Governance: On the bus! Or has it missed the bus?

Daily FT

‘ISSARAHA BAHINAWAA’ – civil society’s proclivity is bow out of a crowded bus when private interests and partisan agendas win the argument over reason and responsibility; but now, more than ever perhaps, is the time for those who paid the price and bought the ticket to our pre-arranged destination to stay on the busesuntitled-3

By the time you read this, the long-suffering Sri Lankan commuters’ “private bus strike” would have been resolved – for want of a better concept to describe the shambles which such a resolution entailed. “There’s been a host of compromisin’,” the parties untitled-4concerned – especially the chief executive – might say, “on the road to my horizon.” How ‘Good Governance’ – for want of a better concept to describe the shambles which the republic encapsulates these days – can live with itself, is anyone’s guess; especially that of our President and his Secretariat.

There have been many comments made in sundry media about the state of the nation and the decline and fall of any semblance of strong governance since that shameful compromise reached by and between the parties concerned in the imbroglio. Some bear summarising. For one, that the stiff penalties proposed to curb errant motorists including maniac private bus-drivers should have come through an amendment to the Motor Traffic Act than a Ministry of Finance initiative. Another, that the Ministry of Transport missed a trick to strengthen the arm of the CTB, while breaking the back of not only private bus operators associations, but also pre-empting such potentially crippling strike action by other unions organised around services key to nation-state.untitled-5

My favourite, last but by no means least, is the outrage on social media which less than charitably credits the powers that be with a singular lack of testicular fortitude. That’s balls to you, Mr. Private Bus Mudalali cum MP, Provincial Councillor, or transport mogul, smiling all the way to the bank, hospital, mortuary, or grave.Image result for Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda

Be that as it may, the analysis that has garnered the most attention and interest so far is the putative fallout for the incumbent administration: As essayed by an academic with incisive insights and critical engagement: Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda (pic). In a hard-hitting piece – perhaps inspired by the strike resolution fiasco – which spares the coalition government no blushes he notes that a private bus is a bus is a bus while the CTB is a good smoke. Or in simpler language, which does justice to academia as much as marketplace, that the government has missed the bus in more ways than one. In a nutshell he virtually irrefutably suggested that the punctures in our power and politics infrastructure is showing in four key tyres:

A. A growing and unheeded alienation of government from its own voter bases.
B. Power failure perpetrated by both the President and the Prime Minister in terms of more proactively and purposefully steering the ship of state through present troubled waters.
C. The emergence of the military like a phoenix from its ashes to hover threateningly over many spheres in the nation-state once again, despite a tentative dismantling of the same apparatus in the early stages of this government’s administration.
D. That shadow cast over good governance and genuine democratic-republicanism by the resurrection of certain elements of the former regime, poised to pose a challenge to the incumbents and stage a potential recapturing of important elements of national political life.

Of course I paraphrase the good Dr U. I hope he won’t mind my making a mouthful of his far more elegant prose and lucid expression. Nor the mincemeat I might introduce as addenda to his seminal thinking on the state of the nation. This I shall strive to essay below as three other noteworthy developments of late that are driving the bus of state off the edge of a precipice, which its conductors don’t seem to notice or care much about.untitled-4

State power as a force for stability qua the status quo

This is not necessarily as positive a development as it sounds it might or could be. There is every reason to believe that the status quo is not salutary, and that stability is only guaranteed for the central powers. For, as under a previous less tolerant regime, those off the grid (e.g. the indigent poor who are not even ‘lower socioeconomic class’) or far from the axis of power (e.g. war widows and other victims of an oppressive regime still awaiting state reparations) continue to find themselves marginalised and unfulfilled by expediency (the truly poor don’t vote) or political agendas (prosecuting war criminals in high places, on both sides of the political party divide, could compromise a mutually agreed upon pact to play the game).

(cartoon repeated from Ceylon Today)

In the limit nothing much about the manner in which power is distributed and potential is made available to everyone under a republican sun has changed. It is only a sense that nothing drastic, dramatic, or truly disastrous can ever happen under this government’s watch that has kept dissent alive and dissidence assured of survival. No one really notices that the democratic-republicanism we voted in so that fundamental transformation can take place – in mindset, as much as in media and marketplace – has become the very thing it was intended to replace.

Uyangoda has argued that ‘regime normalisation’ means that the agents of change have succumbed to the temptations of the flesh those whom they ousted craved and enjoyed. I feel with a rising sense of futility – as I have maintained in these columns since March 2015 – that the more some things change, the more they stay the same. Worse, change – as in transformation – was never ever truly intended. It was simply a challenge – the information that an agenda with corresponding actors was available – that was communicated to a gullible public (the demographic that our academic is pleased to call a “mature polity”). Worst of all, the dawning realisation – for many if not most now, as some of us way back then – that the ‘nature of the beast’ of national politics in our island-republic resists change (leave alone transformation) like billy-o.

The forms of power and the functions they serve – let alone the effervescent friends they protect, and the extended family they still promote – has lost the support of enthusiastic fans and the eternal faith they seemed to have that here! at last! was the very thing we’d been waiting all our political life for. No. The new political culture is the old political culture with mutton dressed as lamb. Nothing has changed. Something must. A new social contract outside the constructs of power will have to be drawn up by a smorgasbord of players if Project Sri Lanka is to be saved from its well-meaning but wonderfully flawed architects.

Social media as a sort of a Fifth Estate of some significance

In milieus such as these, alternative media become viable options for much work in keeping the spirit of dissent and critical engagement alive. It might not have played a major role in Tiananmen Square, but it was clearly instrumental in fomenting the popular uprising which led to Tahrir Square. In Sri Lanka, it is not fermenting rebellion by any means. It is feeding the shifting patterns of local politics with an eclectic flavour. In my experience, everyone who is anyone in Sri Lanka – from presidents to the person next to me on the bus to the poor lottery seller round the corner with his decade-outdated smart-phone – has some modicum of access to Facebook. It is a place for meeting like minds as much as a wall in Wittenberg for nailing 95 theses – or a 9-to-5 never-ending chat about the pitfalls of two-bit, two-timing, politics – on an increasingly scribbled upon and public wall.

On that wall I see the writing growing increasingly clear about the state of the nation as much as the state of things to come… a President pursuing his power struggle with profound threatening zen or stoic calm; which frightens me a lot more than a flippant Prime Minister making idle threats against the media while simultaneously making a mockery of the high esteem in which café society at least held him; also a Police Chief saying that he advocates a bending – not a breaking – of the law; and private buses continuing – off the roads, on security cameras, posted to the horror of dismayed millions of viewers, ploughing with state-ratified speed through the terrified tattered remains of passengers and pedestrians and passersby. It is a revolution in the making – not so much being televised, but ‘teleposted’; building up a head of steam that one day not far away from now could scythe through the electoral hopes of lackadaisical administrations whose hearts have grown fat with pride and ears dull with the praise of their sycophants.

Subversive agendas masquerading as being mainstream with meaning

There is counter-revolution in place, though. The less essayed about it the better, however. Just keep in mind that most media houses are bought and sold as readily as real houses exchange hands on the property market. Just the other day I read that the Prime Minister and his Finance Minister had taken to task the Governor of the Central Bank whom the President was keen to appoint to replace a disgraced UNP party favourite. First, I was really alarmed at the possibility that the new CBSL had missed the bus re monetary policy. Then, I remembered that even ‘leaders’ in mainstream media can or must be owned or operated by someone with the moolah to make it momentarily viable. And, sadly, I recognised that the only thing “bloody and unbowed” at the moment is the head of militant chauvinism in Sri Lanka today. Everybody and everything else has bent the knee to expediency, enthusiasm about the latent promise of the present powers, and enervating lost hope as regards the fast fading prospects of good governance to keep the bus of state on the fast track to state reform with meaning.

The private bus operators’ strike saga ended in a fiasco for the powers that be. Let’s hope the larger project of keeping Sri Lanka on the costly superhighway for a destination to which we all (well, half of us) bought a ticket doesn’t similarly get dumped at some wayside bus-halt back of beyond in bright burning sunshine without the sunglasses of vision anywhere in sight. Keep that ticket. It might come in handy one of these days. A government that yielded to bus operators’ pressure can still be made to see and correct the error of its ways sooner than later: By more legit passengers who are critically engaged in the national interest, rather than hangers-on or riders in the wind on the bus for the profitable ride…

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