An accommodation with the realities?
Ravi Perera (Daily FT) Theme cartoons added by TW from internet
A very notable feature of our political culture is the longevity of political careers. Several of the present ‘leaders’ began their politics in the 1970s or even before, in their callow youth, on the basis that their fathers too were in politics! What in most cultures would be a matter of embarrassment is considered a qualification here
“The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time.
We climb into the bus and sit down. At this point there is a risk of culture clash, of collision and conflict. It will undoubtedly occur if the passenger is a foreigner who doesn’t know Africa. Someone like that will start looking around, squirming, inquiring, ‘when will the bus leave?’
‘What do you mean, when?’ the astonished driver will reply. ‘The bus will leave when we find enough people to fill it up’
The African who boards a bus sits down in a vacant seat, and immediately falls into a state in which he spends a great portion of his life: a benumbed waiting.
‘These people have a fantastic talent for waiting!’ an Englishman who has lived here for years tells me. ‘A talent, stamina, some peculiar kind of instinct.’
A waiting group is mute. It emits no sound. The body goes limp, droops, shrinks. The person does not look around, does not observe anything, is not curious. Sometimes his eyes are closed-but not always. More frequently, they are open but appear unseeing, with no spark of life in them.
What, in the meantime, is going on inside their heads?
I do not know. Are they thinking? Dreaming? Reminiscing? Making plans? Meditating? Traveling in the world beyond?
It is difficult to say.”
– The Shadow of the Sun-Ryszard Kapusciskift-23-s-2016-12-27
The only alternative to a Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) regime is the Maithripala Sirisena/Ranil Wickremesinghe (MS/RW) Government, while, the only credible challenge to the MS/RW combine is a MR regime, is how one of our more perceptive commentators described the current political configuration in the country.
It is difficult to think of a more hopeless and plaintive theme fora country, especially, as these are persons whose claim to lead is based on public mandate; democratically chosen by the people (however imperfect that process maybe) to lead their political parties, espouse public causes and finally manage the country itself.
If the alternatives are as limited, if these are the only available leadership material the country is possessed of, we are indeed much poorer than statistically shown. The material causes of poverty could be addressed and even successfully overcome. There are a few countries which have, Singapore being a particular example of a country which within our lifetime has gone from a poverty stricken status to becoming one of the richest in the world.
In retrospect, it seems that Singapore carried from the beginning the potential both in spirit and skill to achieve what they did. It is perhaps somewhat facile to say that one man, Lee Kuan Yew, was solely responsible for the miracle; such accomplishments are beyond the abilities of one person, however capable.
For the dream to become reality, the man’s drive, vision and talent must be answered by the nation. There could not be a Marx in Saudi Arabia, a Gandhi in Germany or a Beethoven in Nigeria. For a person (or an achievement) of a global impact to blossom, the soil must be fertile. The countries that produced these extraordinary personalities had the necessary background for that particular genius to emerge.
For certain, each country will have its own writers, thinkers and musicians; circumscribed by that particular environment, and of relevance only to that particular culture. It is only given to a few to produce persons and ideas of universal relevance. Anybody can play cricket, but only a very few can invent a sport that can be enjoyed by many cultures, worldwide. What Singapore has become today is an inspiration to the entire world; it has shown away forward. Place Lee Kuan Yew in another culture, and perhaps the results would not have been that spectacular.
Damnable political arrangement
Little Singapore is an example of a country overcoming material disadvantages within a short period of time. But material handicaps are not the only drawbacks in a nation’s path. There could be other, less tangible snags bedevilling it; a lot more complex and elusive in substance than mere material poverty. For such manifestations we can refer to the hopelessness of our country’s situation and its damnable political arrangement.
Relatively, Sri Lanka is not a resource poor country. In 1948, at the time of independence, it was said by many that, Ceylon, as it was referred to then, was one of the more promising countries in Asia. We had a well-developed plantation sector, reasonably advanced infrastructure – including an extensive road network, nascent industries which could have been developed, a healthy balance of payment situation, somewhat strong institutions and a population which had been exposed to democratic methods for longer than many other countries in Asia. But in a few years all that just went away, reducing us to a mediocre country, lurching from one crisis to another.
Almost all our problems are results of post-independence political actions, or old problems exacerbated since. Nearly every government, claiming wizardry in that difficult art, attempts at constitution making; but invariably acts with the very antithesis of good law making; devious, self-serving and short term interests. Whoever is in ascendency at the time ends up conferring on himself more powers than he had prior to the constitution he makes! The result of all this mindless tinkering is now before us. We have a constitution which everybody wants out, but nobody can remove – potentially undemocratic, dangerous and open to abuse.
From time immemorial there have been several races living in this country. Their relations have been mostly peaceful with the occasional conflict, like in all histories. In 1948, we had a chance at a new beginning, an opportunity to forge a national identity, emphasise the common factors, becoming one. Our political leadership was far below the required calibre for the task; leaving for the future generations to deal with embittered racial relations and a destructive three decades long civil war ( like many things in this country, a long stalemate ,neither party capable of achieving their ends nor bringing it to a speedy conclusion )
In the all-important area of economic management, the showy and ponderous efforts of our politicians take the air of a tragi-comedy. Those who have a memory of the ideology driven regime of 1970-77 will recall how the then government waged war on every grower and producer; leaving the country poor, fallow and broken. Things have improved much since. But in comparison with countries we were on par with in the early years, we still lag far behind.
Politicians, egos running on top gear, revel in prestige projects (generally named after them) – Mihin Air, Bandaranaike Hall, Senanayake Samudraya (ocean!), Rajapaksa Airport (in the middle of nowhere) keep sprouting. Most of the misdeeds of the politicians are committed through our uneconomical and unproductive public sector; employing on a conservative estimate, at least fivefold the number required for their functions. By far the biggest employer, the public sector is an open field for the politicians; to exploit, misuse and abuse in any way they fancy.
Sadly, the more the politicians change in this country, more they remain the same; we now have national budgets of which nearly every proposal is given the short-shrift within days, smacking of rank amateurism and superficiality in budget planning. No one seems to know what became of the much spoken of ‘Mansion Tax’, a tax on an asset.
A very notable feature of our political culture is the longevity of political careers. Several of the present ‘leaders’ began their politics in the 1970s or even before, in their callow youth, on the basis that their fathers too were in politics! What in most cultures would be a matter of embarrassment is considered a qualification here. Later in the career, this absurdity becomes an asset, when it will be argued that in the interim the man has become a sage like figure – experienced, wise and philosophical! Presumably, he knew the answers to our problems in the 1970s, and knows the answers to our present and future problems too.
This phenomenon can only be understood as a feature of the underlying Brahmanism of the culture, punditry as a reserve of a few, thwarting and paralysing everything it touches .There is no periodic renewing or refreshing of political ideas or talent here. Only those who burn incense at the altar of the leader may aspire to a career in public service. It is not for us to see the fresh political faces of the Obamas, Theresa Mays or even Donald Trumps. As to new ideas, we wait in vain.
In the past 2,000 years, ideas, methods and technology of Europe have changed in a revolutionary way, and that is putting it mildly. From primitive beginnings they have evolved into prosperous democracies while at the same time making huge strides in science and technology. So great has been the transformation that in the process man’s view of his role in the universe itself has changed; no longer is he a mere vassal of a feudal lord or a helpless victim of dark supernatural forces. Today, he will only accept a social contract based on the rule of law; the governed as well as the governor, equally bound by it. Needless to say, these developed societies have also ensured a very high standard of life for their people.
On the other hand, when we look at our own history, there seems to be an unchanging quality, a stoical temperament, an inability to break free; with no discernible change between the methods of governing between our first king Vijaya and the last, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, 2,000 years later. In between these two kings, there have been several rulers said to have been benevolent, but that is mainly on account of the personality of the king rather than a change of system or the empowering of the people. Technology wise, the latter stages of the kingdom appear a low point, kings of centuries before being credited with better technology and much bigger achievements than the subsequent.
It is said that in a democracy it is the voter who must take the final responsibility for the leaders they elect. Going by the kind of persons they have been electing regularly, the only rational conclusion we can come to is that confusion worse confounded reigns in the ranks. Perhaps the voter thinks that the elected deserve a social uplift, the most noticeable feature of the electoral process being the rapid gentrification of the elected.
No sooner he is elected, the man becomes a “sir”, his wife “madam”, and their children “baby”. They will stop driving (if they were driving before); the State will provide them with vehicles and chauffeurs. In fact, then on any physical activity on his part, even stirring a cup of tea, is unbecoming of his magnificence (the only exception to the cutting down on physical activity is the ‘constitutional’ at the Independence Square, Colombo 7, now in fashion).
What holds the key to the gravy train is not the election to parliament by the voter. That is bound to happen, one way or the other, once you become a candidate of a major political party. If a person is simple unelectable, he can easily become an appointed member of parliament through the Party! The crucial move is to get in to the Party, preferably as the leader. Our political parties are democratic only in name; in substance they are very much like a private company of which the leader is the major shareholder. It is nearly impossible to remove the leader unless he in some way sells his ‘shares’. The Party in reality is a gathering of ‘deplorables’; careerists , adventurers, hustlers and hangers on around a strong man who in their calculations can manoeuvre them into power on a future date and bring the machinery of the State into their grubby hands. (This is very much true of UNP and Ranil -TW)
Fickleness and frustration
That in fact there is no real difference between our political parties is clearly borne out from the regular cross-overs from one party to another. It is very common to see ‘national organisers’ ,‘secretaries’ and ‘central committee members’ of one Party crossing over to the opposite Party to become stalwarts overnight of that Party. In the same family we see brothers in leading positions of different Parties.
Philip Gunawardena, the one-time leader of the much promised Trotskyite revolution ended his political career as a Cabinet member of the UNP government of 1965-70. His brother Robert Gunawardena, another fire-breathing Marxist, became an ambassador under the same so-called capitalist government, which he had been damning.
It is said that around 1972 even J.R. Jayewardene, in the height of tensions with the then UNP Leader Dudley Senanayake, commenced negotiations with Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike on the possibility of joining her Coalition Government (J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka – K.M. De Silva/Wriggins).
Some of this fickleness could arise out of frustration with the leader (the major shareholder!) who, fails to deliver, yet continues to hold onto the reigns of the Party. In a mature democracy, after the magnitude of the UNP defeat of 1970, the leader (Dudley Senanayake) would have left of his own. That did not happen, and a more astute J.R. Jayewardene was perhaps pushed into a difficult moral dilemma.
In 1977, Sirima Bandaranaike was rejected by the voter in no uncertain terms. But the SLFP which she led continued with her leadership until the mid-1990s when it came back into power with her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike as President and Sirima Bandaranaike in the evening of her life, as Prime Minister!
All politicians are bedfellows
The lifestyle that the elected has created for them is the basis of the unspoken conspiracy that makes all politicians bedfellows. Whatever the professed differences, our politicians will not upset the wonderful existence that they have created. Herein perhaps lies another difference between the European models (mainly British), on which almost all our institutions as well as political ideas are based.
Our leaders may study at European universities, speak their language, and don their dress but by their efforts to identify with that civilisation, only show how much they misunderstand it. They have not acquired the thoughts that fashioned the institutions nor the values that inspired the ideals of the West. It is the exception, the aberration; the corruption of the Nixons, the excesses of the Kennedys, and the sleaze of the Clintons of history that comforts them by providing a commonality.
What is important to our leaders is not the reaching out for something good, the endless search for an ideal or the imperatives behind man’s long march from slave to freeman. Theirs is an outlook infinitely smaller; to bask in the public light, hog public office and to enjoy the good life at public expense.
And meanwhile, what is going on in the heads of the voters who make all this possible – those who talk politics, are members of political parties, go for political meetings, and finally vote in the politicians?
Thoughts, dreams, plans, ideals or as in all their history; just an accommodation with everyday realities?
It is difficult to say.