The movements and men of the moment who mustered 19A or militated against it
Thursday, 30 April 2015 00:00
The fact that game-changing nation-saving legislation such as 19A struggled in the womb so much before it could be born is a good thing. At least in the opinion of those who have gotten over the disillusionment of the somewhat dubious ethic that was bipartisan politics and its passing.
For one, it reassured us that democratic dissent and due process (consultation, compromises, consensus) â€“ whether good, bad, or ugly â€“ was alive in the legislature. For another, it demonstrated that â€“ ironically enough â€“ democratic republicans seeking paradigm-shifting reform can have their heartâ€™s desire stymied by the very independence of the judiciary that they so strongly espoused, then endorsed, and engendered. Yet for all the hassle and heart-ache and horse-trading, there appears to be something enduring â€“ if not endearing â€“ about the third and perhaps most influential arm of government. For the executive presidency, especially its egregious abuse â€“ like some undesirable bit of detritus bobbing about in the cistern of civic society â€“ has for some time refused to be flushed down the tube of history. Until now, that is.
There can be many reasons why this most powerful of offices has refused to go up to now, and why it has gone only now. And no doubt over the next fortnight or so, many will essay educated guesses as to why the executive has proven to be so resilient in the face of antipathy on one hand (â€śfor Godâ€™s sake, go!â€ť) and apathy (â€ścome or go, Chicago?â€ť) on the other. Here is one way of looking at how and why 19A came to the pass that it came to earlier this week before it was passed. It entails seeing the groundbreaking bit of legislation being ratified through four dimensions in which politics is done. It involves at least two executives and their profiles/legacies, and their contribution â€“ for bad, or better â€“ leading up to the pass we as a nation have come to today, and passed the day before yesterday. It is brief, personal, opinionated.
MR, the man
Maybe there is no better embodiment in our time of the Aristotelian cum Twainish dictum that man is a political, social, and religious animal. A seasoned politician with a shrewd understanding of people, perhaps it was inevitable that his over four-decades-long vocation should create a personality cult to go with the political career. And add muscle to an already mesomorphic presidency. If JR had Gamini in mind, perhaps he would have thought twice if he could have foreseen the MR-driven and -designed 18A that would make 19A oh-so-necessary.MR, the movement
The poet Eliot observed that in our beginning is our end. That may not be true of this politician. After a relatively mediocre start, he catapulted to fame â€“ and infamy â€“ in mid path. Having hailed from Hambantota District, his meteoric rise to power over every nook of the nation in later years eclipsed the middling responsibilities of former times. His juggernaut swept everything before it from the battlegrounds of Kotte Sri Jayawardanapura to the killing fields of Kilinochchi. In him, as in no other commander-in-chief since 1978, the chief executiveâ€™s role was to gain vigour and viciousness.
MR, the machine
With position and its attendant perks came privileges and the potential for proving Actonâ€™s extended reasoning that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely; that great men are almost always bad men; and that there is no greater heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. With absolute power also came parasites â€“ family, friends, fan clubs, sycophants â€“ who were to spell the beginning of the end; for there is no stronger reason for even the staunchest of former allies and compatriots to rebel â€“ and desert, as they did (and better late than never) â€“ other than that humankind cannot bear too much reality. With this development, dull roots were beginning to be stirred with the spring rain of the counter-movement to abolish and eradicate this ogre: a power- and money-making machine that brought the nation to the brink of banana republicanism.
MR, the monument
But despite the now-historical association with corruption, drug barons and ethanol kings, war-crime allegations and accusations that make his name legion, he will be remembered as â€“ if not a demigod that his propagandists once claimed him to be â€“ a war hero of sorts. Arguably, he was the key player whose agency and instrumentality ended the scourge of a brutal military conflict that had crippled Sri Lanka for decades. Today, there are certainly still a large number of islanders â€“ some 47 per cent of them (now less, maybe) â€“ who would give the devil his due, and want him to continue to hold the highest office. Their chance has been well and truly scuppered now, with the gravitas given to the term limit.
In this context, the most frenetic parts of the song and dance to have 19A passed by Parliament prior to being ratified by the Supreme Court could be said to be ad hominem. For all their espousal of republican virtues, the baser elements of the national unity government and its stalwarts are veterans at campaigning for or against personalities, as opposed to principles. Thus a keenness to usher in a new golden era of democracy, good governance, and the ethic put out by their partners in the UNP was more than overshadowed by the fear that an old beast was slouching towards the hot seat to be born again. As much as 19A was also clearly pro bono publico, the spectre of MRâ€™s possible and much-rumoured return to power compared and contrasted poorly with the demeanour of the new poster boy of the advocates of accountability, transparency, and the rest of that ethos.
That sterling persona can also be viewed four-dimensionally: MS, the man
Did I mention the poet Eliot, and his keen insight into the truth that in our beginning is our end? Well it works for certain stars in the emerging constellations. This relatively un-ambitious politician has, right along, rightly been able to wear the mantle of honesty, humility, sincerity, simplicity. But his less-than-charitable detractors might be loath to forget that he was for long an albeit senior policy-making part of a sometimes oppressive and often chauvinistic regime; the rationale now for his raison dâ€™etre then being academic given what he has done for us! Be that as it may, no one in recent local political history has been able to simultaneously shrug off the vice-like grip of a colourless and often clouded past, and grasp with firm hands the opportunity that the moment has offered to be remembered well â€“ if not in wonderment â€“ by posterity.
MS, the movement
Of course even the savviest of political leaders have to be coupled with the groundswell that swept them into the spotlight. For him, as for others, it is true that behind and beside every important mover and shaker there is a zeitgeist or irresistible spirit of the age. This has been the case for many other politicos subject to the strategies of ancient (I almost wrote Grand Old) parties and the tactical moves of emerging political personages and shifting power blocs. There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fame... and forgetfulness â€“ and the soft woozy feeling that comes to us when present dangers pass and we can see history being made in the 20:20 vision of hindsight. Which is to say that posterity will remember this president kindly no matter what the outcome of 19A. Or 20A. Or any other constitutional amendment.
MS, the machine
For better or for worse, we seem stuck â€“ for want of a better concept â€“ with a chief executive whose sole ambition is to rid himself and his once hapless people of all the trappings of an infinitely corruptible and corrosively influential office. That the President wanted Parliament to have supreme power and authority is more to his credit than it is to some Members of Parliamentâ€™s desire that the President continue enjoy the same as did his predecessors. Whichever way 19A goes from here in terms of its actual implementation â€“ watered down or with vim, vigour, and vitality â€“ we will all thank our lucky star that this manâ€™s ambition is not made of sterner stuff. (As it was once.)
MS, the monument
Well might he say that if we seek his monument, look all around him. But this sense of a work-in-progress â€“ a good man cum decent, clean, politico; possibly becoming a statesman â€“ has to be balanced by the pressures of realpolitik all around him. He might better be immortalised â€“ or at least remembered gratefully â€“ for the precarious juggling of diverse debts (gratitude for being called to play the role of political messiah, obligation to co-UFPAers) and sundry pushes and pulls (party, coalition, nation). If he serves out all six years due to him without a change of face to his present disposition of simplicity, sincerity, and statesmanship, the same demographic that now idolises an ex war hero might well begin to sing a different paean of praise to this man of the moment.
Now that 19A has been passed, sans some minor warts, but with major tweaks, the battle may have just begun. The negotiations and compromises behind closed doors in the last stage of the debate might have indicated that despite its overwhelming passage, 19A might have undergone committee-stage sea-changes into something rich and strange. (At the time of comment, not all the ramifications that had transpired was clear.)
The richest irony of it all might be that the man, the movement, the machine, and the would-be monument that wanted it all to begin with may not have done so in the end. Let us close this reflection with the ramifications of another four-dimensional analysis, albeit a briefer attempt to discern the depths of our democratic-republican transformation into a real nation-state again. For another key player bestrode the stage like a laid-back colossus in these heady daysâ€¦
RW, the man
Arguably, the politician with the longest view of any representative contesting for his electorateâ€™s approval and mandate. Born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, he has yet to develop the ability to walk with kings but still possess the common touch his voters and stakeholders would earnestly desire for him in the coming years, in forthcoming elections. Could he get carried away by the window of opportunity to secure his semi-permanent place in the political firmament as the harbinger of a justly peaceful parliamentary democracy with the requisite checks and balances? And neglect the enforcement of the independent committeesâ€™ mandates? The big picture must be balanced out by attention to detail sans fear or favour.
RW, the movement
Some men are born great. Some achieve greatness. Some have greatness thrust upon them. With this man, it might well be that all three are equally or successively true. Time and again, defeats (2004) and despair (2005-2015) notwithstanding, he and a stalwart few in the GOP have withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to get here. Now, by taking arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, he has ended â€“ for now â€“ the thrones and powers militating against the more salutary aspects of 19A. But there is still a gremlin in the machine that has to go.
RW, the machine
While corruption under the former regime began graspingly small and ended groaningly systemic, human nature runs through the veins of some of this sea-green incorruptible memberâ€™s veins, too. Admittedly smaller in scale, it is there in the GOPâ€™s endemic DNA, generously gracing (or disgracing) business and governmental circles. The Central Bank imbroglio proved that this is the Grand Old Partyâ€™s Achillesâ€™ heel. Achilles himself â€“ as in the famous paradox of Zeno (oh, look it up!) â€“ sometimes appears to be running a losing race... every time he reaches the point where the tortoise pitted against him was seen to be within grasp, the creature gains an infinitesimal inch on him. Nothing, not even independent commissions, can deny human nature its prey... we pray, then, that the new political culture which has the potential to emerge from all this will have the courage of the convictions of its ultimate mastermind.
RW, the monument
â€śWhen I die, if you open my heart, you will there find 19A written on it in stone â€“ of course, before it was desecrated by vandals with vested interests and hidden agendas.â€ť Naturally, no sentiment so base will escape this leaderâ€™s lips. Pity, that. If there was one thing the movement and the machine this man leads could learn from the past 100+ days, it is that it is not nearly good enough to be serious and sincere; one must communicate oneâ€™s intentions clearly. The cracks into which criticism of the UNPâ€™s 19A agenda fell is a communication gap that is yet to be convincingly filled.
No amount of analysis or sentiment will begin to describe the stress and tension of these past hours. For governors and governed who care a whit for good governance. This rite of passage seemingly successfully manoeuvred past makes all the fears and frustrations seem worth the while. We will have to wait and see what smiles or surprises the changes extracted at committee stage brings. In the beginning is not always their end. In heat of the moment, the men and movements and machinery of three executives â€“ past, present, and future â€“ paused to cut and chop and scupper parts of 19A proper. It remains to be seen which of them â€“ MR, MS, or RW â€“ the monument will eventually be erected to as the man of the moment. Clearly one of them has been compelled to drop out of the race.