Pinch me, someone: I think I’m dreaming. In the past 120 days, the country has undergone a sea-change into something rich and strange. So much so that not even democracy-loving citizens who went to sleep slaves on 8 January would recognise the republic into which they are slowly awakening four months later. And I know that no one needs to elaborate on what – and how – dramatic transformation has been effected.
For those of you who have been reading this column for the past few months, even the most radical changes that we have witnessed could be viewed through one of four lenses. The “naive”: in which things are as they seem to be, and every action and intention of the government can be trusted; the “necessary”: in which the incumbent administration is taking pragmatic steps while demonstrating both sincerity and seriousness; the “strategic”: which is the cynical view that the national unity government is doing its best under the circumstances to come out on top of a less than ideal situation, while manipulating itself into the best possible position; and the “subversive”: whereby everything is not as it seems – in fact vested interests and hidden agendas dominate virtually all political goings-on on centre-stage.
Could it be that we were wrong about the third and fourth prisms? Should we at least now admit that all the words and the works of the 100+ days were neither “strategic” in the cynical sense nor “subversive” in a condemnable way, but simply “necessary” and “naive”? Would it be premature to throw in the towel of critical engagement (which is what we have striven to do, in keeping with the present leadership’s avowed intention of encouraging and endorsing a culture of dissent) – or would that make the independent media hand-in-glove with a manipulative apparatus that is still worth analysing, if not dismantling?
Consider some of the salient points militating in favour of the argument that it is premature to applaud government in terms of measuring its achievements against its agenda. Some major players in the previous regime who are perceived to be guilty of corruption and/or abuse of power are yet to be brought to book... while relatively small fish continue to be netted – and some big fish close to the powers that be seem off the hook... and are argued to be in the clear. Still also to demonstrate the strength of their mettle are parliamentary oversight committees and the proposed National Audit Bill that will bolster state financial oversight, to say nothing of the much vaunted independence of the independent commissions and the Right to Information Bill. (Of course, with 19A now in the bag, all will be well... it is posited – and we have no reason to be less than positive.)
Be that as it may, there is still much to be said in praise of many of its men and their motives, even when weighed against the burden of their evident machinations and manipulations.
For one, the Premier. For all the insinuations that Parliament was being held hostage by one man’s political ambitions, this sea-green incorruptible has more than demonstrated his willingness to allow principle to prevail over pragmatic politics. That his desire for democratic checks and balances triumphed over personal feelings is to his credit vis-à-vis the previous regime’s strong-arming of anyone – or any institution – that stood in its way. That this meant bowing gracefully before the Supreme Court’s pronouncements on proposed constitutional reform which compromised the full thrust of 19A will always be to his and his party’s credit.
For another, the propagandists for Government at Cabinet and ministerial level. For all the allegations and accusations that 19A was not in the national interest, they persevered in their defence – in public and in private – of this groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting, piece of legislation.
That they did their duty with arguably good grace under pressure was heartening. That they did not resort to personal attacks vilifying political opponents or even pressing the matter to the extent of political thuggery – as had become custom in the recent past – is hardly to their credit (with the nation expecting nothing less of exemplars of ‘good governance’, although they gave as good as they got in parliamentary repartee). But it resonates well with the promises made of a new political culture.
Last – but by no means least – the President himself. Really, some media have exhausted superlatives in praising this spirit of democratic-republicanism incarnate (as it were). For our own part, permit us to draw a parallel with a historical figure who bears many resemblances to our man of the hour.
In the person and work of Maithripala Sirisena, we are reminded of the Roman statesman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who whose services to the republic had – as has been noted – made him a model of civic virtue. Despite hailing from the heartland of republican aristocracy (a Roman ‘Raja Rata’, if you like to think of it like that), Cincinnatus lived humbly and simply. He managed his own small farm, until his nation-state had need of him, and called him to serve as ‘dictator’ (a Roman ‘executive president’ with corrosive powers, if you will).
Leading the charge against the dangerous tribes that threatened the peace and stability of Rome (a potential Roman regime-change, if you can bring yourself to see the analogy), he resigned from his all-powerful office two weeks after the task for which he was mandated by the Roman people was completed (a transfer of power back into the people’s hands, which parallel with our president you will no doubt be quick to spot).
As one online source describes his achievement and character: “His immediate resignation of his near-absolute authority with the end of the crisis has often been cited as an example of outstanding leadership, service to the greater good, civic virtue, lack of personal ambition and modesty. As a result, he has inspired a number of organisations and other entities, many of which are named in his honour.” (From that classic fount of information, Wikipedia, a most plebeian of sources to have plumbed for so patrician an ethos!)
Tradition has it (as I remember it from an albeit cursory study of Greek and Roman civilisation) that when the senatorial delegation from the capitol first approached Cincinnatus to appoint him Dictator, he was reputed to have told his wife: “Rome has more need of me than my garden at this time.”
The same school of thought attributes this saying to him when the grateful senate wished to make him Dictator-for-life: “My garden has more need for me now than Rome does.” Wikipedia tells us: “He then resigned his dictatorship and returned to his farm, a mere fifteen days after he had been nominated dictator.”
The die is cast. Our President has cast his lot in with the democratic-republicans, having eschewed all claims and ambitions of a powerful, attractive, and potentially corrupting presidency. He has been cast – or cast himself – in the mould of a Cincinnatus, as his 120 days have more than amply demonstrated.
But there are other fasces to refuse, other perks and privileges to be rescinded – by him and his cohorts and consuls. And the historical Cincinnatus refused to hold on to power for a day longer than it was rightfully granted to him to have and to hold – not once, but twice. Such an opportunity might well present itself to our man of the moment soon enough. For with a 120 days being up comes 20A into contention, and the attendant opportunity for president cum party leader cum coalition chair to play the part of a statesman yet again – putting nation above national unity government, native party, and natural self and its ambitions.
Maithripala Sirisena will have to walk another tightrope between being remembered as a national saviour or a party-pooper. We wish him well And pray that he will not bow to, bend over, or buckle under pressure from the royally ambitious anti-republican lobby he met with this week. This is not the time or place to even consider handing the fasces – in any shape or form – back to the folks who would be king in his place.