The great reversal

Friday, 13 May 2022 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


There are few words that fall more explosively into the wells of consciousness than speech after long silence. That the most recent televised misadventures came as something of an anticlimax is cause for much relief. The unkindest thing that could be said about the president’s thought process is that he is now a past-master at stirring up apathy if and when ‘his excellency’ deigns to address the nation. 

At least it was aired on a private TV channel; was mercifully brief, which was the best thing that could be said about it; and spared the polity any serious pretension of being a ‘national address’. 


All the president’s men

The chief executive was painfully laboured in his delivery but lamentably predictable in his deliberations. It is not his fault; it is never – what, never? well, hardly ever! – his fault. And the state of the nation is everybody else’s bane, burden and anarchical bucket-list in which to share the blame. 

Our head of state found himself unable to justify the extreme violence of the protestors who set fire to public property. However damnable he found their actions, at least his grace is no longer even trying to defend the lapses and excesses of his administration that led to the nation-wide outrage. 

Maybe he is tired of making excuse for ‘Big Brother’s” mistakes? Perhaps he is no longer persuaded by the dispassionate rationales spewed out by his now-discredited bureaucrats and others on whom the regime was banking? Either way, there was no mention of root causes of the present dire straits in which we find ourselves. Only the laboured point that he is at great pains to facilitate the solutions through political dialogue. Tell that to the marines, sir – ahem, the military traversing the mean streets. 

Meanwhile, the commander-in-chief took great delight in the imposition of Emergency regulations that are evidently his shield and buckler in this frightening milieu. And his majority-ordained, constitutionally-mandated ability to give orders to the security forces to shoot on sight obviously reassures the president more than it reassures the people from all walks of life who have been raising a clenched fist at an entrenched autocracy and speaking truth to power out of control for months. Their grievances didn’t warrant mention this time, apart from to say that he acknowledged their existence and is doing his utmost to eradicate them... the grievances, that is; not the grousing general public. Sorry.

The all-powerful head of government – post cabinet resignation en masse necessitated by the ignominious prime ministerial exit – was keen to major on military-led stability. While he assumes that the parliamentary establishment will play ball with his efforts to introduce the stability of the political culture, it was nowhere near being a nod to previously admitted ‘mistakes made’ and the admission that the ‘anger of the people is justified’. And the individual who he thinks is the head of a future cabinet that commands the confidence of parliament only indicates he is not likely to confess any more misdemeanours, much less contemplate steeping down from his high office or his high horse. 

The usual suspects whose names were being bandied about curfew-time cocktail circuit and emergency hamstrung social media only underlines how out-of-touch the political establishment is with the pulse of the people, and how tone-deaf our governors can choose to continue to be. 

Is it because they’re still ensconced in the corridors of power despite the baying at the barricades? Snug behind the state-erected military facades and armed battalions no longer confined to garrisons? And the illusion that their power stems from live ammunition against the soft flesh of a people starving for food, fuel, fertiliser, pharmaceuticals... and social justice?


A government of reversals

There were two surprises in the ten minutes of platitudes and clichés. 

First was the seeming willingness to re-enact – if not the 19th Amendment, then at least – the spirit of the reforms that saw the previous government chucked out on its ear in 2015. Were we hearing right: that this autocratic, all-powerful authoritarian was admitting that a system of checks and balances à la 19A is the need of the hour? And just like that, is arguably the most dictatorial national leader since possibly JR – that Old Fox who lumped us with the 'cheat sheet' against democracy – going to jettison 20A and that infamous 2/3rds? I wonder if this is the outcome (or upshot) of the talks GR has with that other OF (no, no, don't let your angry mind get you carried away... I meant 'Old Fox'!) Ranil ahead of his swearing-in yesterday for the umpteenth time as premier? 

Also, equally surprising, was Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s solemn undertaking to provide the space for everyone in the political arena to debate the abolition of the executive! The hunter in chasing the fox may be the unspeakable in pursuit of the unspeakable – but the fox, old or not, hunting itself is a fairy-tale pastime no one is going to buy. This, despite a deafening silence on the excesses of his regime and other administrations before him, which sowed the seeds of resentment against the executive presidency in the first place – to say nothing or reaping a harvest of iniquity using the most despotic of its official 

And, of course, even now, it’s merely “the usual suspects” (SLPP and SLFP MPs et al.) whom he means when GR says that ‘everyone’ will have say. The snubbed joint opposition will find itself rather hamstrung between the autocracy of Gota and the clinical technocracy cum realpolitik of RW.

Still, the penny hasn’t dropped with either of these two mandarins: that whether or not ‘GotaGoHome’ goes from ‘going’ to ‘gone’, the old political culture is well and truly on its way out as far as the peace-loving, justice-oriented, average-voter-joe, decent-jane, ordinary-juvenile-non-voter goes... even if the military says no more saying so on the streets, or the SJB and JVP suddenly lose their vim, vigour and vitality.  

So, can we assume that a tone-deaf president is being deaf to the cries that once emanated from all over Sri Lanka, especially the iconic Independence Square and the emblematic Galle Face Green? Now that Gotagogama (GGG) has been a. Invaded by MR’s goons; b. Tear-gassed and torn down by water-cannon wielded by GR’s troops; and c. Subversively dismissed by a fifth column leading a rearguard action to simultaneously discredit the corruption-exposing JVP and undermine the dangerously apolitical gravitas of the original GGG?


Too little, too late

A ‘Government of Reversals’ is one thing – it simply shores up the perception of an incompetent administration that once had two heads; who, between them, could not make up their mind to implement a single idea in a united fashion in the national interest without a plethora of gazettes to revoke them. Now, it has two who are clearly of one mind when it comes to a return to the system of checks and balances that one of the clearly repudiated; and which the people rejected in his name... 

A ‘reversal of government’ is quite another matter. It is content as well as style. The fate of a government and the future of a nation to say nothing of the fortunes of an entire country hinge on how serious the incumbent administration is on undoing its erstwhile mandate and ignoring its now-invisible majority.

It is a case in point for the critics of the regime to say ‘we told you so’. It is a cause for the champions of republicanism to espouse with renewed vigour and a rousing ‘let’s go ahead like this’. It is a concern for the cohorts of rascals who would cling perilously to the skirts of residual power in the executive now that the shrine of the egregious soothsayers are but dust beneath the chariots of rage and a right-royal wrath that razed it to the ground.

For one, the democratic impulse is a notoriously mercurial inclination. Will Gotabaya rally around RW’s “House” for a returning of the sceptre that many have craved and none wielded with honour? Or would the ostensible reforms come with an unacceptable litany of clauses included – a number of SLPP MPs to be guaranteed in the cabinet, an understanding that impunity from prosecution is assured to wrongdoers in the ousted administration, the guarantee that Gota himself will not have to ‘go home’ (now, or in 15 months as was a talking-point under an SJB PM-ship, or at all)?

For another, the constitutional ramifications could have a resounding impact that will reverberate will beyond the corridors of power if the system of checks and balances inherent in the 19th Amendment are, in fact, re-enacted. On the one hand, will the programme to clean up government take on fresh steam under the aegis of premier who can no longer seek refuge behind the screen of a putative Mr. Clean? On the other, will the country be taken to the cleaners again – and impunity for a larger and more inclusive set of rogues and strippers of national assets be the ongoing order of the day?

For yet another, even a government of convenience headed by a prime minister who is ostensibly adroit – and therefore best, his defenders would plead – at negotiating with the IMF can be sacked in the interim until the executive is denuded (the emperor is already naked). To all intents and purposes, even a weak, tired and seemingly defeated president still has all the powers of the all-powerful office once vested in him still vested in him. And it is not surprising the quantum of horse-trading that is being done around the paradigm shift from a presidential to a parliamentary ethos once more.

| Editor-at-large of LMD |

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