Disorder within, disorder without
“There are two ways of being a politician, the first is to bring to politics all one’s ideas, energies and even possessions to enrich it with one’s riches and yet in the midst of it to maintain one’s own intellectual and inner preoccupations, so that the management of public affairs maybe ennobled by them. The second way is the exact opposite. It consists of taking from politics all one’s ideas, along with the power and many other resources. This is living off politics instead of giving it life” – Paul Valery
“How petty are the thoughts of small men! Believe me; I do not regard the acquisition of a Ministers ‘portfolio as a thing worth striving for. I do not hold it worthy of a great man to endeavour to go down in history just by becoming a Minister. One might be in danger of being buried beside other Ministers! I aimed from the first at something a thousand times higher than a Minister….” – Adolf Hitler
“Gandhi looked at India as no Indian was able to; his vision was direct, and this directness was, and is revolutionary. He sees exactly what the visitor sees; he does not ignore the obvious. He sees the beggars and the shameless pundits and the filth of Banaras; he sees the atrocious sanitary habits of doctors, lawyers and journalists. He sees the Indian callousness, the Indian refusal to see” – ‘An Area of Darkness,’ V.S. Naipaul
Whatever we Sri Lankans may be accused of, it cannot be said that we are possessed of the instincts of the Teutons. Through our long history, we have caused no anxiety to our neighbours on account of our military prowess or economic interests. On the contrary, it were mainly the periodic incursions over the Palk Straight that eventually led to the disintegration of the then-flourishing Sinhala kingdoms of the north-central plains of the island. A mere glance at the map of South Asia is sufficient to comprehend the vulnerability of a small country with a relatively small population in such a geographic setting.
It is most unlikely that an unbiased observer would think of us as war-like in the way that warrior races, such as the ancient Nordic tribes, were often perceived. Although there are several historical instances of brutal violence when roused, by and large the impression is of a temper; sedentary and easily tempted, but given to a great deal of discourse. Much of our aggression in the past has been directed against indigenous rivals and threats. We did not go forth to conquer but since about the mid-20th Century have gone out in numbers for employment, compelled by the need to keep the home fires burning.
Homogenous systems of governance
Historical developments in the past three centuries (18, 19 and 20 mainly) have imposed a certain homogeneity on nearly all countries where systems of governance are concerned, at least in appearance. There is almost no country today without a parliament (whatever it may be called in the individual country) and courts of law modelled more or less on those functioning in the metropolitan countries, the former colonial powers.
The mimic goes down to even the nomenclature, the mode of address, parliamentarians are addressed with the prefix “honourable”, senior judges are “lordships” while it is “your worship” for the mayor, just like in England! Needless to say such honorific titles (and of course the office) evolved among a people, a clime and culture very different to us.
If it were suggested even as recent as 150 years ago that on a future date descendants of those conquered and colonised so would compete with each other for such honorific titles, that suggestion would have barely sounded credible.
The cultural gap would have seemed too wide for meaningful adoption or even a dependable imitation of the concept. What was before the direction changing Colebrooke/Cameron reforms (1833) were a very different approach to the relationship between man and ruler and even between man and man.
Their perception of the role of man in relation to the universe was very unlike what it is now. The Colebrooke/Cameron reforms were not on account of any urging on the part of a population seeking greater democratisation, but were motivated mainly by the need for the colonial power to increase revenue to support their colonial responsibilities. But the process of modernisation was firmly established thereby.
However, that these “children of the tropics” could one day be ministers, city fathers and judges, be possessed of the capabilities to hold down such positions, while exercising the required level of integrity, responsibility and foresight, would have been a proposition fraught with doubt at the time. They may covet the title, but would the essence escape them?
Great Britain has for a few centuries been a rich and stable country now. From the City of London to the Privy Council, From the Oxford University to Sandhurst Military Academy, from the Wembley Stadium to Wimbledon, their institutions are world class, enjoying international prestige. The occasional malinger notwithstanding, public life in that country retains an enviable image of rectitude, even leading the unbelieving visitors from societies with vastly different standards to suspect a “trick” in the record. And all this has been achieved by them without even one single document to call a Constitution.
Even today, nearly 70 years after independence, for many a Sri Lankan a visa to enter England is a guarantee of not only a better life but also the protection of a democratic system. In the recent times there is hardly a minister (or a parliamentarian or for that matter even a senior public servant) in our country whose children do (or have) not live or study in a First World country, a most emphatic denial of all they publicly stand for!
That is the blatant hypocrisy of their politics, but the more obvious dishonesty of their ways is too well-rooted to even draw public interest. Only a very few among these public figures are taxpayers, i.e. earn more than $ 3,000 a year approximately, by way of non-exempted income. We must believe that it is only by the help of an unearthly power that they are able to finance their children’s sojourn in the West!
The mimic has turned into a farce
We began our own efforts at Constitution making in 1972 which led to the 1978 Constitution and now are at the 19th Amendment thereto, with none of this commanding general acceptance nor giving an appearance of a long-term relevance. It seems the mimic has turned into a farce.
There are certainly no adherents of Hitler’s denunciation of ministerial ambitions in Sri Lanka, a commonplace and vulgar goal in life as the future Warlord saw it. On the other hand, our politicians are willing to jockey for a ministerial portfolio in the most shameless manner, taking it as a sure avenue to financial and social bliss, a quick journey from being ‘a nobody to a somebody’.
All the brouhaha in the Parliament about Constitutional reforms has nothing to do with an aversion to the concentration of power in the office of the president or the obvious failings of the system of elections. To argue so would be to consider our political culture as honest and selfless.
In the last few years most of these legislators enjoyed whatever came their way from the well-laden table of Mahinda Rajapaksa, while the sun was shining brightly the Hambantota way.
Leave alone checking his powers, they even voted to do away with the two-term limit on the presidency only about a year ago! As to the electoral system, under which the quality of the legislators has nosedived, it is unrealistic to expect the only real beneficiaries of a system to want to change it. It is argued that a democracy is a better system because ultimately the people may choose the rulers they want. But it was never meant that a Parliament would merely reflect the lowest common denominator.
Herein perhaps lies a conundrum, does the disorder within the Parliament only reflect a greater disorder without?