THE LONG MARCH: Government is good at walking the talk on anti-corruption drives and is no doubt sincere in the main about stemming the rotten tide. However, civil society together with the genuine elements of the powers that be, have to do more than tangibly symbolise its stance against graft and crookedness in every form ... it will have to march concertedly against past – and present – offenders.
Colombo’s traffic reforms are a nice metaphor for Sri Lanka’s governance praxis. There are many solutions to the persistent problems in both spheres, but the problem is that the solutions are persistently mediocre. On the one hand, the lane discipline schema introduced by the city’s traffic police officials is welcome, long overdue, and a nuisance to all and sundry – at least in its teething stages. On the other, the prosecution of corrupt officials allegedly guilty of crimes from petty bribery to what you might describe as grand larceny is equally welcome, also a long time in the coming, and frustratingly slow ...
It’s patently obvious – in both arenas of endeavour – that the law enforcement machine, which had been brutally hijacked or kidnapped, tortured, forced to veer off course, and crash into a wall (while burning the evidence in the process – there is a metaphor here too), is getting back on track. The issue is – the issues are – not as manifest.
For starters, in both fields, progress is slow.
Lane discipline has been the need of the hour since we had lanes and every motorist who passed their driving test without greasing their examiner’s palm was familiar with the expected code of conduct. And enforcing it now could well descend into legalism if it doesn’t get into the DNA of all drivers and chauffeurs on our roads. So, hats – and kid gloves – off, please. It is a long haul to ensuring that we all follow the rules of the road without prowling policemen waiting to pounce like the Assyrian coming down like a wolf on the fold, his cohorts all gleaming in purple prose and gold from your purse!
Good governance has been incumbent for nearly a year now. It has shared its mind – whether as a sincere vision or cynical strategy to win voters’ hearts – on how the law can and must apply. However, the long arm of the law’s majestic reach continues to look like it is – or has been – drastically foreshortened. We read with mixed feelings about small fry such as crooked cops in charge of suburban police stations being interdicted. But alleged whales evidently swim free with ostensible sharks, while thrashing the waters all around them with invective and hot air directed at political opponents and expedient friends. Name the biggest, most senior, or longest standing crook or thief or swindler prosecuted to date ... see? It’s a good start in the right direction. But nowhere near quick enough to satisfy the clarion call of justice – one which government itself made ... so, what now?
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The powers that be promised to do good, and they promised to do it soon, but have been bogged down by the law’s delays and unforeseen procedural road-blocks.
DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: Verbal promises are not worth the electoral papers that they’re not written down on. In other words, all talk and little – if any – real action has left the polity feeling silly, stupid, and strategically exploited; and cynical or foolish, un-far-thinking political manifestoes and manipulators must now take the brunt of the blame.
This is not to say that it’s brickbats all the way. There are many bouquets to be handed out to several stalwarts in government – and deservedly, at that. These sterling espousers of good governance have stuck to it through thick and thin, and persevered with the principles they not only mouthed on the campaign trail. The number of such strong advocates and practitioners of righteous rule is so small, though, so as to make a mockery of mistaking one successful criminal prosecution for the glorious ushering in of a new political culture.
As long as the big guns (and there is metaphor and allegory here as well) continue to lurk behind the scenes – maybe not as large as life as they were in their heyday, but still for all that a blot on the landscape and an amorphous menace – there can be no rest for the wicked (and/or the good).
In similar vein, one can only hope and trust in the staying power of the police (and parliamentary mechanisms alike) to ensure that lane discipline (as much as law enforcement) continues to be the rule and not the exception – or a seasonal flutter – which will die down as soon as the silly season is over ...
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Lane disciple laws – like many other by-laws and proposed reforms (one-ways, uni-flow, ring roads, outer circular railways, a metro) – are a flash in the pan. These won’t last ... they rarely – if ever – do.
DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: There seems to be a happy meeting of minds. At least in the lane-discipline drive, a concatenation of police coercion and public cooperation is working well to establish the rightness of the way things ought to be, or ought to have always been. One prays it will last, this time round.
The fact that government seems to be steady in its avowed purpose to create a lawful society is good. The truth that good governance is hampered and hindered in its agenda (whether openly stated or hidden in vested interests) is bad news for a paradigm change-expecting public. That there is a third possible dimension to the way things are and the way things are happening gives one pause for thought. For the possibilities are concealed in plain sight – and are quite ugly.
On the fast track, the road and highway labyrinth out there is undergoing a sea-change into something rich and strange. For the first time in years, if not decades, motorists are sticking to their lanes – even if it is an excruciatingly slow lane ... For observing the law in an outdated, outmoded, system often means that controlled chaos ensues. The fact is that lane discipline is a must if Colombo (or any other urban or metropolitan) traffic is to be orderly, regulated, user-beneficial. The truth is that, as things are now, there are too many cars and too many cops on our roads. One – or both – of these have to go. And government in general and those in authority over road passenger transport in particular have to stop making concessions to every puerile protestor who asks for exceptions for their sector. But none of the reforms will make sense to common or garden motorists as long as licensed thugs running politico-owned bus companies or shadowy street-fighters jack-knifing trishaws for powerfully connected drug and prostitution ring-running mudalalis are let off the hook ... on the road, or in the police station, no sooner their puppet masters’ strings are revealed.
In the political arena, a similar ethos – or the lack of any kind of ethic – might be said or seen to prevail. The aweful majesty of the law which good governance promised has apparently deteriorated into an awful legalism. Where once righteous dissidents and republican dissenters and other anti-establishment figures critical of the then regime feared the #whitevan persecution, crooks and criminals and cabals remnant from the previous administration now fear #white-collar prosecution. The straight-arrow FCID of a legalistic administration has effectively replaced the crooked-bow CID and TID of a grimmer regime. Even journalists whose hearts are pure and consciences clean are being made to feel that a Damocles’ sword hangs over the heads of them and their families, too.
Is this the rule of law, as we expected it? Or is it rule by law, as we never anticipated it would turn out to be? Can we expect that the allegedly monstrous and murderous mandarins of a dark age past will ever be brought to book? What can we anticipate will happen to the rest of us if the big guns get off the hook and the hoi polloi are selectively and systematically hauled over coals? It is these scapegoats who are praying a price for crimes committed in the name of those whose names could not be mentioned once ... it is they – and not the fall guys for their egregious crimes – who are still in the driving seat ... or so it seems from our naive and sentimental point of view...
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: It will all come right in the end.
DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: It will all to come to nothing in the end.
Civil society in Sri Lanka needs to take the wheel again. We can be neither civil nor a proper society if we won’t/don’t/can’t observe lane discipline as much as we fail to honour standing properly in a queue. Nor can we shake off the shackles of our immediate past until all the ghosts of oligarchic crimes committed in the name of war victory and graft-ridden rapid development are exorcised. THAT is the need of the hour ... NOT mindful-cops on civvy-street, but murderous-crooks behind steel-bars...