Ignorant armies clash by night

Friday, 25 March 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Power struggles are par for the course in developing political-economies (so they say). People power will be exercised at election time to redress power imbalances (so you hope). Problem is no political party is likely to really want to test the people’s will in that matter at this time (not Govt., at least). Perhaps in a sweltering climate of standoff and stalemate, with successive governments seen to be holding smoking guns, civil society has no silver bullet to target the power-struggle discourse; but its best bet is to urge all power players to take a principled stand



Civil society has a short fuse when it comes to power outages. If in doubt as to its ferocity, refer the irate and inflammatory remarks on Facebook – by candlelight – during the next blackout. Hell hath no fury like a rate-paying polity scorned. We also have short memories – or short attention spans – once the power cut is over… or once the power failures, or power sabotages, or whatever it is that bedevils our power and energy sector these days, seems to be done and dusted for the nonce at least.

More’s the pity. There’s much that positive critical engagement with the powers that be, or discussion and debate above the level of irate tweets between coffee klatches, can effect and establish. In times like these, in crises of governance in-between elections, we need grit and truth to surface; not platitudes ejected from between gritted teeth to counterpoint grinning half-truths or politically-savvy propaganda. dyhf

At least, we’d get ‘power and energy policy-makers’ (the powers that be, or ordinary politicos) speaking to the public with a common vision and in the same voice as ‘power and energy suppliers’ (CEB chiefs, engineers, unions) – which they aren’t doing even now that the power’s back on. That, plus endorsing ‘power and energy regulators’ (such as PUCSL: the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka) in their tough-talking mandate to keep ‘power compatriots’ on their toes – which, as ‘power monitor’, they’re entitled to do; which they’ve done. 

And, now that ‘power consultants’ (foreign technical experts from Germany) have been parachuted in to troubleshoot the problem, perhaps civil society’s constant curiosity can contribute in no small measure to the ‘power discourse’. This, maybe, is fuelled and serviced best in the form of asking formal questions at informed forums that help throw light on not only what went wrong, but how the issue can be short-circuited (that is to say, circumvented) in the future. Of course, the issue with “designing long-term measures to avoid such systems failures in the future, after fully reviewing the system models used for both steady state and dynamic modelling” (per PUCSL’s directive to GM – CEB) is that in the long run we are all dead... it takes time to do things ^immediately^! 

There are perhaps four lenses through which can view the spectacle of our own power struggles in the past fortnight:

NICE (the naïve and normalised view): Civil society must grin and bear it (it’s par for the course in developing economies, as we said last week also). With a small segment of the affected populace being able to indulge its frustration on Facebook: fortunate but futile. The rest of the country – a hassled President unable to work; a harried Prime Minister and Cabinet in the dark about sabotage to judge by their silence; hamstrung commerce, business, trade; can like it or lump it.

NECESSARY (a pragmatic or strategic prism): The ability to better manage power generation and distribution is well within the grasp of policymakers and power-suppliers. We have done well so far, as have previous administrations – despite the hitches and glitches and once-a-decade or so major blackouts – to supply power to the island and also extend the power-supply grid’s reach to the periphery. There is no question of sabotage. Just the happenstance of Biyagama and the coincidence of Kotugoda! We need to egg the PUCSL on in its championing of transparent inquiries. A level playing field in the power and energy sector under good governance means that no goalposts need to be shifted again – however, goals and objectives must be clearly understood and, most importantly, fixes to glitches much more clearly communicated.

NAUGHTY (a cynical or adversarial perspective): There is an ancient and not yet extinct ‘power mafia’ at work behind the scenes. They have a vested interest in perpetuating the current power-supply formula (hydro + thermal + coal) that prevails. And their influence runs so deep and true that no government – past, present, or future – can change the power-generation paradigm to a more profitable and sustainable one (hydro + thermal + coal + wind + solar). Of course, at least one of the progressive political parties claims to have stumbled on to this hidden agenda; so there might be some prospect of the corruption factor in successive governments’ abysmal track record of keeping us in an island-wide state of enlightenment coming to light more often in public discourse – perhaps together with attendant remedies. 

NASTY (the subversive kaleidoscope of opinions): > The present government does not have the political will or savvy to fix the problem. > The previous regime did not have the political integrity to make the right decisions. > Many successive administrations of the past did not have the foresight to fix a crack then which has become a crevasse now. Blah! Blah! Black sheep! The backsliding of civil society caught in a bind or a blind; disavowing blasé governments that we all voted in – at the time…

The ties that bind

In the meantime, making the media headlines and dominating the political discourse of power struggles these days are the rival protests being staged by the powers that be and the powers that want to be. It is a tedious, traffic-stopping, rambunctious, rumbustious, rattle-your-sabre, my-political-pen-is-bigger and my-people-pulling-power is greater than yours affair apiece. The more erudite commentary on the relative sizes of the respective crowds betrays some hysterical anxiety and no small measure of politically perverse penis envy. This incumbent coalition government is struggling to deliver on many fronts, and so finds it convenient to manufacture conspiracies and anti-government collusion in sundry union ranks and state machinery. (“Let us run the country.”) Joint opposition stratagems are no less adversarial, inviting the incumbent administration to hand over the reins of state power. (“If you can’t run it, let us r[u]in the country.” – Again, one might add.)

In none of the political protests, as far as it is discernible to the average voter, are any of the following planks being used to prop up the political platforms of the protestors:

  • A principle at stake 
  • An issue to resolve
  • The national interest

Rather, it is the quite cavalier claim to coalition or party-political self-interest that regrettably rules the days. However, its entertainment value notwithstanding, the general public appears only too happy to buy into the power-struggle discourse and not the principled-stand discourse. Reportage is to the effect that two armies are circling each other, with the laurels going to the larger encampment encircling the polity and enjoining its support in future electioneering. 

Voter, you face a dilemma – as do I and the rest of the populace. On the one hand, the incumbent administration offers a more inclusive, consultative, transparent, technocratic approach to governance – lacking only efficacy in delivery while it lords it over its predecessors in terms of concepts and values, whether only theoretical or actually transformational. [We might call it *steady state*.] On the other, the joint opposition – strategically more than symbolically representing the former strongman-regime – presents a grittier if grimmer package [*dynamic modelling*] of delivering results at the cost of democratic-republicanism and all the principles civil society embraced and espoused up to now. So if we are to opt for one of the deals being offered – parsimonious though they both are in terms of being attractive alternatives for a society seeking to be served by its political masters – which would we opt for or opt out of?

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Power struggles are par for the course in developing political-economies. People power will be exercised at election time to redress power imbalances. 

DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: Penis envy aside, the political and media discourse is pathetic – even for a developing political-economy – especially for a democratic republic that appears to have shaken off its shackles of oppressive regimes holding the people to ransom with personality cults. Civil society – a sort of ‘power-struggle regulator’ – must critically engage now every-which-way.

Of course, all of these speculations are highly academic in the present sitz-im-leben of standoff and stalemate. For one thing, the power struggle over the power situation (sabotage, subversion, and that whole kit and caboodle) is only metaphorical. It is not likely to lead to a showdown between the hosts of the ungodly encamped around us voters. There is no election in the offing for months. Maybe years. Not even the vaunted local government polls which will reveal where the third party in this power struggle (the Sirisena-loyal SLFP faction) stands. So, no <pistols for two, but breakfast for one> stuff is likely to impress the discerning citizen coping with a power struggle of his or her own.

But the larger power struggle looming over us all against the backdrop of civics and governance in ragtag motley state is as much allegorical as it is metaphorical. There is, or has been, and will be, a tension and a tussle between the armies of the two camps: 

  • raw power Vs. reasoned politics; 
  • regime-force Vs. republican fortitude; 
  • cynical corruption Vs. compromised conformity to civilised norms;
  • delivery of results even at gunpoint Vs. reinforcement of democracy even at the cost of results;
  • strongman politics that pit the cult of personality against the power of civics Vs. strong-arm tactics that sound good on paper but put practice in a compromising position because talk is cheap
  • agit-prop that doesn’t mind rocking the boat Vs. the sound of silence that believes in discretion being the better part of valour
  • the worst being full of passionate intensity Vs. the best seeming to lack all conviction or the political will to define and communicate a clear way forward

“Here we are as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

We can only hope against hope (which is like lighting a candle to rage against the darkness at noon, perhaps) that the rest of the dismal imagery of #Dover Beach doesn’t eventuate. Where although a great new deal or a brave new world or a whole new society once seemed to “lie before us like a land of dreams / so various, so beautiful, so new” – we are becoming increasingly aware that the two ignorant armies “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light / nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain”.

My gut feeling (as good as the Met. Dept’s weather forecast, maybe based on chaos theory) is that things will get much worse before they get a lot or even a little better. And the many clouds on the horizon – hot days ahead, rising political heat towards May Day, Wesak with its enlightened self-interest and resultant drain on power banks – spell out a message of more tension. Ignorant armies encamped all around the dwellings of the just doesn’t look good... for joy, cool, light, in the coming seasons.

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