In defence of nepotism

Thursday, 22 October 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Did the headline confuse you? Good… because, if you’re going to read this article to its end, and to its logical conclusion, keep in mind that everything is not what it seems. There needs to be a slightly satirical frame of mind to see this myopia-inducing issue through the spectacles of common sense. Do read on now.

If I was head of state of an island-nation, or some banana republic, I would take my offspring with me wherever I went. Especially if the little woman wouldn’t come with good reason; didn’t make the cut because of the memo from the Premier on public spending; even couldn’t find the time or space on the economy flight hubby ended up taking. There is not much merit in the comfort of strangers if I’m in a strange foreign capital and have to rely on pay-per-view TV for, er, stimulating company. We are religious, political, and social animals; and that’s not just some Greek philosopher being Platonic. We are also mammals and primates who rely on the proximity and intimacy of the pack… Untitled-1

In short, family matters! In politics, the first family matters most…

Now nepotism is a matter of the mind… If you don’t mind – it doesn’t matter! Not nice, is it, the way that Good Governance-toting members of the general public get their family jewels in a twist at the mere mention of the strangulated issue? Who are we to carp and cavil about the public family life of our duly elected leaders, anyway? And isn’t just about everybody who is anybody doing it, dears?

Just take a quick gander at the state of the country today. Don’t business leaders burn the midnight oil so that their sons and heirs can inherit the family’s mercantile empire? Can’t champions of civil society pass on the mantle of challenging the status quo to their daughters and other dearly beloveds? Won’t it be par for the course if politicos were to make a votive offer of the fruit of their loins to the family business? (Well, two out of three is a pass mark… for a newly democratised nation-state, that is!)

There was a time when we lived in a simpler world. Where family values all over the Commonwealth, for instance, held sway over cabbages and kings. (Um, the British monarchy might be a possible exception; if and when a cabbage does become king!) 

Take the Roman Empire of the 1st C. AD, for example, where every Emperor worth his salt would make his son (e.g. Vespasian with Titus and later Domitian) or adopted son cum great-nephew (viz. old Uncle Julius with Augustus Caesar) the Imperator-to-be. Any problem, ye plebes? Off with yer heads! 

Take the Republican Empire of a sort (motto: “Uncle! Nephew! Party!”) which we have been building since our 1st Constitution proper: where the Grand Old Man of the Grand Old Party clearly created the executive for a closely related executor to inherit! Any comment from the gallery or the House? Offer them a Cabinet post… that traditional sweetener – and that’ll keep ’em quiet – no decapitation required for capitulation!

This demonstrates that nepotism can be a good thing, though it is not necessarily always the case. In any halfway decent republic, a democratically elected head of state who takes his progeny along on a peachy joy ride is begging for an impeachment. In a true democracy or meritocracy, a minister accountable to the public purse and the public’s pleasure will not plead for his near and dear to be appointed to high office – not because he is more qualified, but simply by dint of being related. Am I my brother’s keeper, Captain Cool? Apparently, I am! Where did our portly Ports Minister get the concept of nominating flesh and blood to key posts from, you ask? Perhaps from the same head of state who made a call (ha! ha!) and appointed his own bro to the telecom post… Nepotism not only runs in the family; it infects other families, businesses, and family businesses too!

Now in an only lightly satirical piece like this, there is one consummate Family Business that can’t escape public scrutiny by virtue of being out of office – or out of business, as it were… But although that Former First Family is out of office, they don’t seem to be quite of out of business! The paterfamilias, MR, isn’t out of steam – these days, he’s insisting that there is no real freedom in the country; that media freedom has been denied him; and that he denies all knowledge of and responsibility for censoring the free media under his watch! For a man who has evidently no sense of irony, this is rich… Either that or he has no sense of shame or guilt, or both… And the senior-most junior, NR, is close behind in pater’s pithy pathos-filled footsteps: loudly lamenting and bewailing the plight of poor villagers who were battered by police-fired water-cannons. When, of course, as everyone knows, the time-honoured modus operandi is to bring in the army and open fire on civilians protesting the contamination of their only potable water – as a previous regime did at Rathupaswala! 

But this week’s column is not about politics proper (and more’s the pity…)! Thus we can only essay a word of caution to anyone who might be contemplating nominating their offspring or appointing their related protégés to public office (howbeit high public office or plum government jobs…): Just don’t do it! The money might be better than Good Governance can afford, and the power trip may keep you going until you reach the top – or bust; but the hard time you will get from the sea-green incorruptible lobby in Sri Lanka’s newly liberated media isn’t worth your effort or their time…

This week’s column, however, is a lightly satirical defence of the time-honoured institution of nepotism. (One needs to underline that, if only because we Sri Lankans – as noted about an ex-national leader above – don’t get irony!) 

Here’s a four-lens prism of nepotism:


#1 Nepotism is always natural

The roots of the concept, however, originate under the most ‘unnatural’ circumstances. By the standards of the world, if it wasn’t ‘unusual’ enough for men not to be married in medieval times, the celibate priests of the Roman Catholic clergy during the Middle Ages – and after that – sired ‘illegitimate’ offspring (the priestly parents being arguably more ‘illegitimate’ than their hapless progeny!). Be the correct terminology as it may, it was politically incorrect – to say the least – for the supposedly chaste (but politically ambitious, if socially conservative) clergy to see their sons make it into the cardinalate, the upper echelons of the Roman Church. Ergo, the practice of passing off these infant prodigies as the priest’s ‘nephews’ (the Latin # nepos denoting a nephew or even grandson). Untitled-2

So widespread was the practice that it gave rise to the Italian term #nepotismo, the bestowing of preferential offices or out-of-the-ordinary perks to closely-related male relatives. Some supposed ‘nephews’ of influential members of the Curia went all the way to the head of the Church. In this way, politicking ecclesiastics could engender and safeguard entire dynasties. For example, the Borgia Pope Callixstus III appointed two of his ‘nephews’ as cardinals – one of whom went on to become Pope Alexander VI; who helped his mistress’s brother (another Alexander: Farnese) to sit in the Holy See as Pope Paul III. With nepotism being something of a rolling stone that gathers a lot of moss, to boot, the rot didn’t stop there. Pope Paul III himself was guilty of helping ‘nephews’ to use their relationship with him as a stepping stone to the cardinalate. 

This penchant of the Latin Church came to an end only in the late 17th C. following a bull (ΨRomanum decet Pontificem, 1692) issued by Pope Innocent XII.

While we may not have a comparable culture of clerical nepotism, there is no dearth of ‘nephews’ who have been smuggled in to the ranks of political cabinets and parliamentary cabals. The longstanding penchant of one party to do so – united by blood, and national in its blatant approach to nepotism of a nobler kind – has not gone unremarked upon. No less a mandarin than Bradman Weerakoon, erstwhile bureaucrat and official secretary cum senior advisor to nine Sri Lankan prime ministers and presidents, had this to write about it:

“ networks and the way the highest posts rotated among kinsmen led to the UNP being referred to as the ‘Uncle Nephew Party’, a sobriquet not unwarranted by the facts. Political analysts observing this trend being repeated later on in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ... were to refer to the phenomenon rather grandly ... as dynastic democracy...” <Rendering Unto Caesar: VYP, 2004, pp 6-7> 

Thus let those who fondly imagine – or who have the fiction foisted on them – that nepotism is a relatively (pun intended) recent development on the national scene, remember that it was scions of noble and closely related families (Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes alike) who ruled the political roost in newly independent Ceylon for oh so long. There are some who might argue that even the republican constitutions that set Sri Lanka on a more democratic course were chartered with suitable ‘nephews’ and selected or adoptive ‘great-nephews’ in mind... 

This is an understandably naïve view. We would do well to take it with a pinch of Attic salt.


#2 Nepotism is not usually normalised

While nepotism is widely practised, it is not equally widely accepted. No field of human endeavour appears to be exempt. There is favouritism that selects members of the family across the board and scope of politics, business, religion, society, and the sports field. We are all prone to pick those who share our DNA, but are unforgiving of others who fall prey to the same all-too-human snare! The courts will judge it relatively impartially; society will excoriate those who fall foul of the standards of behaviour expected in polite society; some of us will speak up and out against it as if it was going against the grain to indulge in it.

But every now and then, by design or by default, by the subtlest transformations, societies will come to accept nepotism as the Natural Order of Things. Only recently – and not entirely time out of mind – it was seen not only as but also taken to be ‘natural’ that the sons of VVVIPs would be first in line for plum posts, get the lion’s share of every perk and privilege on offer, plus have the ingratiating courtesy of the PSD to back up the irrefutable claims of these pretenders to the throne. In time, sports fans in particular and frustrated society in general came to see the wisdom of enduring what one could not change. While they may have grumbled and groused about it in private, in their public lives a plethora of aficionados came to imitate the very vices of the feared administration they flattered and fawned on. Nepotism was ‘normalised’ as par for the course under a kraterocratic regime where the pecking order began with the head of the family as the head of state. It went all the way down the line... and a long way down the line, at that... from plum posts overseas; to the lion’s share of national loot and booty; and every perk and privilege on offer from shore leave for naval subalterns to salaried fiefdoms for senior officers who were more ‘mafia boss’ than ‘bureaucratic mandarin’. Gr! Get it? 

This was the increasingly conventional view for almost a decade, until the democratic reforms of early and mid2015... or so we thought would be the case...


#3 Nepotism can sometimes be necessary

This argument occupies a substratum of the soil in which nepotism is natural, but not normalised. Its proponents would contend that A. Their appointees are the best persons for the post; B. They’re better because the alternative could be much worse; and C. There is no case against their nominees other than ‘mere relationship’. Untitled-4

A. Arjuna Ranatunga, for instance, claims that his nominee for the post of Chairman, Sri Lanka Ports Authority, is the ideal candidate. The Ports and Shipping Minister asserts that there is no one more suitable for the job than his brother, Dhammika. The World Cup-winning cricket captain appears to have forgotten that he vowed to end a culture of cronyism that has given Sri Lanka’s ports sector a dark, deep, and murky reputation as a seabed of corruption. On the first day of his new ministry, the ex-Captain Cool affirmed: “I have a big responsibility to clean up this place.” He added: “My priority is to fight corruption and also to make sure that corrupt politicians are not accommodated on our side.” Brothers, evidently, don’t belong in that pool… or to the promise made… Au contraire, the controversial Sri Lanka skipper has challenged his detractors: “If he (Dhammika) has the necessary qualifications, then why not?”

Arjuna’s critics have been no less trenchant: Here’s one, a rightly indignant citizen, as cited in *Colombo Telegraph: 

“What on earth is Arjuna Ranatunga thinking? This is not good governance. This is clearly nepotism, which is something which Mr. Ranatunga said he stood against when he asked us to reject Rajapaksa Brothers Private Limited and asked for our vote. He asked for our vote while standing on the platform of good governance. And now, although Mr. Ranatunga says his brother is qualified, he has not said what these qualifications are. Neither has he demonstrated that his brother is better qualified than other candidates. Sri Lanka has a large shipping industry with experienced people who have an understanding of the problems and the solutions that would be practical. Has the Minister successfully encouraged the most qualified and experienced people to apply for the job? This is the Minister’s responsibility. If he says that no one better could be found, then it is the Minister that is not doing his job properly!”

Such outraged interlocutors would rightly question what exactly the Minister’s brother’s previous experience in the shipping industry is. For starters, does he have any special qualifications and experience – or, at least, a proven track record of effective management in a related area that would justify his appointment? Or is it belonging to that elite cricketing fraternity that finds favour with the paterfamiliases of local politics that brings the likes of the Ranatungas and the Sanath Jayasuriyas to the fore, to the crease, to bat for themselves?

B. Be the public sector as it may, the Govt. ranks are not exempt from such favouritism. Or, to be fair by the politicos who feel that they are sometimes compelled to make such appointments, these are ‘pragmatic’ choices. For even under Good Governance, the nobler type of politician around today could also have fingers pointed at them for presenting their kith and kin with key cabinet or state portfolios. Such appointments to key and/or sensitive posts may be passed off as being the best among the worst of the options available. 

This, of course, begs the question: whose interests such options and appointments serve? Because the relatively (no pun intended) young and/or inexperienced people who are appointed to such key/sensitive posts are sometimes simply scions of some influential family whose ambit spans empires, republics, polities, and who are closely related to the powers that be. There are skeletons in the closet of virtually every Administration since the 1972 Republican Constitution as regards this form of nepotism. 

One would not be far wrong to interpret such appointments to strategic and sensitive ministries in the context of political and family ties… One might even admit the prevailing or perceived need to provide a bulwark for the party in power against its unlikely coalition with its former opposition. Party stalwarts might offer a sterling defence against charges of nepotism, citing the pragmatic nature of such appointments, overlooking the primary criterion of suitability or seniority. But the general public must be forgiven for seeing at least a smidgen of family influence in the provenance of such appointments. 

The fact and principle of the matter is that merely being a relative shouldn’t give anyone any clout with the powers that be. Allegedly nepotistic appointees may not themselves seek or receive any preferential treatment by virtue of such family links. But if the rot that has been rife in the public sector is not to ruin Government’s reputation, Caesar must not only be above suspicion but be seen to be above such suspicion! 

That the earth has moved in 2015 is not in doubt. But could it be that the axis of Sri Lankan politics has only shifted demonstrably: from one ‘dynastic democracy’ and culture of governance to another?

C. Chairman – Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT), P. G. Kumarasinghe Sirisena, a brother of President Maithripala Sirisena, may best illustrate the third strand of the argument – that there is intrinsically nothing to deny him the position appointed unto him. Some might say, “let’s forget” that this other Sirisena was also the CEO/General Manager of the State Timber Corporation from 2006 to December 2014 while being a Board Director at Land Reclamation & Development Company. Others will say, “remember” that he was the Coordinating Secretary to the Leader of the House for half a year. More will want us to “recall” that this Sirisena also served at various times as Board Director of various organisations such as Mahaweli Engineering Services and the State Development & Construction Corporation. Many will have his PR machine “quote” his professional qualifications ad nauseam. 

What most will choose not to “mind too much” now is that President Maithripala Sirisena during his celebrated manifesto presentation promised that he would not give prominence to family connections when making state appointments – an abysmal failure of the former regime which Sirisena & Co. criticised vociferously on the then campaign trail. Unabashed by all the attention, the President’s brother once reportedly vowed to secure “full executive powers” at Sri Lanka Telecom, declaring that he does not want professionals running things at SLT and is seeking greater powers to override such people. “I will speak to my brother about!” This may be only the *Jungle Telegraph, but it is certainly a telling insight into the potential dangers of nepotism.

Thus to argue that there is no one better suited or more qualified is a cynical view, especially if no pains have been taken to prove that contention – or it is obvious that other agendas militate.


#4 Nepotism must be made normative

Given all that has transpired and been argued above, there is only one decent, democratic, demonstrably sensible thing to do. Nepotism must be made illegal. Its practice must be rendered unconstitutional. Those guilty of it made liable for malpractice under criminal law.

Or, ironically, nepotism must be made Standard Operating Procedure for all state bodies, statutory establishments, etc. And the burden of proof placed on the appointing authority to prove before a Parliamentary Select Committee that the allegedly nepotistic appointee is, in fact and in deed, the best person for the job at hand. 

This is a truly subversive view. It will take time for the irony to sink in.