The good, the bad, and the ugly – and how it is harder to tell them apart now

Friday, 25 August 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


As with many other champions of just causes, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe may have gone from campaigning for justice to becoming just another crusader out to claim his own rights and privileges. But unlike many other pseudo-democrats who traverse the primrose path from paada yaathra to walking the national interest tightrope, WR may still stand tall – or find his way back into a Cabinet seat – if the pragmatic brand of politics practised by his parties and their leaders necessitates it. Once a Man for all Seasons – advocate for social issues, devil’s advocate on knotty political dilemmas, not so nice nationalist for personal power-oriented reasons, perhaps – the former justice minister is a case in point for the impermanence of all things political. There are no permanent friends in governance; but civics and/or chauvinism will redound to the increasing visibility of stellar bigots and star-crossed bureaucrats in civics and country matters


In-laws can be a source of mirth as much as the fountain of mercy. (I’m playing it safe here, folks.) After all, they bring us our spouses in the same breath as they bring us grief and grouses, but also offer common or garden goodness. 

So when one matriarchal member made a pronouncement on the recently beleaguered justice minister, it was with mixed feelings that I received her conventional wisdom. Do take it with a pinch of attic salt, trite though it be. For a rose by any other name would smell as sweet in summer or as sour in the fall. Here is what the revered in-law said: “I never trusted that Rajapakshe fellow. He has the same name as the other lot of bad eggs…”

If this isn’t casting false pearls before real swine, I’ll eat my hat. But you must admit, there is some merit to ‘mother-in-lawwisdom’. Since the only-yesterday embattled Justice Minister’s removal, her words have taken on a new meaning in the light of the Rajapaksa not-quite namesake’s exeunt. 

Claiming principled integrity and personal injury in the same breath, the former minister’s Parthian shot has left an impression in some minds at least that there is more than one way to skin a fat-cat – or sell the family silver. Combining vitriol at the Central Bank bond scandal – the Government’s bête noire – and victimhood at his own blasé sacking over alleged violation of Cabinet responsibility, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has captured the nation’s attention if not its entire sympathy.

It might be hard for many if not most to empathise with a loud-mouthed braggart. WR was not one such – at least, his dulcet tones announcing his lamentable removal have my m-i-l convinced that there may be more to the man than meets the eye; despite or because of his unfortunate moniker. 

“He speaks well,” she said, with a hint of puzzlement. “Is he a good guy, then?” she asked, as I moved off into the middle distance with an air of detachment. I mean, why ask me? After all, I am (only) a (humble) journalist – “I know nothing,” as another worthy assured the world, shortly before he committed that humbling act of hara-kiri which politicos know as resignation! 

For all I know, they may all be good guys… WR, RK, et al. – and it might be RW, MS & Co. who are the villains of the piece. MR – that arch-villain in the pièce de résistance of all administrations – seems to think that the fault lies in the stars as well as in Brutus and Cassius. Brutus and Cassius themselves have agreed to meet at Philippi, or have already met at the Prime Minister’s 40th Anniversary in Politics Bash, or the honeymoon’s second-anniversary after party. 

Milieu: the middle of a mixed up mash-up

In such a milieu, it is hard to tell any more who the good guys are and who the bad and ugly. On the one hand, some politicos slide from being good to becoming bad overnight before going on to be perceived as an ugly has-been until power and position beckon again – as perhaps can be argued happened to Tilak Marapone. 

On the other, certain power-brokers leverage their position with such canny savvy as to be all things to all people by design, and by default are seen as good, bad, and ugly in one breath – as maybe Ravi Karunanayake is now regretting for having played the man for all seasons. In extremis (for he, unlike these two above, was removed rather than stepping down or being compelled to fall on the sword) is Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe – positioned and being positioned as valiant hero, hapless victim, and hypocritical villain by himself and his swains as well as critics.

So is WR a hero for standing his ground on Hambantota being sold for a song, as he says it is? Or is he a victim of a mercurial Government’s fickle barometer that has its best and brightest – as well as its individualistic bad-asses – fall on their swords when they’ve been naughty boys… and refused to toe the line… or danced some idiosyncratic baila on their own? Or is he just another hypocritical politico hungry for power, who’s using his 15 minutes of present infamy to crown himself with possible future glory? 

Because, while ‘principles’ are the first line of a fallen politico’s defence and ‘patriotism’ the last refuge of the scoundrel, being a nuisance to and being a nationalist – and being both – are sure-fire ways to endear oneself to the prelate as well as the public. Maybe, there’s more than a modicum of truth to the maxim that one man’s meat is another’s poison when the banquet is a Government bash, and that there are no permanent friends in politics – merely artists who make the possible a reality for a time under the sun.

Smidgen: the quintessence of a smorgasbord

So for a time under a now-forgotten sun, WR was the quintessential straight-arrow politico. The old SLFP can take more than a 02smidgen of pride in its erstwhile blue-eyed boy. Then there were the halcyon days… when as the ostensible champion of anticorruption drives under an antidemocratic PA, he could more than COPE with the embraces of the UNP and NGOs/INGOs alike – even to the extent of being nominated widely-read business magazine LMD’s ‘Sri Lankan of the Year’ in 2007… an accolade to which this writer was partial, and a party to whom yours truly was privy to present the award collegially with the editors of LMD. 

There was lately the patronage he extended to violent bad-mouthed bigots, who had previously enjoyed the support and protection of powerful bureaucrats then ruling the roost. WR adopting them, championing them, and eventually supplanting them when their most verbose venerable was taken out of the jingoistic equation made him attractive to the JO in particular and ethno-nationalists in general. Which, of course, blotched his escutcheon a bit with global villagers, but enamoured him to the mahanayakas and dayakayas of the Buddha Sasana Ministry of which WR was (justly, his defenders said) minister. 

Even if others, including the ministerial incumbent himself, saw it as just a stepping stone to higher office, since the Justice Ministry was not all that WR desired or deserved (as he probably felt himself – QED.). His evolution from a crime-buster MP into a post-corruption crusader against minorities made him least likely to secure elitist laurels of the like of LMD again. But interestingly it was guaranteed to win him friends in high places in the SLFP from where he originated, while giving the UNP that grass-roots (read ‘Sinhala Buddhist’) edge it lacked, and cravenly desired. However, it was the Justice Minister’s open defiance of the Government’s stand on bringing mandarins of the previous Government to book that first got him into trouble. 

Be that as it may, it was a convenient stumbling-block to the powers that be, to have no less than its Justice Minister allegedly obstructing the course of justice. Allegations that a senior bureaucrat of the regime past had found his home in the then Justice Minister’s heart brought tears of rage to those in the ranks of Tuscany who (like Cato of old) would mutter, “Carthage must be destroyed” – Cato being the grim would-be prosecutors of Rajapaksa & Co. and Carthage being the & Co. bit of that cabal. 

All in all, it reflected badly on the present ethos of justice that pragmatic coalitions wield over their political opponents’ heads like a Damocles’ sword – you never know when the instrument of execution would descend (or so the public thought); while insiders suspected it never would: a deal having been struck that “like that, let’s go” (ohoma yung!).

If none of this answers my mother-in-law’s question as to whether WR was good, bad, or ugly, there’s a fair enough explanation to be essayed. In politics – in cabinets as in kitchens – things are rarely pure and never simple. If governance was ever pure and simple, the good the bad and the ugly would have been bought to book, locked up, and the key thrown away long ago. 

Is a politico – or his party or platform or principles or patriotism – good or bad or ugly is simply to frame the question in the purest of naïve forms. It is either both or all, a free-for-all in which the arrogant villains rub shoulders with the alleged victims so intimately that in a particularly political interpretation of the uncertainty principle it is impossible to predict the position and the predisposition of any given politico at the same time. If you doubt this premise or question its practical value, perhaps a faux-exam of the type I usually administer to my in-laws might help you:

End of Term Paper

A.  Essays.

1. Explain why ministers are falling like ninepins in Good Governance. Say bad things about Hambantota’s many humbugs and ugly things about pragmatic politics. 

(Full marks if you manage to alliterate ‘Hambantota’ with ‘humbugs’ and ‘pragmatic politics’ with ‘president’ and ‘prime minister’.)

2. State a case for Cabinet accountability. Is anyone who violates it a basket case… or simply a selfish little bad boy playing to the gallery? 

(No marks for confusing one Rajapakshe with the other Rajapaksas.)

3. Say that there is no merit in Cabinet ministers being sacked under Good (or Bad or Ugly) Governance. Go on, I dare you to essay it!

(Marks will be allocated on a quota basis, or on strict rotation of portfolios.)

B. Short Answers.

1.Say that you love me.(Be brief.) Even if you leave me or I have to let you go for show so that you can come back in one day through the back door. (Debrief.)

2. Attempt to sell the family silver. (Be careful.) Analyse how port projects in the Deep South are different from national assets in the north east. (Be creative.)  

3. Stop wasting time and bring Gota, Basil, & Co. to book. (Be short about it.) Or, if you find that too hard or too hypocritical – given the skeletons in your own closet – start marking time by bringing Madam and Junior to court. (Be as hard as you like. Or hypocritical if you are a big old softy who can’t be bothered prosecuting anyone as long as they let you play at being princely democrat or petty dictator in your party.What, you are already doing that? Well then, don’t bother answering this shortly.)


1. WR being removed because he behaved stubbornly on a personal power issue – he’s a nationalist – butsincerely in the national interest – he has a personal power stake – is:


b. Bad

c. Ugly

d. Who knows? 

2. RK removing himself from an office to which he had been rotated as a sort of a temporary punishment transfer is:

a. Good 

b. Bad

c. Ugly

d.There is nothing good or bad, but RK thinking about it makes it ugly in the fullness of time… and boy, is that man’s thinking cap screwed on something!

3. TM removing himself from one portfolio and being reappointed to another in due course is:

a. Good 

b. Bad

c. Ugly

d. That way of all flesh: that there are no permanent black sheep in an all grey state!

4. TM removing himself from one portfolio (he got caught out) and being reappointed to another in due course (no one remembers Avant-Garde now except SF) is:


f. Bad

g. Ugly

h. An umpteenth instance of it paying to fall on your sword before you’re stabbed in the back by folks who wouldn’t deign to spit in your face. (Smile. You’re on camera, minister.) 

Well… did you pass? If you did, perhaps you’ve missed the point! The idea is not to pass… but fail… because those who pass muster are expected to perform – while those who fail can live to ‘sit the exam’ another day, another way, another instalment of the dirty game to play. 

If that isn’t good, bad, and ugly rolled into one at the single throw of the dice, you must be related to me on my wife’s side… or be so pure and simple that politics might appear like some sort of a holy grail in a glamorous romance – in which case: turn off the radio; crumple up this newspaper; and get thee to a nunnery. 

In today’s cut and thrust and dump and pump, there’s no room for naïve and sentimental lovers of good governance, bad boys, or ugly things that do not go quietly into the night; but slink away silently until the time is opportune for a comeback through the rear entrance – pun perhaps perversely intended.

(The writer is a former Editor of LMD.)

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