost the plot. While friends and family grieved by his graveside, I – a colleague of the former Chief Editor of The Sunday Leader – slaved away at my laptop. Observing his passing in a more passionate than pained mien. And after a diatribe in which I denounced this Government’s empty promises to bring the culprits of Lasantha’s egregious murder to book; and having excoriated their stated reasons and lame excuses about the law’s unexpected delays and hitherto unforeseen procedural obstacles such as lack of witnesses and/or evidence; I penned this conclusion:
“What of the present Government’s feet-dragging and trotting-out of sundry reasons or excuses? For a political movement that so successfully brought the scourge of an authoritarian antidemocratic regime to heel has no reason for not rooting out the cowardly villains who ordered the execution of someone who – had he been alive today – would have been one of its foremost champions. Or perhaps not? … The year of grace is up. Happy birthday/anniversary! Grieve they may, as people or as a party of which the slain editor was demonstrably a part. Get on with seeing to it that justice is done – and seen to be done – and done expediently – is a must, not a might. Government’s reputation, duration, consummation, are riding on it.”
Well, I might have gone a little too far? And, without withdrawing the barbed sting of my critique, let me admit I was wrong! At least, in one respect: In terms of Government’s “reputation, duration, consummation,” riding on the prosecution of justice in this – and a myriad other cases – of abductions, beatings, incarcerations, killings, enforced disappearances during the dark ages of the past traumatic decade. Because it is not whether they bring the alleged murderers to justice or not that will make or break this Administration’s “reputation” (is it really ‘good’?); “duration” (will it last long?); or “consummation” (would it make genuine and significant changes in the time available to it?). It is a host of other factors, which better writers and clearer thinkers than yours truly have expressed. As Good Governance notches up a year in the hot seat…
For one, the Government’s handling of the economy will be a golden thread that could either be wound into a golden ball, or unravel – and with it Good Governance could come undone. As those who know something more than I do about the intricacies as well as the bigger picture of macro realties have essayed, even the economic-policy-savvy UNP was caught on the wrong foot by dint of inheriting an economy submerged by debt and unserviceable loans. Others have shown how even strong administrators can adopt quite the wrong policy in response: that of “denial” and/or “unrealistic optimism”. It can be demonstrated sans too much difficulty even to a layman like yours truly that the Government has taken a soft option out – “getting and spending”, as the poet would have it – and, regrettably, on eye-candy for the bread- and circuses-starved masses: fighter jets – really?
Is there a war on we don’t know about, other than the daily battle contra the cost of living? Or is it vainglory or keeping up with the Jinnahs? (The Jawaharlals, it is reported, are none too pleased.) One trenchant critic of the former regime has sounded a clarion warning: “This road is likely to come to a dead-end soon; and the danger of the government veering in the opposite extreme and imposing even more hardships on the already burdened populace is very real. Economics was the Achilles Heel of the Rajapaksas. This might become true of the new administration as well.”
For another, the State’s management of people and resources with regard to fingering and chipping away at corruption in its manifold forms (including cronyism and nepotism) – Which the UNFGG (GG being Good Governance) is good at raising awareness on and talking ad nauseam about.
For as the UNP – still very much the driving wheels of GG’s locomotive – knows, and knows it well, corruption comes in many forms other than bribery. There’s bureaucracy; abuse or misuse of power or political office; waste/inefficiency/mismanagement; indulging in nepotistic appointments; Nelsonian blind eyes on party-favourites. But to the masses whose mood swings turn election results topsy-turvy, corruption is a non-starter: a non-sequitur. A previous regime made it so. Feeding its starving and gullible constituency on a steady diet of bread, circuses, bravado, chauvinism, anti-internationalism, and rampant nationalism. Well, nationalism may be the rooster that crows on the dunghill. But when it climbs down from its cocky perch, it might find the rest of the barnyard animals in a parlous state.
Dare I say it – that the UNP lost (or squandered) its opportunity to reach and teach the masses about the dyspeptic effects of corruption twice? Once when things were down and dirty under CBK. Then when there was something more than rotten in the company of MR & Co. Will it willfully squander (or apathetically lose) its possible last chance to make good on that…
With that said, Teachers Of Righteousness must walk the talk… Or risk being summarily dismissed as hypocrites. The UNP continues to hunt with the hounds by assuming the high moral ground of the great huntsmen who come bearing rich truths about *Good Governance*; but is often seen – and, perhaps more importantly, perceived by its erstwhile electorate to be – running with the foxes scurrying into one hole in the ground or another. The dubious Central Bank bond deal. The Port City fiasco. The Avant-Garde imbroglio – these threaten to blot the UNP’s escutcheon.
In this light, one understands its reluctance to pound the pulpit to transgressors in the perilous coalition it heads. It therefore deserves the Parliament of Fowls that it gets and misbegets. One can only hope that its pragmatic pact lasts long enough to effect the much vaunted and much wanted societal changes that were envisaged and entered upon… Not so much constitutional reform to keep a once lame-duck party in power – But national transformation that will strengthen state institutions against the vicissitudes of corruption (especially dynastic presidencies and dissembling parasites who eat up the country’s commonwealth).
Then again, the Administration’s opportunity to carve out a truly democratic, inclusive, pluralistic society – By dint of constitutional reform as well as by virtue of its responses to, and initiatives on, ethno-religious integration and national reconciliation.
And again, it will be #realpolitik that rules the roost. The UNP needs – at least for the next month to two or three – the significant fraction of the SLFP who constitute its strange bedfellows. But the fractured UPFA is likely to prove a sticky wicket for the fastidiousness of constitutional reform that wants to hit the executive presidency out of the park. That fractiousness is not likely to be helped by the jingoism of a former President rattling his sabre in one corner (like some sabre-toothed tiger that doesn’t know it is extinct – yet). And the jejune antics of an incumbent President who insists on acting like the dinosaur that GG can’t afford.
Really, again, it is the UNP – which is in the drive seat, like perhaps never before – that will be called upon to steer this juggernaut out of the past swamp of puerile nationalism. Instilling perchance a purer nationalism to which all minorities – to say nothing of an ideologically united majority (or major part of the major community) – can subscribe.
These three issues, if at all, will be the legs of the tripod on which the Government will sit. Or, together with the nation that voted for it, will fall. For, there are forces at work… gnawing away at the rather wooden and stilted approach of our co-allied governors to nation-building. Plus, there are agent provocateurs within the precarious coalition who are burrowing into the fabric of governance. Weakening it from within with their parasitic approach to pursuing personal agendas in the guise of working for the common good… key cabinet ministers and controversial MPs included!
It is these three major points of conflict – and perhaps one more than the other two (“it’s the economy, stupid!”) – that will resolve how recent history and posterity alike will remember Sri Lanka’s most ambitious democratic project to date… Not the solving of past murder-mysteries that first titillated the enthusiastic electorate. And then titivated the often flagging motivation of coalition partners and supporters. Of course, this is cold comfort to the family Wickrematunge and the family Thajudeen. And indeed to all the other kith and kin of those loved slain in the line of their journalistic duty as well as the normal course of civilian life… brutally arrested and truncated by a thuggish regime and its cronies.
But there was never an ice cube’s chance in a blazing inferno that Government would make good on its implied promises to book all the brigands who commissioned and carried out these deadly and dastardly deeds. Certainly, for almost at odds of 100:1, the larger villains of the piece will get away with it. Not because they’re innocent or due some reasonable doubt. But because essentially everyone of the ilk > The Powers That Be > have an unwritten agreement that *No VIP Will Ever Get His Or Her Just Desserts* as long as #realpolitik rules the roost.
Even now the heart hopes that we’re wrong. And that a sense of moralistic right will prevail over this #unrealpolitik and the need to consolidate parliamentary consensus among other agreeable ethics in governance today. With the larger objective of constitutional reforms and national transformation in mind… But “hope” (as the comedian Woody Allen wrote) “is the thing with feathers” – and they’re looking increasingly like chicken-feathers these days… cock-a-doodle-dearie-me!
Still (despite all the hype about new laws to prosecute hate-speech – which may be a ruse to avoid prosecuting wrongdoers under the old laws – and moves to pre-empt communalism) there is a new rooster that is crawling up the dunghill of ethno-nationalist chauvinism to crow out its newfound obscenities.
What began as isolated incidents in Colombo suburbs (where a racist and potentially offensive slogan was painted on the faҫades of homes owned by a beleaguered minority community) has now transmogrified into an island-wide trishaw-driven sticker-based campaign to arrest the awe or dismay of sundry citizens.
And the formation of a party, whose fundamentals are blatantly ethno-centric and politically incorrect (but politically expedient), has followed – Giving lie to the claim that with the end of the war, our country’s ethnic divide has been bridged.
If what we see of formerly influential “Sinhala”-oriented, “Sinha-lay”-inflamed politically-minded demagogues is anything to go by, there is a deep vein of xenophobia lying dormant just beneath the surface of the Dharmishta Society we’re not and probably never were… A part of the problem that Government faces, this is. The third leg of its stool. How to cement the peace that a war ostensibly won; add communal harmony to the mix; and concretize the edifice of national reconciliation.
It is evident to a few that the insidious $Sinha-lay logo-and-sticker project is “a meticulously crafted campaign … designed to go viral”. The same satirist who wrote that also suggested: “Nobody knows where it started. Nobody knows who’s behind it.” With that said, he essayed the estimate that this aesthetically pleasing but artlessly putrid campaign < He called it: #Racism given wings and a PhotoShop job > is more dangerous than the rabid obviousness of groups such as the BBS.
Ethno-religious bigotry is no longer frothing at the mouth as it vomits invective and spews volatile half-truths about ^The Other. It’s a “Friend next door. Your uncle. The neighbour’s car. … That guy who just etched the logo onto his hand with a ballpoint pen.” An ex-minister in an often rabidly nationalistic regime. An ex-leader? His misguided but growing-in-numbers and busy-in-droves sycophants on social media! The incumbent administration had better wise up – fast… unless it, too, is playing the flip side of the same game? Holding its peace and its cards close to it chest – until the danger of disunity is past… And the constitution paradigm-shift is over… To say nothing of the LG poll soon after that… #realpolitik, would you say?#ugly-unrealpolitik!
Disturbingly, the signs that this Government (or parts thereof) is/are no less cynical about exploiting the dark side of the majoritarian psyche are/is alarming – if fleeting. Ostensibly with its protagonist’s approval, a video that never went viral (it was canned within a day) showed one of our incumbent leaders of state as a latter-day incarnation of the greatest of kings in the Polonnaruwa (there you have it!) era of our $Sinhala-proud history.
That this type of hagiography speaks poignantly to an alarmingly large segment of Sri Lanka’s ‘southern’ voter-base is cause for concern in the ranks of the Administration committed to pluralism, inclusivity, minority protection – To say nothing of the common or garden common-sense-oriented citizen. (Although, possibly, many who sticker their vehicles don’t subscribe to full-blown bigotry or the perfidious ethno-nationalist chauvinism that inflames peace-time sensibilities and starts up wars…)
More of concern to us, after one year of pluralistic platitudes and open-handed bridge-building: How is it that a man and a movement >which swept into power on the wave of public agitation against an antidemocratic machine that militated in favour of erecting a royalist monument to a powerful family’s ambitions> descend so readily – and so soon – into the same quagmire of kingly aspirations and crude chauvinistic appeal?
Or is it that the subtext under the now clear text is that the Man who would be Sovereign now always wanted to be king… Or is it that the subplot under the emerging subversive plot is that this was no gauche mistake, but an unmistakable sign of the shape of things to come… Is it that the very powers who proclaim democracy are deeply authoritarian at heart (if less instrumental than their predecessors in being able to act at whim or on their fancy)? That the very forces that brought an unprecedented collegiality to power-sharing (per one insightful commentator) are kicking against the pricks and baulking at the prospect of impending powerlessness? That the thrones and dominions who usurped the kingdom – in which they were always satraps – are now desirous of a longer reign than feasible under the present dispensation?
Be these speculations as they may, the Government has its work cut out to keep its constituents on the straight and narrow. These are no tricks of the light, or shadow-play by rulers who would misrule with smoke and mirrors rather than the old iron fist… Hope “Civil Society” is still awake – a year and a tad later – and that *Good Governance* is still honest about the avowed values of its 8 January ‘Social Revolution’.