Some years ago, when the then President of Sri Lanka came in for calumny for having his son accompany him in a prominent way to a UN summit, a few of us partially sympathised with his plight. I mean to say: if I was head of state of a newly-minted island-nation or some banana republic like Belarus, I would take my offspring with me wherever I went. Especially if the little woman wouldn’t come, didn’t make the cut, couldn’t find the time. There is not much merit in the comfort of strangers if I’m in a foreign capital and have to rely on pay-per-view TV for (shall we say) 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… in short, family matters!
Now nepotism, on the other hand, is a matter of the mind… If you don’t mind – it doesn’t matter! Not so nice, the way the good governance-loving general public gets their family jewels in a twist at the mere mention of the same issue, is it? At least when the cockerels who crowed over other would-be crown princes find their dirty linen come home to roost. So I mix my metaphors! What of it, when politicos combine money laundering with mega development – and mincing hypocrisy, to boot?
One can understand if the aunts were in agony over strangulated underwear thrown at Enrique and the Rajapaksa Regime, the latter of which were prone to globetrot at taxpayers’ expense and treat the commonwealth as a personal empire or state coffers as some privatised petty cash till. And the incident of almost three years ago was not in relation to the Huns of Hambantota humbugging their way across the political sphere. But about another tribe of apparently family-oriented Vandals from a more ancient province crowning their princes with premature glory. And today it is the same incumbent who’s sitting pretty whose large contingents on state junkets that’s coming under fire… from the same quarters that critiqued him the first time… as well as challenged the right of the Sons, Bros. & Co. to piggyback to petty power on papa’s coattails.
I’ll come to the latest excesses (Rs. 120 m for a 60-strong contingent) in a moment. But first: who are we to carp and cavil about the family life of our leaders? And isn’t just about everybody who is anybody doing it, anyway? Just take a quick gander at the state of the country today. Don’t business leaders burn shoe leather in tandem with the midnight oil so that their sons and heirs can inherit the family’s mercantile empire? Can’t civil society champions pass on the mantle of challenging the status quo to their daughters and other dearly beloved? Won’t it be par for the course if politicos were to bring up the fruit of their loins in the family business? Well, two out of three is a pass mark… for a newly democratised nation-state, that is! Be business and society as it may, it behoves the powers that be to tow civil, constitutional and civilizational lines.
There was a time not long out of mind when we all lived in a simpler world. Where family values all over the Commonwealth, for instance, held sway over cabbages and kings. (The British monarchy might prove 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 (as Vespasian did with Titus and later Domitian) or adopted son cum great-nephew (old uncle Julius with Augustus Caesar or Tiberias with Nero) the imperator-to-be. Any problem with it, O ye plebes? Off with your heads! Take our own Republican Empire (motto: “Uncle! Nephew! Party!”) that some of us have been building since our first proper constitution, where the Grand Old Man of the Grand Old Party clearly created the executive presidency for a closely related executor to inherit. Any comment from the gallery or even the floor of the House? Offer them a Cabinet post 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 that’s a sufficient condition to safeguard a more inclusive plurality or representative polity. In any halfway decent democracy, a duly elected head of state who takes his progeny along on a peachy joy ride is begging for impeachment. In a true republic 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. Once upon a time we might have been constrained to ask: “Am I my brother’s keeper, Captain Cool?” Apparently, I am! Or rather, he is! And where did the portly ports minister get the concept from, you ask? Perhaps from the same head of state who made a call and appointed his own flesh and blood to the top telecom post… So, nepotism not only runs in the family; it infects other families, businesses, and family businesses too!
Satirical about sovereignty
Now in an only lightly satirical piece like this (simply ‘MY VIEW’ this week – and not an op-ed column by any stretch of the imagination), 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… For far from being brought to book for alleged past misdemeanours, today they’re throwing the book back at the Good Governance Battalion with accusations of selling state sovereignty to the highest bidder while quite publicly auctioning the family silver. And while the Greens’ own boys in blue continue to abscond in the face of Interpol and be roundly MIA to the embarrassment of anyone less sterling than a stalwart with premier unflappability! The Red Bud Brigade rattles its sabres with the least care in the world that one of its former mandarins will ever be held accountable for the Damocles’ swords of sundry deaths and disappearances being the charges still laid at his feet…
But this comment (now he tells us) is not about nepotism or nefarious gangsters under a former governmental regime being at large with impunity (and more is the pity)! It is about how the new political culture has demonstrated, under the rule of men entirely great who have tolerated the pen and withheld the knives and knuckledusters, is making hay while the son (sorry, sun!) shines. That the president who persuaded his offspring to accompany him to an international summit once upon a time has apparently repented and forsaken family for the sake of friends and cronies is a lamentable coming of wisdom with time. It is one in which realpolitik corrodes, pragmatic politics corrupts infinitely, and powerful leaders are almost always led by their hangers-on and other unsalutary values such as temporary survival over the statesmanship for which posterity will remember you.
And we can only end with a word of caution to anyone who might be contemplating nominating their offspring or appointing their related protégés to public office. Just don’t do it! The money might be good, and the power trip may keep you going; but the hard time you will get from the sea-green incorruptible lobby in Sri Lanka’s leading political newspaper isn’t worth your money or their time… But do go with the flow and support friends and half-life allies without fear or favour. For corruption as a word to polemicise political favours isn’t half as naughty or condemnatory sounding as nepotism.
END PIECE CODA: Wimal Weerawansa and his ilk want the state to stop using taxpayer money to pay compensation for kith and kin of slain LTTE cadre. If such watchdogs would bark more at junkets on which the JVP much less the NFF never get invited, snap at burgeoning plutocrats’ ankles and lap less at the unlickable feet of grand ex-despots, we’d be a saner more sensible republican polity.
(Journalist | Editor-at-large of LMD | Writer #SpeakingTruthToPower.)