The Government appointed more Ministers recently, pictured here with President Maithripala Sirisena
I think you might have read with some interest – or no small measure of irritation – the news that the Government has appointed five more ministers. To some, this announcement would have come as a surprise (what, five more… now? at this late stage close to a possible dissolution of Parliament!). To others, the appointments appear to be something of a shock (who on earth are these people – is there no one more suitable?!).
But for those who recognise that realpolitik means five major, or 50 minor, or 15,000 minute tugs and turns and tweaks, it was possible to remain sanguine. Even good governance has its off days… when the sun is swallowed by the clouds and a discerning citizenry feel the thick drops which herald a monsoonal downpour. There shall be showers of blessings, we were told and are being expected to believe again. However, one can’t help feeling it in one’s sinuses that there’s a storm brewing somewhere in the offing.
There is certainly an element of strum und drang in the air. To be fair, this storm and stress has been relatively small-scale: threats of non-cooperation never carried out; sabre-rattling over no-confidence motions that were eventually thrown out or stymied; exchanges of unparliamentary words. To be realistic, these elemental stirrings in the House and beyond its pale betoken that there’s something (if not rotten, at least) rapidly turning rancid in the state of our democracy. To be safe rather than sorry, republicans would do well to sniff out the acid in the atmosphere before the rains come.
It’s not war in the north that is the issue – although certain southerners seem to see the storm clouds gathering in that direction; and even appear to welcome that portent for all the potential it holds for their own return to power or places of influence.
It’s not economic instability or even collapse at the centre – although to judge by the Opposition’s choice of this sphere to attack and the defenders’ often outrageous claims that all is well at the Bank and the Treasury, there is some cause for concern.
It’s not cultural bifurcation – although we appear to have moved beyond ethnic divides and majority-minority complexes into quibbles over sexual revolutions driven by (of all places) the UN.
It’s not civilisational entropy – although as a nation-state we have declined and fallen from the summit of being Asia’s erstwhile granary, and stumbled and tumbled from the lower but still lofty heights of being Singapore’s onetime envy and aspiration.
No – although these are worth considering, too, they are not in the eye of the storm at the present time. The storm and stress I see is in the realm of political worldview and its ramifications for our country’s way forward. That is the fundamental framework through which we perceive and appreciate or reject the value and worth of all work done and concepts mooted in the realm of politics.
Would that the politicians we reckon as savvy – and sane – and solid and straight – be able to discern these fault-lines which are opening up a chasm in our society and driving a wedge between people of goodwill in places where it is possible to drive change. These might well be virtually invisible the closer you are to the epicentre of authority, and nearer to the dictates and demands of realpolitik.
On one side
The Apollonian camp: the idealists, the intellectuals; people of some personal integrity and more professional acumen than most; prone to visualise and daydream; possibly unrealistic in their grasp of actualities. More often than not, in the upper echelons of the UNP and parts of the liberal parties; some SLMC quarters and other TNA constituents.
On the other side
The Promethan camp: the practical types, or even pragmatists; those of great drive and charisma fuelled by ambition and firing grand dreams; tending to be movers and shakers; often grasping in their earnestness to develop and construct. Seen in the heavy centre of the SLFP and wings of the UPFA’s constituents; as well as the old left; also towards the right wing of the reactionaries and the periphery of the progressives.
Is a bridge possible?
It seems not. The political parties or groupings concerned are – or pretend to be, or are perceived to be – deeply entrenched in their respective positions. Some concessions are made to the validity of their political and ideological opponents’ points of views and ideals. Often these take the form of claiming to be better at what their opposite camps are best at. Ergo, the GOP and its main contenders clashing over the tip of the iceberg – the most visible parts of the debated fault-lines: infrastructure and integrity issues.
So you will hear the Government of the day claim that it has cemented railway extension deals with India or laid concrete plans to develop port cities with China or continue apace with building the hard infrastructure of highways and expressways with the very country that it deplored the development-oriented Government of the past’s previous association with.
Similarly you will hear loud and plaintive wails from the evicted regime – once rife with rampant wrongdoing – that never in its time was there such a monumental scandal as the Central Bank bond issue which has cracked open in the face of good governance like a thunderclap on a sunny day.
Methinks both camps protest their innocence and/or their integrity too much? Would that appeasement and rapprochement were possible in the ongoing national interest! Together with the realisation that “we’re all in it together” (and not in the sense of collusion against principles or conspiracy against the people).
But the lines are drawn hard and clear and sharp, and all parties are sticking to their side of the trench. Need of the day; Need of the hour; Need of the ethos of good governance with checks and balances seems to be a polity divided and separated not on bipartisan lines, but split by a bifocal worldview.
Is a bridge desirable?
There are arguments on both sides.
Dualists would argue that a tension is necessary between the mindful Apollonian and practical Promethean imperatives. That is to say, in Olympus there will be the lofty detached idealists who think highly of trumpeting peace, justice, justice with peace, progress and development with only justice and peace, growth with equity: so let’s construct a beautiful artifice of concepts, systems, ecologies of attraction, investment, retention, transition, and eventually transformation.
But down to Earth, there will be the ‘carpe diem’ doers: the grab your shovel or spade and bucket builders who get their hands dirty (in more ways than one!) with construction, support structures, engineering marvels such as expressways and ports and airports – an attractive enough edifice; if one that could crumble if and when these are propped up by corruption, cronyism, and criminal waste, bureaucracy, or mismanagement.
Dialecticians might contend that reason is called for is resolving the tension between the Apollonian being and the Promethean doing. That the hallmarks of an ideal democracy are shallow concepts, their champions hollow men – their headpiece filled with straw – if, on the ground, roads don’t route traffic efficiently, or ports and airports re-route the world’s commerce to our open doors. Also that the characteristics of a robust and rapidly developing republic – such as an authoritarian approach to government in a war or post-conflict milieu can ensure – are equally redundant sans the openness and accountability that good governance with all its checks and balances brings.
Is a bridge feasible?
So should our governors, and their customary detractors and part-time cooperators – the strange bedfellows of a single political summer of well-nigh 150 days now – seek a synthesis of their views? Is there a middle path or overarching paradigm that could unite the parties and groupings in Parliament and out of it in a synergy of government that will boost growth, protect the people’s will and mandate, safeguard the nation’s future, and give Sri Lanka the best last-ditch effort it has under the present dispensation to try and take its place in the sun again? Or should we dispense with the rhetoric and high idealism of conceptual politics and let the nitty-gritty of realpolitik play out the life of this unique and unprecedented and perhaps unrepeatable national unity government (that is neither national nor united) to its grimy sordid end at the next polls?
Again, there are arguments and aspirations on both sides of the worldview divide.
The Apollonian conceptualisers are better poised at the present to form a broad front of allies who would capitalise on the prevailing realities to secure Sri Lanka’s economic stability and long-term growth prospects. But their inability to forge (I use the word ironically!) a synthesis that is at the same time strategic as it is sincere might be its downfall when it seeks the people’s mandate again – as it has been loudly (too loudly?) maintaining that it must and shall do.
The Promethean developers are also sitting pretty with the growing general consensus that peace with justice alone will not fill the plates of the hungry three times a day now that the hundred days are up! And their intentionality to fashion (maybe you can envisage that natty item of attire on the ascendant again, once so prominent on national stages?) a strong antithesis of suspicion and subversion against the precariously poised alliance now in power might prevail in the end – through charisma and brute force that taps into the psyche of fear and insecurity.
Thus, the window of opportunity to build a consensus of opinion and ambition across the political-worldview divide is fast closing. Because of deeply ingrained prejudices that prevent the holders of either view from making concessions – or simply the ground realities of peer pressure, electoral expectations, constitutional constraints, or simply sinful human nature that hamstring such notions.
So make no mistake. The battle lines are being drawn. And while it may seem that the war is at it hottest in parliamentary repartee, constitutional amendments, and the squabble over ministerial posts, the real conflict is in the realm of political worldview. Such that the battle for Sri Lanka’s heart and mind – and soul – will not be won – or lost – by the Central Bank fiasco’s resolution or by the banks of the Diyawanna; but by whether our movers and shakers and daydreamers are banking on developing or conceptualising peace with integrity and prosperity. Or both. Or none.